Having realized the dramatic shift in focus my story has taken, I set it aside to ferment a bit. I’m gently coming to the realization that the 2000 visit is not the best mechanism after all. I’m not yet clear on the possibility of combining the Love Letter to Mother Earth with my basic Los Alamos Girlhood story. To be complete, Mother Earth needs to include additional material from recent years, and I think it also needs to culminate in an additional visit for closure with the new form Mother has taken — with her new wardrobe, so to speak. Perhaps I need to scale back to something simpler and closer to my original concept to get the basics between covers before turning to Mother Earth.

In a few days my primary target reader will be here for a visit. All six of our grandchildren live way across the country from us, so we have never had the opportunity to spend time alone with them as they grew up. The oldest are well into their teen years now, old enough to fly unescorted, and the Portland pair is due to arrive on Wednesday. I plan to discuss this challenge with Stephanie, and feel certain she will have thoughts on the matter.

What a surprise it was when we realized we were calling our children for advise. It’s an even bigger surprise to realize my grandchildren are mature enough to have significant opinions. I’m thrilled that they have reached this stage at relatively young ages and also a bit daunted to realize I’ve lived long enough that those babies are nearing the point of leaving the nest. To keep things in perspective, I remind myself that by the time she was my age, my maternal grandmother had five great-grandchildren with another on the way.

Anyway, in honor of their visit, I don’t plan to be actively working on my story for at least a couple of weeks. It may be longer. I’m teaching a newly developed class in September, Writing for the Health of It, at both Carnegie Mellon’s Osher Institute, and the one at the University of Pittsburgh. This is not a writing class, and I’m doing lots of further research to beef up my presentations. I’m so excited that nearly fifty people have enrolled.

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For the last few days, perhaps even the last few weeks, I’ve been teetering closer than I realized to the brink of despair. Yesterday I sat down, opened my file, and looked at the frayed end of my story, trying to pick up the thread again. After several minutes of feeling lost, I went to bed. This morning the story was the first thing I thought of as I awoke. Suddenly all the doubts that have been building in the dark exploded to life:

  • This isn’t working. It’s like randomly tossing loose jigsaw puzzle pieces on the table.
  • Nobody will bother reading this.
  • I’m boring myself.
  • Why am I wasting my time on this?

You get the idea. I had unwittingly allowed my inner guidance system to switch to the Critic Channel rather than my muse.

I had a full-fledged case of the doubts when less than a month ago I was exulting about the structure I’ve chosen that focuses on place rather than chronology. What knocked me off-path? Whence the doubts? Philosophical discussions! I’ve been listening to a few purists who include chronological order at the top of a checklist of criteria necessary for a manuscript to qualify as a “real” memoir.

I know better than to do that! On the very first day of every class I teach, I issue this passionate rejoinder: Don’t let anyone else tell you how to write. There are skills, there are components that make your writing easier to read and understand, but the way you tell your story is as personal as your fingerprint. Listen to that inner sense we all have of how to tell it. First and foremost, it MUST fit your sense of your life and your Truth.I get pretty worked up about that message.

I had lost sight of that fundamental Truth and as I woke up this morning I was actually considering abandoning the project — or at least scaling it back to a bland, gray chronological documentary.

Feeling the gravel slip from beneath my feet as I stood on the brink of despair, the student was ready. The teacher appeared. For reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with my writing project, I surfed over to Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonet’s Women’s Memoirs site. There I found a video post reconnecting me with Natalie Goldberg, one of my key sources of inspiration. In the video Matilda reminds viewers of the preference for reflecting rather than recounting that Natalie expresses in her most recent book, Old Friend from Far Away.

Bingo! That is exactly what I needed to hear. That is where I’ve been heading. Ten years ago I spent days researching the difference between memoir and autobiography. I came to understand then that reflection was the key difference. Memoir reflects, autobiography recounts. Reflection may follow a chronological path, but like memory, it may jump all over time and space. Yes, there are skills. Yes, scene is important. Yes, I do need to add some elements to help readers see the grid. I can do that! But only if I keep writing.

