Over the past few months, I’ve struggled to figure out where to begin my new memoir. There are so many entry points for our stories. In fact, I wrote those words—there are so many entry points for this story—as the introductory sentence in a terrible draft I cranked out for a writing conference. (Insert palm to face!). There are many different ways to begin our stories. Each entry point lends itself to a different version of the truth.
But which truth are we telling? In first drafts, we often don’t know, and so we go with what’s safe—the voluntary memories and rehearsed stories that are easy to recall. We list and outline and timeline these pivotal moments hoping they will turn the chaos of life into some kind of order. But as we write about these memories, we may find many of them are simply the backstory we need to tell ourselves before getting to the good stuff.
In his book The Art of Time in Memoir, Sven Birkerts says that involuntary memory is the gateway to the real past. It’s the place where the juice of memoir gets squeezed to create the hidden narrative of our life stories—the ones readers really care about. If voluntary memories are the ones we go searching for, involuntary memories are the ones that come searching for us.
In the most famous scene from Proust’s autobiographical novel Remembrance of Things Past, Proust eats a small sponge cake called a madeleine and is transported back to a childhood moment in his aunt’s house. Each sensory detail vividly rendered, Proust relives the moment rather than recalls it.
As I wrote and rewrote several beginnings for my memoir, an involuntary memory came to me while I walked my neighborhood. Hot and muggy, the hazy sky reminded me of powdered sugar over a cake—the blue only slightly visible. Sweat drizzled down my back. My clothes stuck to my skin. Suddenly I was twenty, dressed in a borrowed skydiving jumpsuit that reeked of old sweat, grass stains, and fear. I could almost feel the fifty-pound pack on my back. I trotted home and quickly knocked out a draft, knowing from experience that my unconscious was on to something good.
That’s the thing about involuntary memory: it’s the unconscious mind’s way of working things out. UVA professor Mark Edmundson calls involuntary memory the most important tool in your writing toolbox—an aspect of the self that deserves frequent rewards if you wish to put it to good use. But how do you activate involuntary memories for yourself?
- Flip through old photo albums and choose a picture that catches your eye. Study the photograph, look away, then study it again and search for something you haven’t yet noticed. Write about this new element.
- Eat foods from the period you’re writing about and cook recipes that fill your house with familiar smells.
- Pay attention to your surroundings—especially tastes and smells which can evoke the strongest memories. It may be the smell in an apartment you visit as an adult or the taste of a dinner party dessert that transports you to a childhood moment. Schools, churches, hospitals, and other institutions frequently trigger involuntary memories because the smells and visuals are so distinctive.
- Seek novelty in your daily life. This could include activities as simple as starting a walk with a non-dominant foot, eating with your non-dominant hand, or going to a toy store. Novelty forces you to pay attention, and paying attention can lead to big rewards.
- Select a period in your life. Set a timer for fifteen minutes and list all the things you remember. Conscious activation of memory can prime the pump for the unconscious mind to chip in.
- Ask your unconscious for help. Write a formal request and tape it to your door. Read the request before leaving your house, and ask your unconscious what it wants as a reward. Whenever you get an answer—no matter how small—offer yourself the reward.
Once you’ve captured a juicy memory, it’s all about what the hell it means. Jot down the scene to the best of your ability then wrestle with what it’s telling you. Make a list of what it could be about. Go for walks. Create some Venn diagrams. Ask your unconscious mind for help.
The book I’m currently writing is about how traveling with a heavy metal band after my brother’s suicide gave me the courage to carry on. Skydiving was something I did in the years leading up to my brother’s death. While it was cool (you should definitely try it), the memory felt very tangential.
Yet the memory persisted. So I went for more midday walks and sweated, and asked my unconscious for help. One day, I was not only back at the drop zone, sweltering in that nasty old jumpsuit, but I was also face down, suspended from the ceiling by a series of straps during a free-fall training class jokingly referred to as How Not to Die. A big fan of gallows humor, I loved that class—name and all. How Not to Die was the lesson I wished I had taught my brother and the one I had to teach myself. Finally, I had an opening that framed the story I wanted to tell.
My friend, writer Dana Mich, recently attended Brave Magic with Cheryl Strayed and Liz Gilbert. Their advice was to write fast and bad. I would also add, write open. Had I not written that terrible draft for the writing conference and continued to write new ones while asking my unconscious for help, I never would’ve made the connection between skydiving and a central theme in my book. I’d still be trying to tame the chaos of that time period by working with memories as tired and worn as last year’s running shoes. Instead, I get to explore the skies.
