Yesterday, I was upstairs in my office when I heard my wife crying. I immediately knew why. Cathy, you see, has begun to put the story of her family onto the page. It’s a complicated story, as some of you know—a story of secrets, a story of a mother and her daughters, a story of an unknown father, a story of racial identity. Cathy’s been telling this story to friends as it’s been unfolding, and now, with some gentle encouragement from others who have told their own stories, she’s beginning to write. That’s what she was doing yesterday in her downstairs office when something from memory overwhelmed her, and she began to weep.
I found her in her office chair, her hands over her eyes, her shoulders heaving with sobs. I did what I could. I held her.
“It was the cards,” she said. The cards and the letters that came to her mother in the last days of her life. It was the memory of how each day, Cathy brought in the mail and sat with her mother and read the “thinking of you messages” people had sent. Then Cathy left that day’s mail on her mother’s hospital bed, and her mother looked through them while Cathy made supper. “I’ve never been able to get rid of those cards and letters,” Cathy told me. “They were the last things my mother and I shared.”
“I’ve been where you are now,” I told Cathy. “I don’t know a memoirist who hasn’t ended up in tears sometime during the writing.”
She was surprised by how quickly the tears had come. She’d been transcribing handwritten pages. “I’d already written about those cards and letters,” she said, “but then something about seeing it in type. . . .”
I’ll leave it to others to speculate on what happens when we put our memories into words, but I’ll venture to say it’s something to do with inserting ourselves more firmly into the experiences we’re dramatizing. To daydream our memories, or to orally narrate them, allows us a bit of safe distance. We watch, or we relate, the narratives of our lives. To dramatize our significant moments in writing, though, invites us to once again be a participant in those times. We relive them, only this time we do so with the knowledge of what’s to come. We stand with one foot in what was then our present and with the other foot firmly planted in our futures. When Cathy wrote about those cards and letters, she once again lived in those last days with her mother, but this time she knew these were indeed the last times, and they were possibly more precious to her because she knew the end. That’s why the small details are so important when we write memoir. They simultaneously contain and express our emotions.
What small details do you associate with significant moments from your lives? A battered tin cigarette case? A pepper shaker? A linen handkerchief? A trading stamp? Start small and let the detail take you into scenes. Let it evoke your emotional response. Let it bring up questions you might have, questions you might find yourself trying to answer, or questions that lead to other questions. Think out loud on the page. Use the reflective voice to speak from the older, wiser, person you are now, the one who investigates, interrogates, and interprets. Everyone’s life is complicated. Everyone’s story is worth telling. If you can recall in vivid detail, you can write a memoir. Let the small things lead you to the bigger things, the ones that are so hard to say.