Sometimes, snap, just like that.
But, really, there’s more to it.
The magic kicks in at a certain point. There’s much that precedes it.
In the mid to late 1990s, I was in a women’s memoir writing group for a few years. It was there that I met my dear friend Bonnie. She was writing a tribute to her father and, along the way, she wrote about her whole large family. About one of her tall brothers, she coined the phrase “Jimmy, the string bean,” and those four loving and amusing words stuck, and we’ve laughed about the image for years.
Bonnie does not recall my pronouncement in class one day: Nobody should write a memoir until they’re at least 50 years old! I was in my 30s then and had a long way to go. Now, I don’t really think that’s true. My astrology teacher wrote a beautiful coming-of-age memoir, in his late 20s. He’s an old soul.
Lately I’m in a groove, writing my own memoir, finally. I’m way past 50, and there’s no time to lose.
I don’t know exactly how the magic kicked in, but it’s now cookin’.
Writing is a little bit like making a pot of stew. I’m throwing in the vegetables and herbs I’ve got on hand, and I’m stirring the pot. The fire is on. Ultimately, it’s the fire that does the cooking.
I started off thinking I was going to write a “spiritual” memoir. What’s that?
I’ve been thinking about this word “spiritual.”
Is it different from – and opposed to — everything considered mundane? I don’t think so. Is it the breath of life that pervades every speck of dirt and every wandering star? Does being “spiritual” include, even, yelling at the television when a demagogue is on-air inciting violence? Or is “spiritual” only soft, sweet voices, the sugar-and-spice of winged angels? Holier than thou?
After a lifetime of immersing and dabbling with all manner of religious and “spiritual” groups and traditions, I don’t have a precise definition, if I ever did.
I’ve given up on the idea of writing a “spiritual” memoir. That term “spiritual” can be such a narrow box.
Having attended writing classes and having read lots of books about writing, I know that a good memoir combines scenes, summaries and musings. No one wants to read – or write – something that sounds like a 6th grade essay on “What I did on my Summer Vacation.”
One day a few months ago, a bit of magic occurred. I was having lunch with a friend and I told him I had an idea for an opening scene. I won’t spoil it now, but it’s a story I have told close friends, something had happened when I was four, that has remained a touchstone for my life.
My friend of 30 years had not heard me tell this story. He liked it as a scene.
What do you think it’s about? I asked him.
That, he said, is a story about resistance. It’s about survival.
Yes, that’s it.
I went home and wrote the scene, with dialogue and drama and a bit of a cliff hanger.
And then I wrote some summarizing paragraphs.
And then I pulled out a stack of print-outs from that writing class with Bonnie from 20 years ago, which I keep in a box of old journals. I had started the memoir back then, but, really, I wasn’t yet ready. There are, in those journals, some good notes and some good starts.
Then came my Christmas break in December, and I had eleven days of not having to go to my job, not having to be anywhere at a certain time. I used those days to start a writing habit.
When I wrote books in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a writer’s rituals.
One, for me, is to write first thing in the morning. That used to mean 7 a.m. Now, before work, it means 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. Early.
Doing something over and over at the same time of day, whether it’s meditation, or coffee or, in the old days, reading a morning newspaper, trains the mind to a happy expectation. A good habit.
For me, the habit includes writing something, anything. If I can’t write a piece of memoir, I have a book of writing prompt exercises, and I can do one of those. Anything to get the fire going.
Another ritual, for me, is to “stop before ending.” When I wrote political books and articles, I ended each writing session before running out of steam. I stop when I am about to move on to the next idea or section, leaving some scrap notes to myself: do this next, and a little outline of where I’ll go when I resume the next day.
I am doing this now with the memoir. I write a scene or a summary or a bit of dialogue each day, and at the bottom of the page, I write where to go next. This gives my subtle mind something to chew on silently between sessions. When I turn on the computer again, I don’t face a blank screen. I have left myself bread crumbs to follow to the next place, and the next.
Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Stopping before ending, I allow space for my mind to digest what I’ve written before, for the rhythm of the words to keep beating like a soft drum, so that there’s a pattern in place. This, too, is habit.
As I write this essay, I’ve got to stop now and go finish some estate planning documents for some clients. I’ll leave myself a trail to get back on later……
…..Now I’m back.
What was it I wanted to write next? I’ve made a few notes and can resume.
A memoir is a piece of a life; it’s not an autobiography from start to finish. A memoir may be about a time spent abroad, an experience of a relationship, something that was hard to get through. What works is to find one’s themes – and stick with them. What’s the connecting thread?
My memoir won’t tell every single thing that happened. That would be silly. And boring. Mine will be tales of resistance and survival and healing.
So far, I’ve written a first draft of my childhood years and will move on to writing about my participation in spiritual groups, then political movements and professions, winding in and out of various phases of resisting, surviving and healing.
So far, one thing I’ve discovered is this: healing is not something that happens only after one has “fought back” or made it through. Inside one’s acts of endurance, the healing is already underway.