With a little bit of luck, and a lot of waiting as my flight from Chicago was delayed, I finally made it back to Columbus from AWP. I left Seattle with fond memories of the Emerald City, buoyed by the camaraderie of the conference. How wonderful to see so many of my favorite people all in one place and to participate in the ongoing conversation about our writing and our teaching. Only one piece of unfinished business left me a bit unsettled, and I’d like to address it in this post.
I remember the silence of public libraries before they became places where people talk in normal tones of voice or even chat on cell phones. In summer, the only sound may have been the gentle whirr of an oscillating fan. In winter, there may have been the hiss of a steam radiator. People spoke in whispers when they had to ask the librarian something. It was a quiet place, and in that way it was holy.
Today’s post comes from some work I’ve been doing in preparation for a panel that I’ll be on at the AWP Conference at the end of the month. The panel, put together by the fabulous Sue William Silverman, is called “A Memoir with a View: On Bringing the Outside In.” Sonya Huber, Joy Castro, and Harrison Candelaria Fletcher will be the other fine folks on the panel.
Last week, I posted ten random thoughts about writing a novel. To give equal time to my other genre, I offer these ten random thoughts about writing a memoir.
1. If you want revenge, don’t write a memoir. Start nasty rumors instead. When we write about people, we want to be fair to them even if they weren’t fair with us. We need to look at them, and ourselves, from as many different angles as possible in an attempt to understand the sources of the behavior. Writing a memoir is a search for understanding.
1. Writing a draft of a novel for me is often a process of discovering what it is that I want to hold back until the end. That something may be a plot turn, or it may be something that the main character doesn’t know about him or herself, or best of all, it may be both. Whether we’re talking plot or characterization, I’m on the lookout for what I want to keep from the reader. Once I know that, I start looking at how to make that secret present from the beginning while at the same time making sure it’s unannounced.
The miserable winter weather we’re having here in Ohio has reminded me of the snowy night in 1965, when my parents and I had to make the five-hour drive from our suburban Chicago home to the downstate hospital where my grandmother was dying. We’d left our farm and our extended family behind in order for my mother to take a teaching position in Oak Forest, Illinois, a move she later confided to me that she thought unnecessary, a move that had been solely my father’s idea. I’m not sure we ever felt like we belonged in Chicagoland. On that February night, in 1965, we had to make our way back home. That became one of the moments I wanted to include in my first memoir, From Our House.
So a time comes, eventually, when the writing isn’t going well. It happens to all of us. We stare at the computer screen, or the page, and we don’t have a clue. It’s like words have become bricks we try to lift with our tongues, or maybe language, tired of our ineptitude, has packed up and moved in with other writers, the ones who right now may be happily typing away—clackety, clack, clack, clack—while we sit in silence. Maybe we’re unable to get a piece started, or maybe the piece we’ve been working on is refusing to cooperate.
I had the good fortune last week of winning a literary prize for a short story that came from a friend’s Facebook status (thanks A.D!), which goes to show you that you never know where you might find your material. After all, writers are lurkers, right? We have our ears and eyes open. We encounter the world with the thought of what we might do with this or that in a piece of writing. This goes against everything my mother taught me when I was a child. I wasn’t to eavesdrop; I wasn’t to put my nose where it didn’t belong. I was to mind my own business. As a writer, though, I’ve stolen from friends, family, and strangers. I may have even stolen from some of you, and maybe you never knew. I go out into the world by one means or another, and if I encounter something that mystifies me, that touches me, that brings me to something inside me that needs attending to, I start moving words around on the page. I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes the facts of your lives rub up against the facts of mine. That’s one way of thinking about what it is to be a writer.
I didn’t start out as a prose writer. I started out writing angst-filled poems when I was a teenager. Then in college I took a modern drama class, and the next thing I knew I was writing plays. I did all that before I decided I was a storyteller and that fiction was my genre. I came to nonfiction nearly thirty years later, quite by accident, and a happy accident it turned out to be.
As we enter the last few days of 2013, perhaps it’s a good time to offer some thoughts about ending a piece of fiction or nonfiction with resonance. Before I do, though, please let me thank all of you who have read my blog this year, have taken time to leave comments, and offered me encouragement. Sometimes I feel like I’ve run out of things to say, but your insights and those of my students always keep the conversation going. I’m fortunate to be a part of this world-wide community of writers and readers. Much love to you all and all best wishes for a very happy and productive 2014.