For me, August is a month of change. It is a time of coming to the world and growing older, of awakening to sun-filled hot, blue mornings filled with blossoming, burgeoning life. And also for me, August is a month of meeting loss and death.
I was born in August, and on the August day that I marked fifty-five years of life, my infinitely dear father died. In the years I lived in the North Country—in Maine and in New York near the Canadian border—August was a time of transition for Nature, too. Wind stirred the lakes, a few leaves turned red before their time, and most nights called for warm blankets and flannel nightgowns.
In “North Country August,” autumn tunes up its season of change. In this poem, I welcome the coming of autumn’s pared-down beauty. I will never cease grieving my losses, above all my parents and other dear ones who have gone on ahead. Yet while I struggle to keep the confident outlook of the poem’s last stanza, I vow to embrace its peace and optimism, as best I can.
North Country August
A large brown duck with orange feet stands on a log by the creek
And then swims upstream against the current.
In the smooth water, a perfect duck looks back at her.
Crows call between the dead trees of the swamp.
Reeds and low brambles hold an early fall dryness,
While the scraggly petunias in window boxes still remember spring.
A monarch butterfly tastes purple phlox.
Chattering chickadees fly in to feed on sunflower seeds.
The sky is clear, but the mountains are lost in haze.
The Earth waits for change.
Along the fence roses bloom, with buds forming
As if the month were still July.
Would I want to live in July forever?
August is Earth’s send-off to subtler days ahead.
How lovely it will be to sleep soundly under my blanket.
Already the Sun is setting earlier,
With evenings that give more time for reflection,
Fewer demands to be out doing.
One glorious fall morning, the snow geese will fill the sky
From horizon to horizon.
Then snow crystals will sparkle in cold December air,
And mists will rise until the lake is frozen.
The first reawakening will be the birds on a March morning.
Ice will boom in the warming Sun,
And the seagulls will congregate on the flows by the ferry channel in glorious reunion.
The silent flight of herons, with their long dancers’ legs, will herald summer,
Spread before us once again.
I was born in August.
Each year of my life closes then.
But as my season of birth,
August is the beginning for what is still to come.
My spring will not return in this life.
Yet I choose not to see August as summer’s end.
It shall be my passage into vivid autumn colors,
My transformation into the clarity of September’s blue skies.
I shall warm myself in the cool evenings by my own fires
And by the fires of losses turned into memories
And regrets into experience.
I will, like the roses of autumn, bloom in beauty and tranquility
With no thought of the frost to come.
Perhaps the most vaunted phrase in memoir writing is narrative arc. If you have read books about writing memoirs or attended a conference focusing on creative nonfiction, you have almost certainly been told that the narrative arc is a sacred thou shalt for memoir authors. (Creative nonfiction is nonfiction such as a memoir that is written using the tools of effective fiction writing, including strong character development, dialogue, and memorable settings and imagery.)
The term narrative arc refers to the storyline in creative nonfiction; the narrative arc corresponds to the plot in a novel or short story.
Having a narrative arc in a memoir means telling a true story that builds to a climax and then, at the end, comes to a resolution. It includes:
Setting the scene
Introducing the problem or conflict on which the story will focus
Putting in motion the events of the story
Building to a climax
Bringing the story to a conclusion that resolves the central problem or conflict in some way (although not necessarily through a happy ending)
If you are hoping to interest an agent or a traditional publisher in your book-length memoir, you will likely be expected to have included a fully established narrative arc that spans the entire book. In other words, your memoir can’t simply be a collection of discrete episodes and descriptions. Your book will be asked to depict the progression in your life (and that of others involved) as you meet and wrestle with challenges, reach a climax in your efforts, and then end up changing in some way.
For instance, instead of telling pretty much everything that happened to you while you were in high school, you would need to focus on a central and especially meaningful aspect of your experience. Perhaps you were painfully shy and discouraged when you were fourteen, but through a series of notable experiences (belonging to a theater group? having a boyfriend or girlfriend? suffering a terrible loss? working with a memorable teacher?), you gained the confidence that has helped you to go on to a satisfying adult life. If the story of your growth from painfully withdrawn to impressively confident is the focus of your memoir, you have met the goal of having a narrative arc.
The beginning of your book will set the scene—providing the background and context for your memoir. You will also set the book’s events in motion. For example, maybe the first event to be included will depict your running to hide in your room when the popular girl or boy from across the street appears at your door. The story will build and build until you reach a turning point—the moment that your transformation from awkward to outgoing becomes fully evident to you and others. By the end of the book, we will have the satisfaction of knowing the strong person that you have become—that you have become in spite of and also because of your many painful challenges.
If you are planning to self-publish your book-length memoir or are writing it for your family and friends, you can, if you wish, thumb your nose at the need for a narrative arc that spans your entire memoir. But even then, making sure that each scene or chapter has a narrative arc can add significantly to the impact of your writing. If a scene, chapter, or essay has a clear narrative arc, you can feel confident that your writing is focused and that the point you are making (your theme) will be clear to your readers. After all, the narrative arc is fundamental to good storytelling, from sharing a funny or infuriating experience that happened at work to composing the next Angela’s Ashes, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or Tuesdays with Morrie.
Here—from my mother’s memoir, Paint Lick—is an example of a short memoir chapter that has an evident narrative arc. The first paragraph sets the scene; subsequent passages let us know more about the setting and people involved. In paragraph two, we are introduced to the central problem of the story—robbers are planning to rob the village bank—and the action of the story begins. Each detail, including the false conclusion that the threat is over, leads us toward the climax: “The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.” We learn additional information about that climactic event, and then the story moves toward its resolution as two of the robbers are caught, sent to prison, and eventually released.
The Bank Robbery By Doris Burgess Hayek
Paint Lick life was not without adventure. This is the story of some amateur desperadoes who outwitted some village vigilantes but, in the end, fell into the hands of the sheriff and one of Paint Lick’s little ladies.
In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to pick up the phone receiver planning to make a call and hear a conversation on another line. This we called “crosstalk.” One such time, a Paint Lick resident heard over crosstalk a conversation between two men planning to rob a bank. One man told the other that Paint Lick was unincorporated and the bank was strong. They set a date. The news from the crosstalk spread in the community, and several men planned a warm welcome for the robbers.
On the morning of the day the robbers were supposed to come, the Paint Lick men, each with a shotgun, assembled at second-floor windows across from the bank. They planned to shoot out the tires on the robbers’ car. The men waited and waited, and the robbers didn’t come. This time crosstalk had helped the robbers. They had been tipped off that the Paint Lick men were waiting for them.
