Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you are. Still, as Raymond Carver once said, "What good is insight? It only makes things worse." Why dredge up a lot of dusty memories? Why remind yourself that the old days will never come back? Why remind yourself of your own mortality? (The word memory comes from the same root as the word mourn, and that should tell you something.) You will find there are many reasons to go look in the icebox or turn on the television, or reread Middlemarch. But pay attention to the little voice that whispers, "This part was interesting." Pay attention to everything.
Recently I bought a garden statue of the Virgin Mary. I am not a religious person, but her face is beautiful, her blue robe faded, her manner full of grace. I put it in the living room, not wanting her rained on. A friend, Helen Klein Ross, looked at her and smiled. "I used to stare at her when I was little," she said, "hoping to see movement." She paused, brightened. "Because then I would be a saint!" If Helen hadn't already written brilliantly about her upbringing in a large Catholic family in the Midwest, I'd have said, "Helen! Start right there! Write!"
But the jumping-off place isn't always so obvious. You can't always find the way in. Sometimes you need a side door. That's where the exercises come in. Here's the one I give all my writing students the first week of the class.
Take any ten years of your life, reduce them to two pages, and every sentence has to be three words long—not two, not four, but three words long. You discover there's nowhere to hide in three-word sentences. You discover that you can't include everything, but half of writing is deciding what to leave out. Learning what to leave out is not the same thing as putting in only what's important. Sometimes it's what you're not saying that gives a piece its shape. And it's surprising what people include. Marriage, divorce, love, sex—yes, there's all of that, but often what takes up precious space is sleeping on grass, or an ancient memory of blue Popsicle juice running down your sticky chin. When you're done, run your mind over everything the way a safecracker sandpapers his fingers to feel the clicks. If there is one sentence that hums, or gives off sparks, you've hit the jackpot. Then write another two pages starting right there.