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.
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.
- Write two pages of something you can't deny.
- Write two pages of what got left behind.
- Write two pages of something you wrote or did that you no longer understand.
- Write two pages of apologizing for something you didn't do.
- Write two pages about a physical characteristic you are proud to have inheritedor passed on.
- Write two pages of what you had to have.
- Write two pages of humiliating exposure.
- Write two pages about a time when you felt compassion unexpectedly.
- Write two pages of what you have too much of.
- Write two pages of when you knew you were in trouble.
From the August 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.