Time passed, and everyone assumed the threat was over.
One morning when I was playing croquet in our front yard with my sister, her girlfriend Polly, and Joe, a young neighbor boy, we looked up to see a big black car pass by. We wondered why the occupants were moving around. Polly said, “Ooh, those mean-looking men,” and she danced around, swinging her mallet and singing, “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you.” Shortly, Mrs. Roop, Joe’s mother, called, “Joe-oh, come home.”
Word spread quickly: The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.
Soon, we heard Mrs. Logsdon’s account. She was standing in the doorway of her general store, next to the bank, when the robbers arrived. While three of the men entered the bank, a fourth stood outside holding his gun. In Mrs. Logsdon’s words, “I knew I was covered.” She stood motionless until the car had pulled away, and then she went straight to the phone.
The robbers abandoned their stolen car on the Cartersville Road, a few miles from Paint Lick, but two of them weren’t able to elude the sheriff and his men for long. They were caught, and they went to prison on Mrs. Logsdon’s testimony.
Eventually the two robbers were out of prison. One day, Mrs. Logsdon was visiting with Mrs. Goodman in Dr. Goodman’s waiting room when who should walk in but one of the robbers. Mrs. Logsdon recognized him at once. While the three waited for the doctor to come in, Mrs. Logsdon cringed every time Mrs. Goodman said “Mrs. Logsdon,” but there was no obvious recognition by the robber.
Notice that “The Bank Robbery” does not get sidetracked with details about the Paint Lick telephone exchange, about who among the friends was the best croquet player, and about what the various village businesses looked like. Other chapters in my mother’s memoir touch on those topics and tell readers about Mrs. Logsdon and Mrs. Goodman. But in this chapter, all the details support the specific focus my mother chose for the scene. The account is more than a series of facts and descriptions; it has a plot just as if it were a fictional story. And so “The Bank Robbery” reflects beneficial use of a narrative arc.
Will incorporating a narrative arc help you to tell your story? It’s worth considering.
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Do you tell yourself, “I’m just not a writer—I didn’t get that gift”? Do you say, “I don’t know grammar”? Have you concluded, “Writing comes easily for other people, but not for me”?
If feelings like these discourage you from writing a memoir, this post is for you. I hope it will also include some useful tips for more confident writers.
No matter how little confidence you have as a writer, know that you have what it takes to write a meaningful memoir.
The most essential part of writing is having something to say. And if you’re planning to write about your life—your experiences and perceptions—you absolutely qualify. Yes, knowing the rules of grammar and punctuation is useful, but good writing comes from having something worth saying and then finding the means to say it effectively.
For the first draft of your work, focus on getting all of your ideas down—not on spelling, punctuation, and other style issues.
Remember: there’s nothing wrong with a chaotic, error-filled first draft as long as it doesn’t become the final draft. (Once you have a fully developed draft of your memoir, then it will be time to turn to organizing your content and improving your sentences and paragraphs.)
For your first draft, write with wild abandon so that you get down everything you want to say.
Some people express themselves more easily orally than in writing. If this description fits you, you may want to draft your book by first talking into a recorder. Transcribing the recordings will take a lot of time but can be rewarding. In the course of transcribing your recordings, you will find yourself making small revisions that strengthen and clarify the content.
If you’re horrified by the thought of transcribing hours of recordings, you may wish to consider purchasing speech-to-text software. Speech-to-text software—Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a popular choice—allows you to speak into your computer through a microphone and have your words appear in your document. In addition to “training” the software to recognize your voice patterns, you will need to review your document thoroughly to correct any errors.
Once you have the content for your memoir, give your memoir the careful editing attention it deserves.
As you revise your work, remember your goal: to let your readers put themselves in your place and experience what you have experienced, feel as you have felt, and understand what you have known.
Bookmark an online grammar and punctuation guide and then refer to it when you are unsure of a rule. A comprehensive choice is the Online Grammar Guide.
One of the best style manuals continues to be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which, with updates, has been around for 100 years. I suggest buying a copy of The Elements of Style (available on Kindle for $.99) and reading it from cover to cover.
Your style considerations should include these:
When a sentence becomes long and difficult to comprehend, consider breaking it into two (or more) sentences. Short sentences are generally more reader friendly than very long sentences.
Break up dauntingly long paragraphs.
Use commas and other punctuation for clarity. For example, by reading aloud what you’ve written, you will often be able to see where a comma is needed. (Which is it: “Let’s eat Jonah before we go,” or “Let’s eat, Jonah, before we go”?) Be consistent in your choices: Don’t write “the dog, the cat, and the man” (comma before “and”) one time and then write “the hat, the shirt and the suit” (no comma before “and”) the next.
Be especially careful of your pronoun usage. Follow prepositions with object pronouns (her, him, me, us, them): He gave it to Jon and me (not “to Jon and I”!).
To work out the most effective wording and to check the clarity of your prose, read aloud what you have written. Another choice is to install a screen reader and listen to your written work as you follow along. A free screen reader can be downloaded from NaturalReader.
After doing your best to revise and improve your memoir, you may choose to ask friends and family to read your work to find unclear passages, typos, and other problems you have overlooked.
Improve your writing by writing. Keeping a journal, for instance, is a useful way both to practice your writing and to develop possible topics for a memoir.
If you want to read others’ ideas about how to improve the quantity and quality of your writing (but remember that you are the best judge of what and how you should write), you could read some of the books on the interesting and comprehensive list “Best Books for Writers,” from Poets & Writers, a website that is filled with resources. The site is well worth exploring, as is Poets & Writers magazine. The magazine is available in digital and print editions; see the Poets & Writers site for details.
You may find it useful to join or establish a writers’ group. Sharing your work in progress with other writers can be encouraging and inspiring. I suggest looking for a group that stresses honest positive feedback of this type: “I especially like your use of ___ ,” or “I think your portrayal of ___ works well,” or “I’d like to hear even more about___.” Most members of writers’ groups, no matter how skilled, are not qualified to give negative feedback that is helpful, justified, and not discouraging. Too many writers who critique other writers are trying to turn the other writers into clones of themselves—or they’ve read a “rule” somewhere and imagine that any writer who violates it is absolutely, positively doomed.
If you think you can’t write, you are probably buying into the common myths about writing. These myths would have you wrongly believe that either you have it as a writer or you don’t. They would fool you into thinking good writers never struggle with their writing. And they would lead you to imagine that good writers put all the right words in the right order from the moment they set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Don’t let these myths fool you and convince you that your wonderful story has to stay locked inside of you. Bolster your courage and release your story into the world.
