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.

I just sped through a reread of The Children of Los Alamos, by Katrina Mason. I’m glad I did reread it, for reasons I covered in a review I just posted on Amazon. Aside from the reasons I cover in the review, I’m glad I reread the book because it affirms that my particular cohort — elementary-aged children who moved there five or six years after the war ended — moved to a rather different community, but to my understanding, we shared most of the perceptions as those who were there during the Manhattan Project.

It also strengthens my belief that a memoir from my cohort, my time, has a valuable contribution to make in illuminating the overall community atmosphere of the second round of Early Years. It helps me refine these views and find more purpose in writing. Perhaps it may even alter my decision to self-publish. But there’s no point making a decision like that until the book is written. One or two more volumes of background material and then back to work!

You may wonder, as I also do, how much reading the work of others may influence my memories. That is a distinct possibility, but … no memory is pure in the first place. Memory is influenced by the very act of remembering. And some fuzzy perceptions I’ve struggled to articulate are becoming more clear. This material feeds into composite memory more than specific ones. So on balance, I don’t think it will affect Truth at all, and I shall proceed.

My head has been in books the last few days. One, Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott, is a novel. The other, The Atomic City: A Firsthand Account by a Son of Los Alamos by Terry Rosen, is a memoir. Blue Shoe was fascinating because it was based on the search for the truth of family relationships and the result of shedding light on long-guarded Truth. Sometimes fiction can tell more truth than memoir does, at least in a general sense. But The Atomic City is the one that rang my bells the most loudly.

It rang my bells for several reasons. Terry Rosen graduated a year before I did, and our paths did cross now and then, though I don’t recall direct interaction. Although he was one of the guys I would love to have gone out with (that prospect seemed too futile to pursue or even dream about), I primarily thought of him as “Louie Rosen’s Son.” Louie was already legendary at that time as one of the super-brains at the lab, so brilliant that, as I heard it, he sat in an ivory tower and dreamed up whatever he wanted and they paid him a lot of money to do it.

Terry’s book spotlights his father’s achievements, and my impression wasn’t too far off the mark, though his research was not that esoteric. My assumption that Terry was a cut above the (Los Alamos level) average brilliance was also true, though I derive that fact from reading between the lines, not his declaration.

Primarily the book validated my sense that there was indeed a sort of caste system in place, one that co-existed with across-the-board egalitarianism. How did that work? The population was divided into a grid with ethnicity and national origin in “columns” and the job classification (scientist, engineer, plumber, electician …) of the family breadwinner in “rows.” It didn’t matter if your forebears came from Great Britain or Hungary, (non-Europeans were all but non-existent in Los Alamos back then) but job classification determined where you lived, and indirectly who you associated with.That effect was far less strong on kids than parents, but we all knew who lived in Western Area.

The book validated my sense of reverence for place. I think we all felt that. And he went on to elaborate on his perception of the effects of growing up in a high-pressure environment, causing so many of us to have an unusually high sense of urgency about achievement.

Reading that volume was fascinating because I spent time talking with Terry about writing during an all-school reunion in 2000. He sent me the pre-publication manuscript for review and critique, and I still have those files. I was able to flip back and see that all my suggestions were implemented in the final draft, published by Sunbelt Eakin. But to my dismay, the final version omitted several pages of material that I would have kept in. One of my suggestions was to break the manuscript into two parts, one about “The Los Alamos Years” and a sequel about the rest of his life. He resisted the latter, but Sunbelt Eakin convinced him. He closes the first volume with the promise to go more deeply into the effects on his later life of having grown up in Los Alamos.

The general public will never read those conclusion … he died a year after the first volume was published.

Lucky me! My copy of the manuscript includes the second section. I reread it yesterday. I found it far less compelling than the Los Alamos section, perhaps because I knew nearly all the people he mentions in that part. The second needs a lot more work to prepare it for publication and he’s not around to fill in the blanks. Reading the account of his reunion with his childhood sweetheart (after three failed marriages for each of them) and her tragic demise had me in tears once again. She and Terry witnessed a car hydroplane on a wet highway south of Pueblo, Colorado and stopped to render assistance and call for help. A second out-of-control car ran directly into Jennifer, missing Terry by a few inches. He witnessed her instant death.

What did I learn from rereading the two volumes of this story?

