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Memoir Madness

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MEMOIR MADNESS

The good news is, today I wrote almost 1,300 words. I know that’s not much compared to the over-achieving masses who will participate in National Novel Writing Month in November, dashing off 1,667 words every day for 30 days in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel. But it’s pretty good for me. Yesterday was only 500 words, and it was crap.

The bad news is, only about 350 of today’s words have the slightest chance of contributing to my final word count because I went on a 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum (about which I will tell you), and because I got mired in shame.

The downside of searching for patterns and themes in your life is that when you find them — or they find you — they may not be the lovely themes and patterns you had imagined were the narrative of your life. Alarmingly, my redemptive spiritual coming-of-age story seems to be all about shame and secrecy. Mind you, neither “shame” nor “secrecy” appear anywhere in my chapter outlines (such as they are), yet every scene leads me there.

I knew that the alcoholic father/enabling mother business would produce a few sentences on shame, but when your alcoholic father is also an undercover CIA agent in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, the secrets can multiply quickly. Next thing you know, you’re writing about stealing your friend’s stuffed mouse, and your sister’s souvenir coin, and the shiny set of keys dangling from the door of the shiny new Dodge at the dealership, and you’re thinking, “This isn’t what my memoir is about.”

So then you take a break from your memoir and you draft a blog post about shame, which you start thinking is not half-bad, and so you begin revising and playing with words and researching outlets that might publish something like that, but while you are doing this, you remember that last spring you were working on a piece for the New York Time’s Modern Love column and so you find that and start revising it, and then you are googling your dead ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and so you stop.

At some point, I also searched “shame” in my blog archives and discovered that I’ve written 59 separate posts that at least mention it. This makes 60. I may soon have to acknowledge its existence.

Now about that 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum: As an ethical memoirist, if someone told you a story when you were a child and you have always believed it to be true but then you find out it’s not technically true, actually not even close, can you still use the story without fessing up that it’s not true after all? If everyone involved is long dead? I’m asking for a friend, of course.

And – BAM! Another 482 words, done.

 

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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.)

A Writing Conundrum

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A WRITING CONUNDRUM

Today I wrote for three hours. it was tortuous. The whole time I heard a voice in my head saying, “You have no idea what you’re doing, you have no idea what you’re doing.”

And I replied, “I’m writing. I’m writing.” At this point, that is all that matters.

It’s crap. It makes no sense. It probably does not even meet author Anne Lamott’s idea of a “shitty first draft.” But it is written. Fifteen hundred words in some sort of order.

The problem is that I do not know what this book is about. It is a memoir, so it is about me. (Yawning already? Me, too.)

The issue, I think, is parameters, boundaries. What’s in the story frame, what’s out? Why am I writing this anyway?

What belongs inside the frame?

Some things are in, for sure, like this old house in New Hampshire. Quiet Hills is my muse. It seems most integral threads of my story pass through this sacred space. She belongs.

My dearly departed brother probably belongs, although whenever he shows himself, the narrative starts to become about him, which if you knew him you’d agree was par for the course. Only it’s not about him. At certain times in my life, my story did become about him. Not anymore.

They say that the human brain tries to make meaning, tries to find patterns, and that’s never more true for me than when I attempt memoir. “What was all that about anyway? What did it MEAN?”

The story is really about a particular woman becoming herself and the life events that contributed to her evolution. But the older I get, the more I agree with Franciscan author Father Richard Rohr when he says “everything belongs.”

This does not solve my conundrum.

Procrastinating Preacher

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PROCRASTINATING PREACHER

You can be pretty sure that if I’m scrubbing the toilet, I’m preaching the next day. This is not some spiritual practice I’ve developed to metaphorically cleanse my spirit before I stand before our congregation or to keep myself humble before speaking from the stage.

Nope, I’m not that holy. It’s procrastination, pure and simple. Avoiding practicing my talk. Since learning that I have ADD a couple of years ago, I am less hard on myself during this stage of “preparing my sermon.” It’s just something I have to go through every few months before I speak.

So far today I’ve done a load of dishes, changed the cat’s pan, washed the sinks, cleaned up multiple nasty sticky spots from the kitchen floor, emptied out several dusty mystery bags that turned out to contain old Christmas presents, books (surprise!) and cleaning supplies (ha!), and picked up all the random dirt-and-dead-plant-filled flower pots from around the house and crammed them into the entryway closet (reminding myself to open it veeerrrry slowly next time).

And of course I’ve scrubbed the toilet.