We humans write memoirs because we want to share important aspects of our lives. We want others to understand how the world has looked to us, how we have experienced life. But readers have trouble becoming drawn in by a memoir if the author simply writes down the unadorned facts. Travel memoirs are especially prone to staying at the level of travelogue—where the writer went and what he or she did—but any memoir can fall down in the task of showing the meaning behind the facts.
Even the most fascinating moments can be turned into dry reading material. I once knew a man who spent many weeks traveling through Europe and parts of Asia by bicycle. He sent accounts home, hoping they could be published. I’m sorry to say that my acquaintance excelled in making a thrilling journey sound dull.
I wanted to know who the people were whom he had met along the way, what their lives were like, how they had responded to my friend. I wanted to be able to see in my mind the scenery that had surrounded him as he rode. I wanted to know what he’d thought about as he journeyed, whether he was sometimes homesick or afraid. In short, I wanted to share his trip vicariously.
Instead, I found itineraries listing the cities and towns he’d traversed, accounts of the meals he’d consumed, and statistics about the length and geography of each day’s biking. All this was a start, but it didn’t rise to the level of consistently engaging. I could have looked in an atlas to get a sense of his route. I wanted to be able to find my friend within that route, but he was almost entirely absent.
I’ll share an example of the kind of writing I’m complaining about—writing that is fine for a first draft but does not yet engage the reader. Like any memoir writer, I write because I want others to see how and why elements of my life have mattered. This passage does not yet achieve that goal:
I went to Pisa for two weeks to study Italian in a language school. I stayed in a convent (in this case actually called a “monastery”) a few miles outside of town. My room was inexpensive, but there were a lot of mosquitoes.
The first morning (a Saturday), I didn’t like the breakfast. After breakfast, I walked into town, which took a long time. It was really hot. I climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, ate lunch nearby, and walked almost all the way down to the train station so I’d know where my school was when Monday came.
Pisa is mostly famous for the Leaning Tower and the other buildings in the so-called “Field of Miracles,” but I liked the whole city a lot, especially the Arno River, the little church called Santa Maria della Spina, and the Tower of Famine, which is famous for a count who was imprisoned there during the Middle Ages and supposedly ate his sons and grandsons.
(And so on. . . .)
I can take this first draft and begin to pull in my readers. Here are some of the strategies I might use to help my readers understand what the facts I’m presenting mean to me, why they matter. I can . . .
Choose details that help to recreate a mood:
For the first week, I stay about three miles outside the city limits in the guest quarters of a monastery for nuns—the Monastero di Santa Maria madre della Chiesa e di San Benedetto. When I arrive, in the evening light I see the nuns, wearing long gray habits, strolling silently around a lush courtyard behind a high iron fence.
Just before total darkness, before the pink in the sky has completely faded, I hear the high, sweet voices of the nuns singing in their chapel.
Let the word choice convey an attitude:
The monastery-provided breakfast—yesterday’s was two small, bedraggled apples, coffee and milk served in thermoses, a basket of leftover rolls (one already half consumed), and a partly used package of cookies—won’t be available until 7:30, by which time I hope to be drinking tea in a bar near my language school.
Compare one experience to another:
Back home, I commute by car along the congested thirteen miles to work, passing several strip malls, fast-food restaurants, a couple of modern churches, and nondescript entrances to neighborhoods and apartment complexes. But in Pisa, rather than being a necessity to endure, the commute is essential to the experience.
Use pictures to aid the reader’s imagination:
Tell enough about an experience to let readers vicariously come along with me:
Just south of the piazza I find a bar for a pot of tea and a spinach omelet between thin layers of focaccia. I join the half-dozen men and women standing at the counter with their coffee and reading a newspaper or watching the television news on the set mounted on the wall. The morning-show hosts speak rapidly, and I can only get the gist of their words. Even on my first day of school, standing at the bar feels like a routine. And as out of place as tea seems in a nation of coffee drinkers, I will never find an Italian bar unable to supply a small pot, hot water, and a teabag for my tè caldo.
The second week of school, I move to the Albergo Clio, a one-star hotel on an alley near the south bank of the Arno. My sense grows of being a part of Pisa, of the ongoing life of the city. At night, as I do homework exercises or write in my journal, I love hearing dishes and silverware clattering in the neighbors’ kitchens, my neighbors. Teenage boys sit outside in the warm air and talk until midnight. A rock band practices. A miniature garbage truck faithfully, and noisily, collects trash at 6:15 every morning.
Tell what I like (or dislike) about an experience; directly state my feelings about something:
The best part of getting on the bus is the ordinariness of it, as if I do this every day.
The Leaning Tower is to me the most magical and captivating of all structures. Imagine passing it every day, a part of ordinary life! During my two weeks in Pisa, I will walk to the Tower daily to share time with it.
I am uncharacteristically calm and confident today. In Pisa, I find myself relishing the moments as they happen, with no desire to rush toward a more promising future. I stay inside the Pisan moments and savor the experience. I wasn’t nervous about walking into the school, announcing myself to Pier Luigi, and I’m not nervous about working my way through the test choices—the answers I know, those I think I might know, and those about which I haven’t a clue. I just rip along, not second-guessing myself or fearing the quality of my effort.
On the Monday of our second (and last) week together, Simon asks me, “Would you like to go to the bar for coffee during la pausa? Lots of people do.” Riding down on the rickety elevator with Simon and me, Jacek tells me, as if in warning, “I’m a priest.” Yes, I know. What does this fact matter, except to make the jolly company all the more interesting.
Asked why Italian women are so strong, Annamaria responds, “Because we have to handle Italian men!”
As I walk around Pisa, I whisper, “I’m so happy; I’m so happy; I’m so happy.”
Tell a story:
The taxi driver who stops for me has been having a bad day, to which I add. As I am getting in the taxi, I don’t think about the fact I am still wearing a small backpack. I bump the car a little with it, but the pack is soft. The driver says indignantly, “Per favore, signora!” I think he is kidding and chuckle, but he really is angry with me. I apologize, explaining that I’m tired. “You’re tired!” he says and launches into a tirade (in Italian) about how tired he is and how terrible it is for tourists like me to have so much baggage when millions of people are starving in the world. He has a point. I apologize again, say that I’m not a bad person and don’t want to hurt him or anyone, and explain about the strike and long trip. . . .
