Yesterday I read my freshly written story about quitting orchestra to the Monroeville Library Life Writers group I meet with twice a month. I love reading to groups, no matter who wrote the story. My third first grade teacher (I had four. We moved a lot that year) had the advanced reading group “read with expression”, and I was hooked for life. I flatter myself by thinking I’m taking on the voice of the authors, reading as they hear their own work in their minds.

Anyway, I read my story, giving it the drama I heard as I wrote. They liked it. And they were keenly aware that this segment was ripped from the middle of a longer story thread. They want to hear the rest, the beginning and end. They picked up on my despair and sense of betrayal and helplessness. They understood my stubbornness.

I was happy with the story to begin with, and the feedback that others heard what I wanted them to hear was made it even better. It is a bit of a tender story, with admissions that I lied to my parents, that I was too stubborn to admit a mistake, that … lots of things. Even though all that is in my past, and I long ago made peace with it, there is still something affirming about declaring it all in public and being accepted, of having others realize that yes, I was so very young, grappling with life and trying to find my way through the woods without a clear map.

How odd. I just realized that I’m beginning to look at my fledgling self with the same sort of distance I view my granddaughters. I’m cheering myself on, and giving myself pep talks. And at the same time, I can step back into that little girl and be there again, be her again, in a way I never could with my granddaughters. How many parallel universes can one person inhabit? How many realities can we hold in tandem?

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The second stop on my memoir revisitation tour that primarily emphasize time and place is Haven Kimmel’s wildly popular volume, A Girl Called Zippy: Growing up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. I didn’t know this memoir, published in 2002, had already become a classic when I added it to my pile at a Friends of the Library used book sale  four or five years ago, and it sat on my shelf for a couple of years. In fact, I thought the cover looked and sounded a little dopey, and I almost donated it back unread. Fortunately word leaked out that it was a Significant Book.

Three years ago my husband and I took a road trip from Pittsburgh down to Austin and home via New Mexico. We grew tired of listening to audio books, and I began reading Zippy aloud when I wasn’t driving. Somewhat to my surprise, my husband enjoyed it, so I continued reading, finishing the book in three days (nearly losing my voice in the process. Not only did he enjoy it, he provided an insightful critique that I included in a post on The Heart and Craft of Life Writing.

Over time, I lost track of most of the elements of his critique, remembering only that the book was often funny, even hilarious, and that it consisted more of snippets than a developed story line. So I pulled it off the shelf and began rereading. The first thing I’m noticing is that reading a book aloud is quite a lot different from reading it silently. I love reading aloud, dramatizing the book as I read, as I imagine the author would have me do. I occasionally daydream of a career as a professional reader for audio book companies. But reading aloud precludes stopping to savor especially delicious lines, backtracking to double-check things, or skimming over dull or tedious spots. It’s also easy to miss subtleties.

On this read I’m more aware of the structure of her component story-chapters and how skillfully she braids two or three memories into a single strand, surely drawing on composite memory for additional color and vibrancy. I haven’t yet read far enough to rediscover the jumping around and repetition that annoyed us earlier.

The combination of Annie’s and Haven’s books inspired me to begin the morning by jotting key memories on tiny Post-It® notes I’m arranging on a large sheet of newsprint as an elaboration of the mindmap I referred to earlier.

I agree with all the experts who encourage you to “just write a draft — get your story on paper first,” but only to a certain extent. I stand firmly by my position in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing that the writing process is as personal as your fingerprint, and you must find your own way.

I see it as being similar to cooking. I’m an intuitive cook. I read cookbooks and magazines for inspiration, then work with what I have, occupationally making a special trip to the store for special ingredients. I almost never follow a recipe precisely. I’ve read piles of books on writing, some of them about writing memoir, and now you are reading my twist on the process. You’ll find your own.

Now, back to the draft of the current story, incorporating a couple I wrote a few years ago…

I’ve almost finished rereading An American Childhood. I quit taking notes about one-third of the way through, and have found that the reading has grown just a tad tedious. I’m skimming half the time now.

What happened, and what can I learn?

Things I like about her writing style in this book:

  • I like that she is imaginative and quirky.
  • I like her use of short, themed “chapters” that are only loosely chronological.
  • I mostly like her insightful interjections — to a point.

Things I’m not wild about include:

  • Her excessive reliance on essay form.
  • Her frequent inclusion of lots of background information that reads like an encyclopedia article, for example about the French and Indian War, or details of pond scum. Yes, it is her fascination, but she fails to cast it in a manner that incites a similar passion in me, and I skim.
  • Her near total lack of dialogue, tension, and other scene-building elements. The book is as close to pure narrative as anything I’ve read.

Thing’s I’ll quite possibly emulate:

  • Her use of short, themed chapters. As I read, I’m often reminded of personal memories that will cluster well, giving me leeway to break out of strict chronological mode.
  • Analytic insights. It remains to be seen how much of this I’ll incorporate. Not nearly as much as she has done. I don’t plan to include whole essays as chapters as she does several places, along the lines of “How does it feel to be alive?”
  • Portraits of quirkiness. There is plenty of that in my family — the source of my own.

Things I’ll do differently:

  • Include scenes. Not all my memories will fit well into scenes, but many do. The memoir form allows for a certain amount of leeway in clustering specific memories into composite units, a big help in scene-bulding.
  • Include dialogue. It doesn’t take a lot of dialogue to warm up a story.
  • Include suspense and tension. This isn’t something that pops out in my memories, but it’s there, hidden away like the Pieta before Michaelangelo picked up his chisel.

Ah, the promised snow has just begun, only a few minutes behind schedule. Perhaps this afternoon I’ll tap out a draft chapter on memories of snow. Remember when seeing those first snowflakes was cause for joy as we thought of sledding, snowmen, snowball fights, hot chocolate later, maybe “Snow Ice Cream” for dessert?” Never any school-closing snow days though. When did those begin?

Perhaps I’m finally learning to read. No, I don’t mean discerning words, I mean reading deeply with attention to structure as well as story. Last night I began rereading Annie Dillard’s classic memoir, An American Childhood. I recall loving it when I first read it a few years ago, and I love it even more on second glance. I love it both for the quirkiness of her observations and mind, and for the rich observations of Pittsburgh, a city I have become deeply bonded to.

On this read I’m noticing things that I may not have recognized the first time through. For example, she uses no chapter headings at all. The book is written with chapter structure, with dropped paragraphs on the first page of each, and section breaks indicated by double-spacing. But there are no titles at all, not even numbers. Just visual breaks. She does have have units called Prologue, Parts 1-3, and Epilogue.

“Chapters” are focused on a theme and under ten pages, making for easy reading.

She uses virtually no dialogue. I’m one-third of the way through, completely entranced, even though I’ve read it before, and I recall only two instances where she has actual dialogue. She does sprinkle in a few lines of speech, putting a few words into her mother’s mouth, for example. But unless a quoted reply follows, I don’t consider that true dialogue.

This observation needs further analysis, but it does not seem that she writes in scenes.

How reassuring that a book ignoring most of the “rules” has fared so well in developing a devoted following. I’m not Annie Dillard, and I can’t replace her words with mine in her structure and have something equally compelling, but the fact that she took liberties with convention (perhaps before it was set) and created a compelling story encourages me. As I view things now, my material does not lend itself ideally to scene and dialogue-heavy treatment.