  1. Readers who “were there” are likely to be the most enthusiastic.
  2. Publishers exert a lot of control over contents — if anything is sacred to you, publish it yourself. Of course we have lots more flexibility to do that today than Terry had ten years ago.
  3. His first volume has significant relevance as a historical record of the Los Alamos community. It includes personal glimpses and inside stories about the key players in the Manhattan Project. This sort of anecdotal material is not available anywhere else.
  4. His analysis of the social system in early Los Alamos is a resource for others of us puzzling out the same era, and holds special interest for that reason.
  5. The story of these super-achievers posed a special challenge, to document their achievements without sounding pompous. In my opinion, he kept his balance on that tight-rope, primarily by reporting most events without pointing out their sheer brilliance.

Overall, the material will have little influence on my own story and how I tell it, but it’s still fascinating, and I deeply appreciate that Terry took the time to write these 231 manuscript pages. Reading this reminds me that I have three more volumes on my bookshelf that I want to skim through again: The Atom and Eve by Elsie Blumer McMillan (wife of a Manhattan Project scientist), Children of Los Alamos by Katrina R. Mason (an anthology of interviews she conducted with assorted offspring of LASL employees), and The House at Otowi Bridge by Peggy Pond Church (The story of Edith Warner, who entertained The Scientists at dinner parties in her small tea room by the Rio Grande, at the bottom of The Hill).

Where will all this reading take me? I don’t know, but like Mattie in Blue Shoe, I feel driven to keep digging. There is some Truth not yet uncovered, for me, or perhaps all of us. There has never been a time when more resources were available for low or no-cost research from the comfort of home.

After talking with a few people about their experiences in high school specifically and childhood in general, I’m realizing more clearly than ever how few people led the sort of charmed lives my husband’s Uncle Walter did. He wrote a short account of his early life because, as he put it, “I had the boyhood everyone wishes he’d had!” I certainly didn’t have that sort of youth.

My daughter claims to know people who ran in the cheerleader crowd who stay firmly in touch with their school pals, proclaiming, “Those were the best years of my life!” After she told me this she laughed. “Doesn’t say much for the rest of their lives, does it!”

In recent years I’ve looked back on my girlhood years and realized that a very few painful episodes had colored an entire era. Memories of happy times and the satisfaction of solitary accomplishments have come to the fore. I’m realizing now that those years prepared me ideally for the life I find so rich and satisfying today. The clouds have lifted and I rejoice in discovering blessings that were hidden at the time.

I say this with a profound sense of relief and hope that I don’t sound arrogant. I think of this revelation as a gift. Suddenly I’m uncertain just what to do with this gift. I’ve been wavering about the tone to take in recording girlhood memories. I never wallowed in self-pity, but I had my share of blows to the psychic solar plexus. When I look back through the lens of current understanding, it’s tempting to gloss those times over and write them from my current point of view. After all, what is truth? Movement of bodies through space and sound waves hitting an eardrum? Or the meaning one assigns to those events?

How easy it would be to gloss it all over, to write girlhood as one long picnic. But hey! It wasn’t! I waited half a century  for liberation from those chains of angst and self-doubt. I’m realizing now that I would be doing nobody a service to pretend otherwise. Perhaps it’s time to come clean and admit, “Yes, that hurt.” Perhaps spreading the news that it doesn’t hurt anymore (due in no small part to the fact that I’ve written about it so long the last thread of the cocoon broke, enabling my inner butterfly to soar free) will help others make their own peace with the past.

Realizing this is a big step, probably as big as recognizing my Organizing Strategy.

The last puzzle piece I’m aware of is deciding how to handle the identities of tormentors. I don’t think anyone was ever deliberately mean. Most of my discomfort originated in my own understanding. So do I use real names or fictitious ones? I’m thinking that for the most part first names will suffice with a few alterations as to protect the privacy of others. That’s easy to change later, should my perspective evolve further.

Writing about my love of sewing and remembering how I used to spend time at my sewing machine the way I now spend it at my writing machine has reignited a craving for the feel of fabric between my fingers, slicing, stitching and shaping it into something beautiful, wearable, or useful. I’d forgotten how sewing typically sets off a flood of creative juices, washing away mental log jams and rearranging debris into stunning new configurations. Earlier this morning I began writing about a trip we took two years ago to Mexico’s Copper Canyon. I was remembering the time we spent in at El Mirador, a hotel hanging over the edge of the canyon near Divisdero. The sound of drumming reverberated around the canyon. Our guide explained that this only occurs the week before Easter in preparation for the huge fiesta held by the Tarahumara Indians.