Directly state the effect on me of an experience or encounter:
In Pisa, I don’t change permanently, but I do change for as long as I remain in that Italian city.
I am older than most of my classmates. I am the only American. I am the only tea drinker, the only vegetarian. Back home, I have nearly always tried finding my place in a group by adjusting as needed to fit in. At the Istituto linguistico Mediterraneo, I find my place in the group by being myself. With my first pausa at the Bar Sapori, I join our ephemeral community as a full-fledged citizen, abandoning my role of observer from the sidelines. My usual shyness, giddiness, and exaggerated civility evaporate in the hot Tuscan air.
In other words:
If you think about what the facts of your life have meant and mean to you, and if you work to share this significance, you will probably end up presenting a meaningful account to your readers.
And remember that readers, too, have to do their share. They have a responsibility to try to put themselves in your place as they read about your experiences. For one thing, they need to tune in to the connotations (the emotional overtones) of the words you have chosen to use. For example, in a writers’ group that I attended, a participant complained that a writer in the group had not expressed her feelings about the events she had described. In fact, however, it was the critic who had missed the many cues, such as the writer’s referring to her teenager as her “baby boy” at a point in the story when she was worried about him. We knew from this word choice that she felt tenderly toward her son and was stressing his vulnerability.
So as you write, don’t let the need to include the “whys and wherefores” in your memoir become a burden and undue challenge. Simply do your best to help readers understand not only what happened but also why the scenes you are describing matter, especially to you.
The poem and story I’m sharing here make a companion to my recent post “Embracing Now,” in which I tell about hearing my mother’s voice, in spite of the veil between worlds that separates us for now.
I would know for sure.
Would become vistas
Over all sides of creation.
I could help others,
But above all,
Doubt would disappear
To be replaced by knowing,
By reaching out to you
And finding you,
Not just sometimes
And then forever.
In the fourth grade, our teacher taught us about the Navajos. I loved drawing pictures of pueblos and became fascinated by Native American jewelry.
Under the tree at Christmastime that year, 1958, I found an interesting-looking gift about four inches square and an inch deep. The tag said the present was for me from Mother and Daddy. On one of the long days before Christmas, my impatience overwhelmed my self-control. I slipped off the package’s ribbon and carefully unstuck the tape on the wrapping paper. The box inside was stamped “Marjorie Speakman,” the name of a local store selling children’s clothing. In the box was a turquoise-and-silver pin. My parents had forgotten to remove the price tag, which gave the cost as eight dollars. Thrilled and awed by the present, I reassembled the paper and ribbon around it.
From December 1958 until May 2007, the turquoise-and-silver pin from my parents was my favorite piece of jewelry. The pin—about an inch tall and just over an inch across at its widest point—was in the shape of a three-branch spray of little turquoise leaves, fifteen in total. The silver branches joined toward the bottom and ended in two little silver knobs. I wore my pin on the collars of my blouses, dresses, and sweaters. It came with me to college and to my first apartments. When I was twenty-eight, my parents gave me turquoise earrings for my newly pierced ears, and from then on I wore the earrings with my pin as it continued with me through my years in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Delaware. When my father died in 2004, I moved back into our Wilmington, Delaware, family home to be with my mother. I continued to wear my pretty pin.
On May 7, 2007, my mother moved to the Maris Grove retirement community, and I went to an apartment in nearby West Chester. We shared the same moving van. The movers delivered my mother’s furniture and boxes and then drove the seven miles up Route 202 to my new home.
I had left my clothes, jewelry, and other possessions in place in the dresser drawers. But in my new West Chester apartment, the first time that I opened the drawer where I kept my turquoise-and-silver pin, it wasn’t there. The missing small pin left a cavernous gap. Perhaps the drawer had come open while the men were loading or unloading my dresser. I imagined my pin lying on the bottom of the van, crushed now under the legs of other people’s furniture. Or perhaps, I hoped, I had put the pin in a different drawer or left it on a collar the last time I’d worn it. I searched every drawer and examined every collar I owned, without success. The pin seemed irrevocably lost.
For the four years and three months I lived in West Chester, I missed my sweet pin. In my mind, I saw it as it had been for five decades, among my other jewelry and decorating my clothes. How could I have been careless enough to allow its loss by any means?
In August 2011, I prepared to move in with my mother at Maris Grove. As I was readying my belongings for the movers, I opened my jewelry drawer. Sitting in an open box in clear view at the front of the drawer was my turquoise-and-silver pin.
I cannot unequivocally explain how my pin returned to my drawer after being gone for more than four years. But I have chosen to adopt one of the possible explanations. I choose to believe my late father somehow recovered the pin and returned it to me. The idea is not preposterous. My father in several ways showed my mother and me that he continued to be a part of our lives—as both my parents now continue to be in my life. I believe my father found the means for me to have the pin again. This time, instead of honoring my interest in the Navajos, the gift honored the life my mother and I were to live together, always with my father in our hearts.
“My Turquoise-and-Silver Pin” and the poem “Being Psychic” are from my book A Woman in Time. If you wish to read more about afterlife communication, I recommend the four books I’ve listed at the end of “Embracing Now.”
This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side. If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.
Returning to the Patio
I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together. Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing. But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me. The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring. While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.
The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together. We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then. I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home. Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors. This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.
On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now. Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together. And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.
Holding Back, Weighted Down
In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life. Yet I’m already what most would consider old. If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.” I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly. I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation. It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least. What am I waiting for?
Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.” Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.
You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness. And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what. Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.
Turning Blessings into Joy
I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests. I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian. I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient. I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness. I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces. I have lines to master for the play that I’m in. And on and on. But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.
When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage. I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books. I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment. It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately. And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.
Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings. If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do. I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.
As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what. And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face. Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.
And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy. Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived. Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality. I now choose contentment and serenity. And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.
Hearing an Answer to My Prayer
Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity. In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real. I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known. And then my prayer was answered.
I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady. (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.) To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder. Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC. I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”
When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script. And the singing voice is not mine. To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer. During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep. Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer. On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.
In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice. Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard. Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage. How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in. I am blessed by this gift beyond words. I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible. Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever. And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.
If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec (In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit. I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
Some people hesitate to write a memoir because they fear hurting or angering people who would appear in the memoir. Another barrier to writing can be a reluctance to revisit or reveal painful memories. These are valid concerns—and ones to which writers respond in different ways. In this article, I’ll mention a few of the issues involved and tell you a little about my own decisions concerning them.
