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Another exercise: Write two pages about a time when you were dressed inappropriately for the occasion. What occasion? Who thought you were inappropriate? That's up to you.

A woman wrote about her first husband's death, which had happened maybe 20 years ago. He was helping somebody load a truck, a favor for somebody he barely knew—that's the kind of generous man he was. The truck moved unexpectedly, and he was thrown to the ground and sustained a head injury so severe that when they got him to the emergency room he was declared brain-dead. Hours later she was standing on the roof of the hospital with her husband's brother, deciding whether or not to take him off life support. She was wearing flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt, and she remembers thinking how these were the wrong clothes to be wearing at such a moment. She had never written about his death before. Focusing on what she was wearing gave her the distance.

A side door. Writing is the way I ground myself, and it's what keeps me sane. Writing is the way I try to make sense of my life, try to find meaning in accident, reasons why what happens happens—even though I know that why is a distraction, and meaning you have to cobble together yourself. Sometimes just holding a pen in my hand and writing milk butter eggs sugar calms me. Truth is what I'm ultimately after, truth or clarity. I think that's what we're all after, truth, although I'd never have said such a thing when I was young. And I write nonfiction because you can't get away with anything when it's just you and the page. No half-truths, no cosmetics. What would be the point?

Why bother writing at all? Once in a while you come too close to a nerve, and your writing goes flat, and your first thought might be to change the subject. But this is the most interesting of moments. There is so much to be found out. Hiding behind that paragraph is probably something worth knowing. You can stare at the page and realize, "Hot dog—this is a safe to be cracked!" Or you can crawl under the covers and take a nice nap.

So remember: The writer of memoir makes a pact with her reader that what she writes is the truth as best she can tell it. But the original pact, the real deal, is with herself. Be honest, dig deep, or don't bother.

Next: 10 exercises to get you started 

Reprinted with permission of Sterling Publishing Company, from Thinking About Memoir, by Abigail Thomas. © 2008 by Abigail Thomas.

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