Oh, and I’ve spent the last thirty minutes doing an outline of a new memoir. Do not expect anything from this; I’ve got at least half a dozen of them lying around.

So it’s three in the afternoon, and time to start practicing. In a few minutes, I’ll decide that I’d better check on the wardrobe situation for tomorrow and I’ll likely conclude that doing laundry is a must.

But apparently I am writing a blog post first.

Happy weekend.

Daily Writing: Discipline or Drivel?

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I don’t know how this will go, but I’m considering blogging every day while I’m hidden away here at my New Hampshire writing retreat. The theory is that blogging will get my pen moving and words of some sort flowing, and the moving pen and flowing words will continue beyond the blogging and miraculously become a full-length memoir. 

 

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Could happen.

Or more likely, the blogging will siphon off just enough creative energy each day that there’s nothing left to flow elsewhere. Worst case — which happened yesterday — is that I post a blog and then get lost in articles, political blogs, pollsters, and youtubes and end up blowing the whole day. Although the video of Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle Obama shopping at CVS was pretty funny. 

So consider this fair warning. I have no idea what you might find on this page over the next month. The good news is, it will likely be shorter than my usual offerings. There may be reflections and photos after a walk in the woods, a poem or two, a to-do list with commentary, struggles with my sermon prep, snippets from my journal, snarks about Trump. Who knows the places we’ll go!

I will be volunteering for the senate and presidential campaigns while I’m up here, so you’ll hear about that. Volunteering in my very-blue home state of Maryland makes me feel virtuous but probably doesn’t do much else. Here, though, every vote counts towards keeping the old red, white and blue from being tainted with orange hair dye and tanning cream.

Sorry, that was mean. Donald Trump does not bring out the best in me. Or anyone, for that matter.

Anyway, I’ve volunteered to make scads of food for busloads of volunteers coming up from Massachusetts this weekend. So who knows? Maybe I’ll share some “recipes from the campaign trail” with you. The possibilities are endless! Got any suggestions for topics?

Day two. Short and (mostly) sweet.

Photo attribution: Woman Writing Letter by Gerard ter Borch. Public Domain, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Who Said Anything About Sex?

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WHO SAID ANYTHING ABOUT SEX?

As it turns out, generating three hundred words a day isn’t as easy as it sounds. I may rue the day I agreed to join this writing challenge with my fellow Hopkins grad school alumni.

I started work on a “spiritual memoir” that’s been gestating for more than a year: 871 words the first day, 467 the second, and 436 the third day. Then I took a two-day break, brought on by the total absence of anything to say.

My spiritual memoir had taken a decidedly sordid turn and become all about my awakening sexuality, something I had no intention of writing about. Within the first three days, I’d played spin-the-bottle and kissed the neighborhood pastor’s son, a gangly gay boy who later died of AIDS; had my first “real” kiss in a church basement while a psychedelic sock-hop raged upstairs (if you don’t know what a sock-hop is, consider yourself fortunate); and fallen hard for a missionary’s son who touched my thirteen-year-old breasts and left me reeking of Jade East cologne.

So you tell me – wouldn’t you run from that? God only knows where the next three hundred words might take me.

Runaway Narrative

I have no apparent control over the narrative of my own story. I start off musing about how I came to know God and end up being felt-up by a missionary’s son. And I know what happens once I hit the later teen-aged years. It’s not pretty and it probably wouldn’t be shelved in spiritual memoir.

Worse yet, I have journals from all those years, and this whole enterprise may lead me into a long-delayed exploration of those yellowed pages. The last time I read back through my journals was in 1980. Really.

So I’m tempted to drop the whole memoir idea and go back to doing profiles and interviews, which I enjoy and which are clearly safer than allowing my pen to roam where it likes. It seems easier to find meaning in other people’s lives than in my own.

Truth Happens

But no. I’ve been here before: I know that when a story has a will of its own, it probably has good reasons for wanting to emerge. A story I wrote about Willa Cather turned out to be about my relationship with my alcoholic father. A story about our family house turned out to be about finding strength in the suffering of women ancestors. A story about an endangered tortoise turned out to be about my search for the sacred.

Writing is a spiritual act for me, an act of co-creating with God. I need to surrender to the process and trust that there are transformational truths hidden in strange and unexpected places.

I’ll go back to the memoir when I’m ready. In the meantime, blogging counts towards my daily word goal, so here are my 475 words.

 

Melanie 14

Reeking of Jade East cologne

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