Thank you Natalie for the critical support, and thank you Matilda and Kendra for channeling that wisdom back to me at just the right moment. I am such a strong believer in “messages from the Universe,” and this is a very strong message.

No, I have not abandoned this project.  Time away from my laptop allowed me to focus on some hands-on projects, a break that allowed some needed distance for refocusing. Then we headed east to visit with our Texas Tots. They are fortunate enough to have two living great-grandparents, and one is in New Jersey. This was an opportunity to build some deep level ancestral memory.

Now the challenge is to gear back up and revisit the story. Yesterday I pulled out my mindmap and timeline to show to students, but really, I needed to look for myself. I”m like a cat. I need to circle a spot many times before committing to settle in.

A story hydrant? Of course you never heard of that. I just made it up. I’ve learned to put a title on posts before I begin writing because e-mail alerts go out instantly when I click “Publish” and a couple of times lately I’ve forgotten the title.

Over the weekend I spent lots of hours clicking away as story flowed forth. My manuscript grew from 11,000 words to 21,000 words — nearly double in size. (I’ve written way more than that since I began this project, but much of it was warm-up that may or may not be used later. I refer here to my current working draft.) So, as I thought of a way to describe this torrent of words that were ready to be written, I thought of the fire hose analogy. It is an apt one, but rather clichéd, and it would take lots more space: A fire hose of words … something like that. As I pondered the matter, Sarabelle whispered in my ear: “Word hydrant . . .  NO! STORY HYDRANT!”

For those who have not met Sarabelle, and that’s likely to be most of you, she is my muse. You can meet her on my Heart and Craft of Life Writing blog. I tell about the day she introduced herself to me here. Other posts featuring her are here. She has been conspicuously absent on this project, so I’m delighted she finally put in an appearance.

The only way I can explain this gush of story is that I’ve been feeling my way along with this place-based structure, and spending gobs of time looking up resource material. Also, writing about the town center seemed a bit daunting. And, I’ve been super busy with other things. On Friday evening as I sat with my laptop, I realized that I saw light at the other end of the tunnel. I could now envision the rest of that chapter. The story hydrant began to gush, so for the rest of the weekend, I set aside all optional activities and wrote. I’m a firm believer in catching story while it’s gushing.

When I got to the high school (new chapter), I’d intended to explore that memory lode, and work my way back through schools. The junior high is quite near the high school, and my grade school is between junior high and our houses. But just as I wrote some dialogue with my husband about stopping to look at the high school, Sarabelle blurted out a direct order: “Save this stop for later. Go home first. Go back to the beginning now. You’ve put that off long enough. Catch schools on the way back out.” I swear I saw sprinkles of little star thingies as she said that. I certainly felt sparks of inspiration. That’s how the story hydrant worked. Suddenly lots of things just fell into place.

Please don’t think I was churning out finished draft. Far from it. Even now I realize that I left out lots of description. For example, I mention my parents and sister a lot, but have never formally introduced or described them. I am working in lots of dialogue — more than I ever expected be able to use. But there are still quite a few places where I stuck with narrative to get the basic story down, saving dialogue for the revision stage. If the dialogue doesn’t come naturally, I’m skipping it for now.

Anyway, I’m stoked. I once again believe I can get this project polished off by the end of the year, as I intended on New Years.

After a brief detour in real time here to paint a room and catch up on some local chores, I’ve moved past my old church and memories of Junior Rifle Club and we’re heading into the center of town. But first we make a lap around a couple of blocks to find the apartment where we began married life, living below one of my high school teachers who, nearly twenty years older than I, was also a newly wed — for the first time.

Thank goodness for Google Maps that make it so easy to check the route we took and get street names right. Somewhere I have a map from the 1950s that shows the town as it was back then, before any of the private housing was built. That will be a nice illustration to include. Sooner or later I’ll check with the Los Alamos Historical Society about the possibility of obtaining a few old pictures of places like the Community Center that would enhance the book. I have no idea what they might charge for a project like this.