Life’s meaningful experiences, both the blessed and the terrible, usually involve others. A memoir writer’s relationships with others are generally at the heart of the most inspiring and fascinating elements in the author’s story. And so if you write a memoir, there is no way around making decisions on what to tell about your family, friends, and acquaintances and how to handle potentially hurtful details concerning them.
My parents, Doris Burgess Hayek and Mason Hayek, left partially completed memoirs and extensive additional written and oral accounts of their lives. In editing their memoirs (Paint Lick and Growing to 80) for publication, I wrestled with questions about naming names. Almost all of the people who found their way into my parents’ memoirs are deceased, so libel was not a concern, but possibly hurting folks was. Because the memoirs are historical records of their time and place, I kept names unless I felt a portrayal could clearly be hurtful to the person’s children, grandchildren, or other descendants. For example, names I omitted included those of a well-to-do shopkeeper who stole money from my grandfather, a teacher who slapped my aunt so hard she left a hand print on her face, and an annoying young minister who lived next door to my mother and her family.
In my own memoir, A Woman in Time, and in my memoir writing that finds its way onto my blog, I usually use real names only in the case of my family. (And to disguise someone, changing a name may not be enough. Additional changes may be necessary, adjustments that protect an identity while not violating the essential truth of the story being told.) I am blessed to have had a deeply loving family and profoundly admirable parents. For writers whose harshest life challenges emerge from their relationships with their family members, much more difficult choices than I have faced have to be made about what to tell and how to express hard realities.
Before you begin writing, however, you don’t need to make all of your decisions on what to include about the people in your life. I recommend first drafting your story as fully and freely as you are comfortable doing. Then, before publishing it (online, as an e-book or audiobook, or in print), you can carefully edit your work to address all legal, ethical, and personal concerns. Avoiding libel is just one legal issue of importance to memoirists. Writers need to know the law, to ensure their own protection as well as the rights of others. One of many available resources is The Legal Guide for Writers, Artists and Other Creative People, by Kenneth P. Norwick. Whatever your decisions about sparing feelings and revealing truths, these decisions need to be filtered through the lens of the law.
While my challenges have not come from my loved ones, I’ve managed to create or otherwise jump into my share of unhappy times. The bad spells are part of the journey, the source of countless lessons, learned and unlearned. For some periods of my life, though, I simply don’t want to write about the darker moments. I haven’t forgotten them, and I honor what they’ve taught me about empathy and understanding and about self-reliance and courage. But I don’t necessarily want to put those experiences under the renewed, painstaking scrutiny that writing about them would require.
I do not feel compelled to obey each so-called “rule” from books and gurus claiming to hold the ultimate truths of memoir writing. The false edicts include commanding that memoirs include every gory, distressing, titillating (and so on) detail for every scene because these are what sell books, what readers want to read, and what writers must confront. Similarly, the false judgments opine that to leave out some of the distressing facts in a story is to display cowardice, dishonesty, and substandard writing.
My college years at the University of Delaware contained some of the dark moments to which I’ve alluded—bleak patches in my memory in which I don’t wish to linger. My undergraduate days are among the eras I’d like to explore further in writing, but not by including every detail (those bleak patches), even the ones that might be especially interesting to readers. I’m ashamed of some of my college moments, embarrassed by others. So how am I going to be honest about those years, writing about them in a way that brings insight to me and to any who might read what I have to say?
An answer came to me one morning when I found myself meditating on my college recollections. I relaxed into a peaceful trance and let the thoughts float past. As I meditated, I saw in my mind a glass-fronted curio cabinet. Instead of shelves, the cabinet had small compartments, perhaps four or five across and six down, to hold the special objects chosen for display. My subconscious was offering a useful symbol. The cabinet reminded me that I can write about the events and emotions I wish to exhibit, that I can create meaningful images and describe selected scenes without feeling the need to catalog each gruesome moment of my undergraduate career. As the cabinet symbol was telling me, I can share meanings without dragging out every single knickknack in my memory collection.
In other words, it’s not necessary to begin, “On the day before the start of freshman orientation, I moved into Sussex Hall and met my roommate.” Beginning that way, I’d quickly be off into territory I don’t want to revisit. It was hard enough to endure once, without reliving it. I don’t want to explain, for instance, why I saw To Sir, with Love four times and Barefoot in the Park three, sitting by myself in the movie theater on Main Street, or why I spent hours hiding in bathrooms and out-of-the-way nooks in the library and classroom buildings. Maybe such accounts would be more instructive—as excellent examples of what not to do—than the scenes I choose to share. But the point is that I don’t have to write about anything I don’t want to write about, and neither do you.
I, like you, am in charge of what I write and how I write it. Following the “rules” may possibly help you and me to please a publisher, but will it please us? I think, instead, we should follow the often-quoted advice of British author and literary critic Cyril Connolly: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”*
* Cyril Connolly, The New Statesman, February 25, 1933.
In this short story, two sisters confront memories and their strained relationship.
Sarah Bright opened the door to her sister and gave her a welcoming hug. Hugging Rebecca was like hugging a straight-backed chair. Rebecca had never been affectionate, even as a girl, but Sarah tried to act as if the sisterly bond she so much desired actually existed. “Your house smells like cats,” said Rebecca before she removed her coat.
“How’s life at Westside Manor these days?” said Sarah, trying to rescue her sister’s visit from early disaster.
Rebecca rejected Sarah’s offer to hang her coat in the closet. She painstakingly draped the pale-blue coat over the back of the chair nearest the front door, as if to be ready to leave any time.
“I’ve joined a new duplicate-bridge group. They were eager to have me, but I didn’t know whether I’d enjoy a group Marge Amstel organized. She always has to be the center of attention. I decided to go ahead since Helen Clark was joining too.” Rebecca finished smoothing the pleats in her gray skirt and sat down with her handbag beside her on the chair.
“Relax, Rebecca,” Sarah wanted to say. “You look as if you’ve come for a job interview.” Rebecca did not take kidding well, so Sarah said instead, “I don’t believe I met Helen when I visited you last summer.”
“Yes you did. She was at our table for at least two meals. She’s the tall, well-dressed woman—a little younger than you are—who always wears beige.”
Sarah recalled a woman who had not spoken to her except to request something from across the table. “How come your friends seem so unfriendly?” she asked, knowing she was venturing into a risky area.
