Once again, the apology. Sometimes life intervenes with blog writing. You’ve probably noticed that yourself regarding your own creative projects. We are not all disciplinarians. A woman once told me she writes one book per year. Ok, that’s not me. How about each decade? How about the calendar doesn’t matter so much as the mystery when writing takes you to new places you didn’t imagine. That is the remarkable magic of memoir writing. In my experience.
Did you ever notice that sometimes when you are in a conversation with someone else, you hear yourself saying things that were not fully formed in your mind beforehand? Of course you have noticed that. When I work with individual clients, I am always listening too. Some people have an open mind that brings out our untapped thoughts and clearer perceptions.
That’s what happened this week when I was invited to speak to several high school English classes who were doing a memoir writing project. It may be that their teacher expected me to talk about metaphors and topic sentences (I am the queen of metaphors), but what came out of my mouth was how memoir writing is like a pilgrimage. It is good to have some kind of map. In writing a short story or a whole book, we talk about the “arc” of the story. But as on a pilgrimage, you open up to unexpected possibilities when you honor where you are led and examine each thing that comes up to see if it has meaning, rather than turn away and say, “that isn’t in my outline.”
Now I am not talking about the final version. I am referring to what Anne Lamott calls shitty first drafts. That’s the name of one of the chapters in Bird by Bird, her book on writing and life (I always recommend it.) If you refine or edit your writing too soon, you may have the intellectual sequence but you miss the passion, you miss what touches a more universal chord, you control rather than discover. Later there is plenty of time for revision, editing, adding and deleting. I am reminded of the very famous poem by T.S. Eliot called “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Proofrock.” For some reason I memorized it when I was in high school. In a minute there will time for decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse. Too much indecision is not a good thing in life or writing, but it has its place. I told those students to just let it flow at first. Our minds don’t retain information in a democratic manner. Sometimes a memory or vision pops up that you hadn’t thought of and gives an image, a metaphor, a depth that coalesces what you are after.
On that note, I am going to give you a paragraph from “The Woman in the Photograph” that was never part of my original plan. The image just unfolded one day when I was doing a warm up of free writing. In its simple way, it brought together the whole theme of my book.
“…I thought of my mother’s resilience despite her losses. I remembered her doing jewelry repairs for Lynne, sitting at the kitchen table in the evening with a bright lamp focused on a square of dark blue quilted cloth. She laid a row of pearls out on the fabric, organized by size, smallest to largest and back to smallest. Slipping the needle and thread through the tiny hole, she flipped the necklace in a graceful gesture that formed a knot between each pearl. Then she pulled the knot tight between her thumb and index finger to produce a perfectly spaced strand of cultured pearls. I pictured my mother’s face in the glow of the lamp, the furrow of her brow as she concentrated all her attention on her work.
Now it was my turn to string the pearls of her life story—to lay them out in chronological order and knot them back together in a perfect strand.”
For those of you in Bay Area, I will be leading a panel on “How Memoir Writing Can Change Your Life” at the Kensington library on Monday, Sept.30, 7pm, and will be speaking at the Belvedere-Tiburon library on October 22.
I welcome your comments.