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Memoir Misery

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I keep reminding myself, I did this on purpose. I am sequestered at my solitary little house in New Hampshire for a month; whole days pass with no human contact except an occasional text message that’s somehow made its way over the rivers and through the woods to my grandmother’s house.

I am here to write, or at least to think about writing. I also had dreams of repairing broken windowpanes and painting mildew-pocked walls, but once I got here I realized that a month isn’t that long after all. I do need to find a way to keep the chipmunks from bringing all their belongings through the broken attic window and settling in for the winter, but otherwise, writing is enough.

More than enough, it seems. I’ve been messing about with this memoir for years and have now promised myself that by the end of this month, I will either have found the themes, patterns, and connections that give my life meaning, or I will stop pretending that I’m writing a memoir. Grandiose, right? Perhaps I need to narrow my scope a bit. (I’ve always loved an existential crisis.)

The Grand Endeavor

I’ve been reading books about writing memoir and I’ve been reading memoirs and I’ve been reflecting on memories. I’m not certain what type of memoir this is trying to be, but it has elements of coming-of-age and of a spiritual journey — and it’s hard to ignore my struggle with addiction. All of which require mining the past for often-painful memories.

This is why I’ve been here five days and only yesterday put pen to paper.

As Sven Birkerts says in his brilliant book, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, “The memoirist writes, above all else, to redeem experience, to reawaken the past, and to find its pattern; better yet {s}he writes to discover behind bygone events a dramatic explanatory narrative.”

Think about that. It’s kind of overwhelming!

Especially when you consider Virginia Woolf’s theory that what makes certain memories stand out is that they have in some way shocked our systems. So when you write memoir, you are nudging long-buried “shocks” back to the fore. Woolf, though, saw great value in this. “The shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it . . . it is or will become a revelation of some order.”

Her philosophy, she says, is that behind everything “is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the world is a work of art.” (This is a fine example of the universality that writers seek: Woolf called herself an atheist, yet this Jesus follower completely tracks with her philosophy of life.)

The Challenge Ahead

So here I sit, swinging from Virginia Woolf’s soaring philosophy to the more practical considerations of “Chapter One.” In their user-friendly book, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers, authors Myers and Warner lay out a step-by-step process of building a memoir. The first step is to identify turning points in your life, important “moments of change” that provide the hooks for your story. They may seem clearly significant, or they may not. You start by brainstorming freely.

The first turning point that came to my mind? The day I discovered my tiny toad Sally’s pale legs sticking out of my big toad Fred’s mouth and I chose to extricate her despite my poor mother standing behind me shrieking, “Melanie don’t, Melanie don’t!”

So you see what I’m working with here.

(To learn Sally’s fate, you have to buy the book. It should be out in about a decade.)

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Ten Minute Blah-Blah

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Well, this is a really bad idea, I can tell already. If you start with the word “well,” you are already meandering. But that’s what happens when you’re doing woo-woo writing. It’s like Julia Cameron’s “morning pages,” where she tells her disciples to write every morning for thirty minutes, non-stop free-hand, in order to free up the subconscious.

That may be good therapy and it may be good exercise for the wrist, but it is surely not good form for actual writing. Nevertheless, since I had so much fun with the WordPress Daily Prompt yesterday, and since I am trying to avoid errands and chores and packing for my road trip, I decided to see what the Daily Prompt was this morning, and it’s a free-write:

“Take ten minutes — no pauses! — to write about anything, unfiltered and unedited.”

So readers, don’t blame me — this is a WordPress idea and I am just writing, writing. Though I must admit, as much as I didn’t care for morning pages (mostly because they cut into my more reflective journaling time), I do prefer Cameron’s writing by hand to typing, which I’m doing now.

I rarely draft a blog by hand unless inspiration strikes when I am on the metro or in a restaurant or something. Too much trouble — then you have to type it in, and that leads to micro-editing and pondering word choice, and that’s too many steps for something that’s by nature imperfect, unpolished. At least that’s the nature of my blogs. Good practice for overcoming perfectionism. This post in particular will not be accused of perfection.

I think it’s just dreadful how boring my brain is. I have — oh, I don’t know — forty or fifty volumes of journals dating back to 1970. I never read them, though I do intend to if I ever get off my duff and start my memoir. But if the current volumes are any indication, they are all pretty boring. Blah blah kind of stuff. Like this blog post.

Who wants to read this stuff? And there are dozens more in the closet upstairs.

Who wants to read this stuff? And there are dozens more in the closet upstairs.

I rarely think about who might read them, which is funny, because I do tend to care too much what others think of me. But I recognize that those journals have saved my sanity and perhaps even my life: I must vent and cannot be bothered with posthumous reactions.

I’m pretty transparent anyway, there probably aren’t many surprises except to find out how obsessive I am, when to most folks I appear fairly laid back. The obsessiveness and boring patterns and repeated life mistakes are what makes the journals tiresome.

Who thinks like that? And who would encourage a blogger to dump that crap out on the page? I don’t even like to read stream-of-consciousness writing by the greats like Virginia Woolf. Why would I write it? Why would I subject you to it, dear reader? Because WordPress told me to.

You are SOOOOOO glad that ten minutes is up.

Tick Tock, Tick tock

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