“I prefer friends who know how to keep their distance. Rebecca looked around at Sarah’s tidy but battered living room. Sarah was still using some of the same furniture their parents had brought to the cottage when it had been the family summer home. “I suppose we’ve each selected friends appropriate to our personalities. That woman I met at your house last year—what was her name—Louisa something?”
“That was it. She looked as faded and sagging as some of your furniture.”
“Louisa’s my closest friend. You’d like her if you got to know her.”
“I can’t imagine wanting to get to know her.”
“We’re picking at each other already. Come sit over here by me on the window seat. I want you to see how pretty the mountain looks with snow on it.”
“I saw snow on the mountain last year,” said Rebecca, but she moved over next to Sarah. Rebecca brought her purse with her to the window seat and placed it between her sister and herself. She straightened her skirt again. “I’ve got to look decent for dinner. I’m sure I won’t get back in time to change.”
“You only come to see me once or twice a year, even though we live just fifteen miles apart, and then you can’t even stay through dinner time.” Sarah gave up pretending to be pleased with her sister. “Every time we finally make arrangements to see each other, I hope this time the visit will be different, but you never change.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t come to see me any more often than I come to see you.”
“That’s because you can never find time for me to visit. In the past year I can think of at least five occasions when you called at the last moment and told me not to come.”
“Things come up,” said Rebecca. She examined the nail on the ring finger of her left hand, took a file out of her handbag, and repaired a corner of the nail that had not been to her liking. “You know how busy I am. I have responsibilities. Why don’t you give up this place and move out to Westside Manor yourself? You complain about not seeing me. Seems to me you couldn’t see much of anyone way out here. One reason I don’t come more often is that terrible road. I’m sure it’s damaged the suspension on my car already.”
“I have lots of friends, and Louisa lives less than half a mile away. We walk over to each other’s house nearly every day.”
“You’re not a young woman anymore, Sarah. If you’re not careful you’re going to turn into one of those eccentric old ladies who live in some forsaken hovel with a dozen cats—the kind who keep money in the mattress and never wash the dishes.”
“Perhaps I am an eccentric old lady, but I keep one cat, not twelve, and you know I’ve always been as neat and clean as anyone. You’re the one who never straightened her room when we were growing up. As for my home being a hovel, have you forgotten that our own father built this house?”
“For a summer place. It was never intended for year-round living. What if you were sick or fell? Who would find you out here?” Rebecca picked up the cat that had jumped on the window seat to greet her and threw him to the floor. “After I visit you, it takes me a week to get the cat hairs out of my clothes.”
“Why do you dislike my home so much? Every time you come to visit you try to talk me into coming to live in your retirement community. I can’t believe it’s because you’d like to see more of me. When we were little, you never could stand it when I made up my own mind about what I wanted. I don’t think you’ve changed a bit. I was your big sister, so I was supposed to be ready for all your commands. If I wanted to ride my bicycle and you wanted to play princess, I had to play princess with you because you needed me to be the ugly stepsister, or the prince, or some other undesirable part. If I didn’t do what you wanted, you ran to Mother, and together you shamed me into compliance.”
“I won’t have you criticizing our poor mother,” said Rebecca. She had turned in her seat to face out the window at the snowy meadow, with the woods and mountain beyond. She stared at the scene as if it drew her into it. Sarah had seen that vacant, distracted look many times before, however. Rebecca was not absorbing the natural beauty; she was doing her best to shut out a discussion she did not want to continue.
“I’m not criticizing Mother,” said Sarah. “I’m talking about you and me. You even told me where I had to go to college. I was accepted up at Bates, but you fixed it so I had to stay home and commute. That way I could continue to be at your service.”
“I didn’t make you do anything.”
“You got Mother and Father to talk to me about responsibility and how you needed me. Sure you needed me—to do your homework for you, to do your chores, to drive you on your dates. I think you still can’t stand not to have me standing by just in case I might be useful.” By now Sarah, too, had turned toward the snow and the mountain. She looked at the scene for the courage to keep trying to tell her sister what she had been attempting to tell her for more than fifty years. At eighteen Sarah had finally begun to understand that Rebecca was controlling her life and that—as much as her parents believed it and forced her to believe it, too—Rebecca was not helpless.
For more than fifty years her relationship with her sister had shifted back and forth from anticipation of her visits, to tolerance of her insults, to determination never to see her again. She did not know what had made her feel so resolved to try once more to explain, unless it had been going through the old picture albums yesterday with Louisa: all those pictures of people who were gone; all those people she had loved, tried to understand, and too often resented for the ways they had sometimes made her childhood difficult. Her mother had been a woman who never seemed to want anything but what was best for her family. She had not seen that by making Rebecca the eternally helpless darling, she had doomed her daughters to spending their adult lives as distant acquaintances. Their brother, Jeremy, had left home as soon as he was eighteen because he thought he was a failure in his parents’ eyes. Her father had loved his older daughter best and then, because he was ashamed to have a favorite, had expected more of her than she could give. Her father had never forgiven his son for leaving them and had never stopped blaming himself.
She and Rebecca were the only ones left, but when she looked at the photographs, Sarah could barely connect Rebecca to the tiny girl in the white ruffled dress and pink hair ribbons. They had all loved her so dearly. And finally Sarah had seen photos of herself, almost as tall and big boned at fourteen as she was now at seventy. After Louisa had left yesterday, Sarah had gone through the pictures again. It was something much more than a little lingering resentment that made her ache.
“Do you think Mother was happy?”
Rebecca seemed startled by the question. “I imagine so. She loved our father. She loved us. I suppose Jeremy’s leaving so young and moving across the country hurt her. She never talked about him much after he left. I guess she was about as happy as most women of her day.”
“Yes, but what did she want out of life? What did she want to achieve? You wanted the prestige of a wealthy husband and socially prominent friends. That wasn’t for me, but I always assumed you found pretty much the life you were looking for. I wanted a career, and the chance to be as independent as I pleased. I’m still living that kind of life. I even feel I’ve been a little bit useful to some of my students and not such a bad friend to my neighbors. But what was Mother looking to find? We always just expected her to be our mother, even after we were grown. The year before she died I was still calling her up for advice about handling my students.”
“What’s gotten into you, Sarah? I think you’re making a whole lot out of nothing. Women’s lives were different then.”
“Their lives were different, but were the women themselves so different? Inside, what did they think and feel? We never asked ourselves that about our own mother.”
“I’m getting uncomfortable sitting here,” said Rebecca, who had turned back away from the wide window. She picked up her purse and moved to an overstuffed chair by the stairs. She sat forward in her chair, as if she were waiting for a convenient moment to stand and say goodbye.