I’ll need to go back later and insert a little more car conversation with my spouse as we’re driving around to add a bit more reflection. But I’m going to leave that as an additional layer for later. I don’t feel ready to tackle it yet. We did talk about things at the time, and whatever I come up with is going to be very close to the dialogue we had at the time.

Last time I actually wrote anything on my manuscript, I began describing the church building we were driving past and listing memories. I only got a few sentences into that section. It was late when I got to that point and I feel into a state of brain freeze. I’ve been back a couple of times and felt overwhelmed by the idea of resuming where I quit writing. Aside from anything else, I was sure I’d written about this before and didn’t want to spend another half hour restating what I’d already done, but I could not find that file. This hump loomed large.

While looking for something else a couple of days ago, I came across the file I needed. This morning I’d planned to do a simple cut-and- paste, then edit the result. But as I poured a cup of coffee, the root of the problem jumped out at me. This was boring. Big time boring. Even to me. How can I fix that? I  wondered.

I immediately knew the answer. Scene. I needed to write it as scene, with some dialogue and action. How many times have I shared my trepidation about writing my cerebral life as scene? In spite of this angst, I felt my energy level rise at the idea, so I set my mug down, pulled my ‘laptop onto my lapdesk and began tapping away. It flowed more smoothly than I expected. I got the whole scene drafted, and moved on through Junior Rifle Club, the next site along the drive.

How convenient that my life back then was so containerized with little overlap  among my various activities, clearing the way for isolated sight-specific memory.

The new material will need a lot of editing before it’s ready to share, to add more tension among other things, but at least it’s on the page now. On the page. I like that phrase. That page can be either digital or paper, and it’s “written down” in either form.

While writing about Rifle Club, I wondered how long the shooting range was. I tried standing at various distances from a wall, looking at an imagined image the size of a target and estimating from that. Fortunately I was able to find a description of the requirements for an official NRA shooting range. It was not the 30-40 feet I guesstimated — it was the full fifty feet I originally assumed. Perhaps nobody would notice if I’d gotten it wrong, but it isn’t that hard to dig around and get it right. I appreciate accuracy in the details, whether I’m reading or writing.

My other big challenge of the day was wording around the temptation to use distancing phrases like “I remember…” A quiet voice urged me to “Take responsibility for your story. Just say it, plainly and simply. Don’t try to hide.” Direct statement worked.

Yesterday I met with a couple of writing friends and took along the first four pages of this current draft. They’ve read  drafts of pieces I wrote earlier, but this was new material. I was heartened by their responses.

“This sounds lots more like you. The other pieces sounded more formal and contrived. Your personality is coming through in this.”

What sweeter words could anyone hope to hear?

These gals and I have been meeting for seven or eight years — I’d have to look at my timeline to be sure. However long it’s been, we’ve been through a lot together, on the page and off, and have coaxed, witnessed and cheered as we each continue to develop our writing skills. A victory by one is a victory by all, and we are able to be, well, not brutally honest, because we are always kind and loving. But we hold each other to high standards, and if something seems awkward, we work through it together.We have diverse styles and hear things differently, which makes the group input especially valuable.

Meanwhile, I continue to write. It’s so much easier now, with an organizing structure firmly in mind. Using the drive-through structure has a couple of additional advantages I hadn’t thought of until I began writing. I was nervous about the fact that the story would be obese with narration if I stuck to the viewpoint of me as a young girl. Incorporating that material as flashback insets allows me to interact in the narrative present (I concocted that term on the fly) to counterbalance the sparsity of remembered dialogue.

Even so, I do have some in the flashbacks. I have us “up the hill” now, entering town. The first memory trigger after the front gate is the Christian Church I used to attend. The paint was hardly dry in that new building when I moved away, but it triggers a hologram of church memories. When all is said and done, that may be significant timing.

At this point, the writing process, the organizing and developing and weaving together, is far more intriguing than the memories. On their own, they are beginning to feel a bit stale. If I weren’t writing, I would have put them back in their box long ago.