This post originally appeared in the June 15, 2018 edition of the WriterHouse Newsletter.
While summer is fabulous for beach reading and destination vacations, it’s also a great time to attend writing conferences. Whether you’re interested in getting started with a regional option, or you want to apply for one of the more prestigious conferences, the preparation required is similar.
Plan Ahead: Some conferences, like VQR, The Writers Hotel, Bread Loaf, and Sewanee require applications. If you’re interested in the conferences listed above, 2019 applications will open in January; however, the Key West Literary Seminar is currently accepting applications. Even if you’re not interested in a conference that requires an application, planning ahead is important. Most conferences offer early-bird registration discounts and discounts on preferred hotels. And, if you ask around, you may find someone in the area looking for a roommate who can split hotel costs.
Pack Smart: Beyond business casual clothes and comfy travel shoes, you’ll want to pack business cards that include your name, email address, website, and social media handles so you can exchange them with your new conference BFFs. Days can be long and travel meals costly. Pack light snacks for your conference bag. Find out if any meals are included with your conference fee. If there’s a refrigerator or microwave in your room, consider bringing breakfast items like yogurt or oatmeal so you can save a few bucks. Also, be sure to download any conference apps and join the conference Facebook pages so you stay up-to-date on conference happenings.
Establish Networking Goals: One of the big payoffs for conference attendance is the ability to meet writers from other parts of the country who can share resources, serve as beta readers, and cheer you on. But let’s face it, many writers are introverts and networking can be exhausting. (Personally, my people shelf is narrow and quickly fills). Before you leave, set a conference goal to ensure you get the most out of this networking opportunity. At every conference, I try to exchange business cards with at least five attendees and talk to at least one presenter. If you have a book-length project, pitching to agents can be another great way to network. Find out if pitching is an option at any conferences you’re interested in attending and whether these opportunities require additional costs.
Pace Yourself: Attending a conference is like running a mini-marathon. Don’t be afraid to take breaks. If possible, stay in the conference hotel so you have easy access to your room between sessions. Study the conference schedule and decide what’s most important for this trip. For example, at one conference, it may be important to get a good night’s sleep so you can sharply answer early-morning agent questions. At another conference, stretching yourself by reading at the evening open mic may be the right option. Most conferences are annual, so you can always return if you feel like there’s something you missed.
Evaluate Your Experience: Your conference dollars are valuable. Be sure you’re getting the most out of the experience. One week after you return from the conference, fill out any evaluation forms provided by the organizers then ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I inspired?
- Do I feel connected?
- Did I learn something new?
If you can’t answer yes to all three questions, consider whether a genre-specific conference or a more challenging option is a better fit.
For a complete list of conferences, check out the AWP website.
On forty-fourth birthday, I hiked into a volcano. This happened during an early-April bucket list trip with my husband to the Big Island of Hawaii. A recovering adrenaline junkie with a deep love of adventures, I’d dreamed of standing next to a lava river or perhaps watching a lava fountain rise in the air for years (from a safe distance, of course). Since it was my birthday, I felt certain this would happen.The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park includes a series of craters–some erupted in the past while others, like the Halema‘uma‘u Crater, are still active. Our first stop was the Jaggers Museum observation deck. The lava lake in the Halema‘uma‘u Crater was high, and despite the miles between me and the crater, I could see faint lava bubbles pop in the air. Volcanic heat pressed against my skin. (Birthday luck, check one).
When we left the observation deck, we drove a few miles along Crater Rim Drive then hiked through a lush rainforest and into the Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake. Cars lined the trailhead parking lot giving the air of calculated risk. We laughed at the signs warning of instability and steam vents.
Sign on the rainforest trail into Kīlauea Iki Crater
Inside the crater’s Martian landscape things got real. The largely barren, brownie-batter-like floor was surrounded by high cliff walls. Steam plumed from broken rocks resembling frozen waves. Signs warned us not to veer from the rock-pile-marked trail. Lava could bubble up, after all. If something happened, escape would be difficult.
A mile in, rain battered me. Instead of turning back, I knelt on the lava floor and felt the pulsing volcanic heat—another reminder that while the surface may hold me, a magma river flowed beneath my feet. I was in adventure heaven.