The big Burmese cat settled into Rebecca’s vacant spot on the window seat. Sarah scratched him between his ears. She forced herself to keep talking. She had lost the chance to say all she wanted—all she wished she had said—to her parents and brother, but Rebecca was alive. “For years I’ve been saving some things to show you. Come with me. Don’t worry about your purse or your coat. Willy doesn’t claw things.” Sarah walked over to Rebecca and extended her hand.
Rebecca stood but ignored Sarah’s hand. “I really can’t stay long. I promised to pick up a pair of gloves for Helen at the new shop that just opened next to the bookstore.”
Sarah led Rebecca up the stairs to the large bedroom over the living room. “I bet you haven’t been upstairs more than a dozen times since the summers we spent here as girls. This was our parents’ room. Do you remember?”
“Of course I remember. I’m not senile, although I’m beginning to wonder about you. You’re starting to live in the past. The past is dead and gone. Why bring up what can’t be changed or brought back?”
“Mother and Father kept this wedding picture here. I’ve tried to keep everything on the bureau the same as it was. I guess it’s because Mother’s fancy little bottles, and Father’s mirror and brush, and the wedding picture are part of the people Mother and Father were, part of the complete human beings, with likes and dislikes and disappointments and plans for the future that I never thought much about because they were just Mother and Father. They fed me and kept me safe and made me be nice to you when I wanted you to disappear. In my world they were just parents.
“Now when I touch this little violet perfume bottle, I see Mother picking it out and setting it here so the room will be pretty and homey. I imagine Father brushing that wavy dark hair of his each morning so he’ll look handsome for Mother.”
“What else do you have to show me? I don’t have much more time.”
“Remember that wicker chair by the window? You probably hated it because Father made you paint it once. That was the only real work I ever remember him asking of you, but I had the flu and for some reason he wanted it painted right away. Do you recall how you and I used to pretend that chair was a throne? We’d put our dolls in it so they could hold audiences with their subjects. Of course your doll always got to be the young queen. But we didn’t fight every time. We made up some lovely stories using that chair. Beyond the mountain was the Kingdom of Flavoria, and we had to protect our people from the evil Flavorian count.” Rebecca looked at the chair, but Sarah could not guess what she was thinking.
“Come across the hall a moment,” said Sarah.
Rebecca stood at the door, and at first Sarah thought she would refuse to enter the tiny room that Sarah now used as a study because it had the morning sun. “I told you I don’t like to think about the past,” said Rebecca. “Why have you kept my room this way when you hate me? I think you’ve planned this little tour so you could have lots of opportunities to remind me how awful I’ve been to you. Do you think I need reminding?” Sarah was not sure, but she thought Rebecca’s voice was a little unsteady.
Sarah sat down on the single bed in the far corner. “I know you won’t believe it, but I kept your bed just as you had it because I like to think of you in this room the way you were when we first started coming here. You were the daintiest, prettiest little girl I’d ever seen. I was so proud of you. I wanted all my friends to see my beautiful little sister.”
“I was five when father finished this cottage,” said Rebecca. “Mother and Father let me pick out the bedspread and bring up my favorite doll to set on the pillow. Why don’t you get rid of that spread? It looks as if it will disintegrate with one more washing. I don’t know why I liked that silly doll so much; she’s really quite hideous.” Rebecca picked up the cloth doll and turned her over to examine the back. “There’s the place where I ripped her dress trying to yank her away from you. I wouldn’t stop crying until Mother made you mend the hole. I could be a brat sometimes, couldn’t I?” For the first time all afternoon, Rebecca smiled.
Rebecca continued to speak as she sat down on the bed next to Sarah. “The first summer here doesn’t seem like over sixty years ago, does it? I don’t remember when I stopped playing with this doll. One day she wasn’t a toy anymore, just a decoration for my room, and then before long my room wasn’t my room any longer. I married Jim, we made a life together, and then that life was over. You think I’ve just bulldozed my way along, getting what I want and not caring about anyone but myself. If I’m so selfish, why is it I feel so terrible right now, thinking about everything that’s gone by?” Rebecca stood and walked over to the side window, where she looked down at the brown remains of the garden poking through the snow. Sarah came up beside her, and Rebecca let Sarah put her arm around her waist. Unlike earlier, Sarah felt she was holding a living woman and not a piece of furniture.
“Even by the time we started coming here, the losses had begun. Jeremy had left the year before. That’s one of the reasons why Father wanted to build this cottage, so Mother could get away from our house where he had grown up. We only saw him once after that, so I always felt I’d lost my brother before I could ever know him. At least you were old enough to remember him.”
Without conversation Sarah led Rebecca into the third bedroom and sat down on the battered hope chest at the foot of the twin bed that matched the one in Rebecca’s old room. Rebecca sat beside her.
“Sometimes when I was sure you wouldn’t catch me, I used to come in here and just sit,” said Rebecca. “I used to imagine that I was you, that I was tall and sophisticated and beautiful like you, and that I was smart in school and had lots of friends. I was sure you’d marry someone handsome and rich and then you’d leave me. I thought I’d be stuck at home and be the baby sister forever, always waiting for you to come back and pay attention to me so I’d be happy again. I envied you because you always knew what you wanted to do without asking anyone. Mother even helped me choose my clothes until I was married, and you told me which boys were nice and which ones to watch out for. Except for painting that one chair, Father never made me do any real work. I just helped with little chores like making beds and setting the table. I remember when you and Father built those bookcases you still have in your living room. I thought I’d never be old enough or smart enough to do something like that.”
Sarah and Rebecca sat quietly. Sarah could hear the old clock downstairs tick and then strike the quarter hour. When they had been girls that clock had stood on the mantel in their home outside Manchester. Sarah remembered early mornings when she would get up before the rest of the family in order to sit on the red velvet sofa and read while the clock made its comfortable, family sounds. Sarah had liked being up alone but knowing her parents and sister were just up the stairs.
“I could never live here,” said Rebecca eventually. “There are too many ghosts.”
“It’s because of the ghosts that I want to be here. I can look at the mountain and think of climbing it with Father, and whenever I bake bread I imagine Mother’s perfect loaves in place of my lopsided ones. Even Jeremy’s here a little. That desk in your old room used to be his. And just as much as I think of Mother and Father and Jeremy, I think of you.”
“I’m no ghost.”
