Our recollections of what happened when, and how, may seem dim as dusky shadows that sink below the vague outlines of our memories. That’s partly because we view those memories as mountains, as opposed to, say, a cat in a bag.
So, one night your sophomore year in college, your roommate found a kitten by the dumpster behind the dorm. Cute, completely black, he seemed like a little sinister, fun magic to keep in your room, totally against the rules. Then there was a dorm party and a couple of 6-packs in a large brown paper sack which the wiry-haired little monster got into while you were recovering from your hangovers in class. He fought so hard he managed to roll himself up into a giant brown spitball yowling and screaming until the RA let herself in because someone was being murdered. The RA found the cat, freed him, and the frightened little devil planted its teeth in the soft web between thumb and forefinger as she tried to capture “kitty-kitty” who shit, spit, and ran tracks around the walls of your room.
The devil’s in the details, and so is the art of the story, whether it’s fiction or fact. If you are working on a memoir, you spend a lot of time walking around your own mountains of memory with a gunny sack trying to snag a snipe. Which recollection to leave in and which to leave out? Which event tells the greatest story in its smallest detail?
I am telling you this because I am spending my time snipe hunting at the moment. Of the “one or two things I know for sure,” one of them is you cannot learn to be a writer. You can only read and practice. Read a LOT and practice everyday. There’s your formula. Like it or leave it. It’s the writing life. And you thought it would be easy.
Right now I’m doing a lot of both. It’s a lot like wandering, but as the maxim goes: All who wander are not lost. I have not yet reached the heights from which I can envision my text. I’m not sure what to leave in and what to leave out. For a small town kid who spent a long time lost as a cat in a paper bag–in a wad, so to speak–it still seems I’ve led a pretty darn interesting life. Furthermore, it’s a story I think worth telling for the hope it may bring kids, young adults and (gr)own-ups who find they are a lot like me.
I have an idea and detailed memories and a therapist at this point. It’s a start. All are vital, but I still get balled up and yowl and bawl with frustration. As I read essays on writing memoir, particularly Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, and a great little book of individual essays by 6 writers on memory and writing called Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser, I glimpse the snipe in the bushes once in awhile. (Karr’s book is new and Zinsser’s copyright is 1987. Thank you Jane Voorhees, sister artist and bookseller, for gifting me with these monumental books.)
All of Karr’s book is vital to the process. If you haven’t read Liar’s Club, do so and you’ll know why I say this. You will also know why she recommends a therapist on call, as her story requires a lot of teeth-clenching, nail-biting, heartbreaking honesty. You may say you want to write a memoir, but take my advice and write up a couple of your worst memories ever, the ones you tell nobody and have kept carefully closeted. Do it in detail, with gusto. Make yourself moan. Not that you will ever use these, but this may help you be prepared to bleed. If you aren’t willing to get gritty, forget about it.
Inventing the Truth has a lot to recommend it. Two of it’s essayists are Annie Dillard and Toni Morrison. “But Toni is a novelist!” purists will cry. Read the essay. There are reasons she’s in this book. Included is the following quote:
“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that; remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory–what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.’ ”
Water as metaphor for memory and dreams and the subconscious is certainly one of those Jungian things; a universal, metaphysical something-or-other. Just hours before I read that passage from Toni, I wrote in my journal: I feel my life like trying to hold water in my hand. It slips through my fingers and evaporates into thin air, as we all must one day. Small comfort. I want to believe in Wayne the ghost of the Jewel Box, and seeing the breath of the Walnut tree in winter, and watching the Busick valley spirit rise in the dawn with the light, then settle down to bed between the hills come night. It’s all water.