When we returned to the Halema‘uma‘u Crater at sunset to view the lava lake’s nightly show, the vibrant lava and ash against the twilight and the thrill of being so close to such a magnificent force made me forget my sore feet and soaked clothes. While my spurting lava wishes weren’t granted, the experience met all my birthday criteria. Thank you, Mt. Kilauea.
Inside Kīlauea Iki Crater Halema‘uma‘u at night
We left Hawaii on April 14, 2018. Over the next two weeks, Mt. Kilauea rumbled. Lava continued to rise. On May 3, 2018, the Pu’u O’o crater collapsed. Pressure built underneath the surface. Spontaneous eruptions broke apart subdivision roads, sending lava fountains hundreds of feet high. That spectacular show I’d witnessed only a few weeks earlier was not the gentle entertainment of a cat-napping giant. It was the precursor to a major eruption.
Like all things, this reminded me of the writing process. As writers, we come to the page ready to entertain and enlighten. But once there, we need to figure out how to approach our stories. Should we stand on the observation deck or hike into the crater?
Many writers start their drafts on the observation deck—viewing the story from afar. They tell what happened. I went on an exciting trip to Hawaii. We hiked in into a crater then viewed the lava lake at night. It was awesome. There’s nothing wrong with starting here if that motivates you to write, but the excitement happens while you stand inside the volcano, not while you’re looking at one. Readers want to feel your fear, anger, and excitement. They want to smell the steam and feel the rock. To do this, your work must come alive. In writing, the walk into the crater is often called writing in scene. Richard Roorbach, author of Writing Life Stories defines scenes as “events that take place in a specific time and place. Scenes record events, actions, talk, stuff happening.” It’s the cinematic version of the lived experience. Or, to put it simply, it’s showing rather than telling.
Whether you’re writing a memoir or a short story, showing is essential. But how do you know if you’re doing this? Set a timer for twenty minutes, write without stopping, and see what happens. After you’re done, ask whether the work reads like you’re reliving the experience or like you’re telling it from your armchair. If you’re reliving events, you’re hiking the crater. Keep this up.
If the work feels observational, see if you can choose a specific memory to fully render. Fill it with sights, smells, and sounds. Add some dialogue. If this feels like a challenge, get curious about why you’re standing on the observation deck. Are you having trouble remembering exactly what happened? Is the topic so emotionally charged it feels painful? Are you unsure where to begin?
If memory is the problem, look through a photo album and find a picture that evokes strong feelings (for fiction choose a magazine photo). Show what happened directly before the photo was snapped. Where are the characters? Who is there? Why are they taking this picture? Repeat this exercise until you get a sense of who your narrator is and what she’s after. Once you’ve exhausted your pictures, create a physical map of your story’s setting, as Richard Roorbach suggests in his book. You can also listen to music from the era you’re writing about to evoke new memories, but don’t forget the power of smell and taste. Follow Marcel Proust’s lead and eat something from the period you want to capture. As you taste that familiar dish, recreate the scene where you ate it. Who was there? What was going on? How did it feel in your mouth? The more you write, the more you’ll remember.
If, as you’re writing, the work brings up painful feelings or the events you want to write about include trauma, break the experience into smaller parts. Be sure to list the pleasant scenes as well as the dark ones. Include dark humor and events where the narrator received help from others. Choose the least painful scene as your starting point. Write for twenty minutes and see how you feel. In a couple of days, repeat the exercise. If it’s still difficult, write from the observation deck until you develop comfort with the subject. If that doesn’t work, write about something else.
If you’re not sure where to start, follow Kurt Vonnegut’s advice and make your character thirsty. Let his first search be for a glass of water.
In an interview for Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks (a must-read for any memoirist), Andrew Dubus says, “just because we know what happened doesn’t mean we know what the hell happened.” I would argue that until we create vivid scenes for our stories, what happened isn’t even clear. That’s why hiking the crater is so important.
Mastering the scene in your early drafts will illuminate what happened. Along the way, you’ll begin to realize what the hell happened. Sprinkle it in, but remain open to new interpretations. More insightful reflections may arise as you read your complete draft or learn more about the situation. You never know. Life may happen, just as it did at the Hawaii Volcano National Park, giving you a new perspective. Your trips into the crater may begin as a spectacular birthday adventure only to turn into a cautionary tale on luck.