The morning after we arrived, I headed out on a point, alone with my camera, just before sunrise. I found a spot on a spacious rock right on the edge of the cliff and sat to watch the sun turn the mist of dawn to pure gold and wake the colors of far canyon walls with a good  morning kiss.  The combination of wide open spaces, flaming glory, mystical drumming, and fragrance of the forest invoked a state of pure bliss.

Later, as I worked on a sewing project, I was reminded of a similar feeling while attending Girl Scout Day Camp in Los Alamos Canyon. On a much smaller scale, we were on the edge of a cliff, half way down into a canyon. Our troop site was situated on a ledge against a sheer cliff face above. We arrived in the early morning and were surrounded by old growth ponderosa pine. I never heard Indian drums up on the Hill, but San Ildefonso Pueblo was only 15 miles away, and Indian influence was strong in the area.

These two dots connect with my general love of the Southwest and its native culture, inherent simplicity, exposure and vast scale. It speaks to some profound Truth deep within my soul. I feel that something, but I can’t yet name it. This experience of writing about it is allowing me to name it and more strongly claim it, giving it more power in my life. This is the magic of memoir and has become my primary purpose in writing.

I uploaded a collection of pictures from our whole trip onto the Flickr website. The slide show starts here. If you want to specifically see pictures of that mystical morning, that set of eight begins here.

Just what did I really want? This is the sort of question guaranteed to drive a memoirist to distraction, but until you can answer it, you’re unlikely to have a compelling story. For weeks I’ve been picking at the lock guarding the answer to this question. I’ve filled countless journal pages and thought about it incessantly. I tried free writing. I tried everything besides sitting quietly and waiting for an answer.

Tonight I finally resorted to that last step. I sat back in my recliner in a dark room, turned off the sound of my thoughts, and focused in on metaphorical images of a couple of memories. I used a sort of split screen, comparing possibilities, and changed conditions in the active screen, comparing to the base image. Finally a scene clicked. I knew I’d finally hit the paydirt of fundamental Truth.

This Truth is not something I’ll disclose directly, because I was not aware of this truth as anything but the vaguest dissatisfaction back then. but it will provide form and shape for lots of scenes. It will serve as a sort of hidden skeleton. It will be a major source of tension in the story, helping to move it forward.

My discovery came with a huge bonus. Now that my desire is clear, now that I see that image, I can clearly see how it has manifested in my life. I can watch the dream unfold, beginning a little over thirty years ago, gradually unfurling. That’s the magic of memoir —it can solve some of the basic mysteries of life, our own and perhaps others too. Not only can it heal broken hearts, enable  forgiveness, and bestow inner peace, but it can disclose unexpected joys and blessings, and few things are as satisfying.

Turning back to writing after a weekend away, I decided to continue the orchestra saga by writing of my decision to return. I opened my manuscript file (after accruing a folder of a couple of dozen single story files, I decided to keep them all in one massive file), scrolled down to the end, and typed a working section title: Going Back. I began to type:

I felt miserable that …

I stopped. That week? I’ve forgotten how many days we were at All-State. In fact, I’ve forgotten just when it took place. In fact — I’m not totally sure I rejoined orchestra second semester of my freshman year! HELP! Well, I’m pretty sure.

Fortunately, I don’t have to guess. I have three resources to turn to for help. The first took mere seconds. As fast as I could type New Mexico All-State Orchestra into the search bar, I confirmed that it takes place in January, at least now, and that squares with my memory that it was cold and gray.

The second and third will take a bit more time. I think I know where the brown envelope is that holds my old report cards. That will confirm when I took any given class. Finally, I’ll haul down a box big enough to hold a pair of hiking boots and find all sorts of high school memorabilia, including All-State concert programs for for my sophomore, junior, and senior years.

If I didn’t have those resources, I’d probably just wing it and do the best I could, relying on the symbolic truth of whatever memory I did have. I’m glad I still have tangible evidence for maximum accuracy.