“Until today, you were to me. I sometimes walk through the house thinking of all the things I might be able to tell you to bring you back so you’d be my sister again—not just some woman who disapproves of me and whose life I can’t understand. Mother and Father and Jeremy are gone, but we still have time together.”
Once again Rebecca was quiet. She let Sarah take her hand.
The clock struck the half hour. “I have to be going,” said Rebecca. “I promised Helen I’d be back through town before that shop closes.”
Sarah followed her down the stairs. Rebecca checked her coat for cat hairs, let Sarah help her into it, and picked up her purse. She was almost to the door when she turned back to Sarah and gave her a tentative hug. “I may have a free afternoon next week,” she said. “Do you still have those picture albums Mother put together? I might like to see them.”
My friend and I (on the left) make our purchases from the ice-cream man, about 1954.
Your story matters, and not just to you. If you have even a small urge to write about what you have seen and known, I encourage you to do so. Writing a book-length memoir is not as impossible a feat as it might seem. It grows one scene, chapter, or essay—one story within your story—at a time. And memoir writing offers enormous freedom in how you share your history and what you choose to tell.
Nevertheless, for most people, getting started on any writing project is a challenge—I know from personal experience, in spite of the almost eighteen years I spent as a speechwriter and all the years I taught English. And so I want to offer a few suggestions and strategies that may help you move from the desire to tell your story to a completed book that you can then self-publish or market to a traditional publisher.
Here’s a way to begin:
First come to grips with your reason or reasons for wanting to write a memoir.
Are you writing primarily for your children and grandchildren, so they will know more about their own family history?
In these photos, my parents, Doris Burgess Hayek and Mason Hayek, are both about one year old (1918 and 1921).
Are you writing to share your era and experiences with a wide audience, to preserve the stories of a time and place that might be lost without your memoir?
Are you writing above all for yourself, to revisit some of the most important experiences, people, and places of your life and gain a clearer perspective on how you have become the person you are today?
Do you have an unusually dramatic and powerful story to tell, one that you think will interest a broad readership?
If you understand your audience and your reason or reasons for wanting to write, you will have an easier time getting underway, choosing what to include, and deciding how to present your story.
Draft a short description of the project that you would like to undertake and complete.Include the time frame you want to cover (Your entire life so far? Your childhood? The years you were married to ___? The last ten years? The years you lived in ___?). Also include the audience for whom you will be writing.
Choose a working title for your project and type or write it into place at the top of a new page. Now you are underway!
Collect photographs and documents that you would like to incorporate into your memoir or use as resource material. These will also serve as inspiration.
Consider the style or organizing principle for the memoir you plan to write. Here are a few possibilities. (I’ll be discussing some of the different approaches in more depth in future articles.) You can always change your mind and recast your memoir later, but picking an approach will help get you going:
Your memoir can read like a novel, with a strong narrative flow that builds to a climax and leads to some sort of significant insight, achievement, or change. Bestselling memoirs usually take this approach. My Life in France (Julia Child), A Long Way Home (Saroo Brierley), and The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls) are among the countless examples.
A flexible approach for many memoirists is to organize their book by topic areas, such as family members, neighbors and friends, community life, and schooldays. My mother’s memoir, Paint Lick, is organized this way. Countless variations on this approach are possible. Organizing topics for you to consider include, for example, the different places you have lived, your changing states of mind, the jobs you have held, odors that carry powerful memories (your grandmother’s perfume, your mother’s homemade bread, the lilacs that grew in your side yard, the chlorine in the pool where you loved to swim, and so on), the years with your various family pets, the phases of your creative life. . . .
My mother, Doris Burgess Hayek, made the best bread!
You could construct a memoir by writing a series of letters to important people in your life, or if you have saved many letters over the years, you might include excerpts from them and then expand on the stories they represent.
Photographs can be the driving force for your memoir, with each photograph followed by the story it evokes.
My father, Mason Hayek (in the middle), wrote about his schooldays in his memoir, Growing to 80.
If you are an artist or craftsperson, your creations not only can illustrate your memoir but also can assist in planning and organizing it. My father’s memoir, Growing to 80, is filled with his drawings, which help to tell his story.
If you are uncomfortable writing about yourself, you might try telling your story in the third person, as if you were writing about someone else. In La musica del silenzio (The Music of Silence), Andrea Bocelli calls himself “Amos”; instead of writing, “I did this,” he writes, “Amos did this,” or “He did this.”
A memoir can even be written in the second person. In other words, instead of saying, “I loved first grade,” the author would write, “You loved first grade.” Writing about oneself in the second person is unusual but offers the writer some distance and perspective as he or she relives and examines the past.
If you have been writing short pieces throughout the years, you can create a memoir by assembling a collection of your writings and then organizing them into a rough chronology or into topic areas that represent significant aspects of your life. My memoir, A Woman in Time, is of this type; it includes both prose and poetry.
Next, brainstorm a list of the possible topics you would like to cover in your memoir. If you need ideas, consult a list of writing prompts. The StoryCorps website includes an extensive list of questions to consider. Another good list of possible topics is the New York Times’ “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing,” also available to download as a PDF. The New York Times list is designed for students but has questions to inspire writers of any age.
Now jump in and start writing. You don’t need to begin at the beginning, just jump in anywhere with one of the topics on your list or with something else that comes to mind. You might pick a family photograph and write about it. Or tell about the classmate on whom you had a crush in the fourth grade. Or write a letter (that you won’t send!) to the hateful boss in your first job after graduation. Write everything you can think of on the topic you’ve chosen—writing off the top of your head, without worrying about the quality of your work. Just get everything down that you can. You can organize your memoir after you have plenty of material to organize.
Pick another topic and keep going.
If you get stuck, go back to the StoryCorps or New York Timesquestions (or to another collection of writing prompts). If you want, you can even draft your entire memoir using a question-and-answer technique: Write down a question, and then answer it. When you’re ready to edit and mold your book, you may decide to keep the question-and-answer format, or more likely, you’ll remove the questions, organize the answers, and add the transitions and explanations needed to make your memoir flow.
If your momentum stalls, take a break by tackling a different area of the project. For instance, try thinking about the design for your book: What dimensions will it have? What photo or photos do you want on the cover? Which photos and other materials do you have available to illustrate what you’ve already written? If you’ve handwritten your book draft so far, enter what you have into the computer. Don’t worry if your computer skills are a little shaky for a project of this size. I’ll be covering some relevant skills in later articles. Just do what you can.
And when you start hearing voices telling you your story isn’t worth sharing and your writing doesn’t measure up, stop listening and keep writing, no matter what!