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 Storiesdefines 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 Storiesby 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.
The air stings my cheeks as I walk the same four blocks I’ve trudged all winter, taking yet another break from my writing. “Yo, HP (this is what I call my higher power), am I crazy for doing this?” I say this into the wind and follow with my typical barrage of questions. Am I crazy for believing I have a book inside me? Am I crazy for writing all these words then cutting them only to write some more? How will I know when it’s good enough? When will I get comfortable?
After my questions, I always ask for the same thing: send me a sign.
In my mind, a sign is a book deal or someone important praising my work. But HP is stingy with messages that stroke my ego. Instead, a bluebird crosses my path signaling it will all be ok. Later, a conversation with a fellow writer settles my doubt, at least for a little while. But comfortable? I get about an hour of that per year. Always in short doses.
Discomfort is the inevitable sidekick of the writing life. Frequently appearing as doubts, discomfort motivates us to see the world from different angles. It makes us question our assumptions, review our work, and develop email refresh habits. It can make us feel anxious about possible rejections and relieved when we get them. Out of control doubt is crazy-making. But right-sized doubt can motivate us to develop humility, work a little harder, and remain lifelong learners. In fact, that tense, shaken-and-stirred place is where the creative magic happens if we can maintain a sense of balance.
There are three forms of doubt all writers face—doubts about claiming to be a writer, doubts about the writing path, and doubts about the quality of one’s work. If you let these doubts rule your life, they’ll kick your passion to the curb and leave your desk littered with paper balls. Resignation letters may follow as you accept the very lies they tell you about your inability to write anything at all. After all, doubt will have you believe every evening real writers place piles of beautifully crafted error-free pages on their oak credenzas (whatever they are) while awaiting the next award. But you? You’re a pile shuffler with more ideas than answers, and time is not always your friend.
For a long time, I wanted to knuckle punch my doubts on the way out the door. But a few years ago, a wise yoga instructor told me what we resist persists. She said I needed to discover and embrace the benefits of my doubts. So, I decided to listen. Embracing my doubts hasn’t taken away my discomfort, but it allows me to accept that doubt has a place in my writing life. Being a writer means choosing to be uncomfortable. If you think about it, how can we write about the thing that keeps us up at night if we don’t have something serving that function? Doubt makes sure you do. The key is praising doubt for its gifts without letting it run the show.
Strategies for Managing Doubt
Balance doubts with affirmations. Find a few you like or print your favorite ones from the list below. Tape them to your desk. Better yet, frame a few and hang them on your wall. You can also follow Brene Brown’s suggestion and create a playlist of anthems you can take into your writing arena. Anthems are songs that help you tap into your courage and strengths. My current favorites include “Ordinary Heroes” by the Foo Fighters, “Do You Realize” by the Flaming Lips, and “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. Occasionally, I’ll add a few Sex Pistols tunes to my mix because dark and dirty also pumps me up.
Set an intention for every writing project. Make it something personal, meaningful, and unrelated to publishing. The best intentions involve thinking, feeling, or believing something different about yourself. For example, when I wrote In the Land of Flood and Slaughter I wanted to heal from Lyme disease and forgive my mother. When I received rejections or feedback that required me to do something difficult, these intentions gave me the courage to keep going.
Build a writing community that includes mentors who can give you guidance, colleagues who can commiserate and encourage, and mentees who can benefit from your experience. This will teach you how to give and receive the encouragement and wisdom needed to tell your most important stories. While you’re at it, select one or two special writing friends to serve as writing buddies who can keep you accountable and provide feedback on your work.
Set simple, small goals. Writing 2 – 4 times per week for five minutes may make you more productive than telling yourself you’ll write every day for an hour. Small goals are easier to accomplish. Plus, studies have shown that short bursts of work can propel you into a state of flow, that lovely state of hyperfocus where time and space slip away. When you meet a writing goal reward yourself. This can be as simple as saying, “Good job writer,” basking in the feeling of having written, or sending an email to your writing buddy saying mission accomplished.
Learn to trust your gut. In his video “The Taste Gap,” This American Life host Ira Glass talks about the gap we all have between our excellent taste (as in the beautiful, fully formed stories in our heads) and our talent. Sometimes the doubts tugging at your gut are simply signals that you’re approaching the gap. If you can learn to trust that feeling, you’ll be able to target areas for improvement. To use doubt wisely, print two copies of your work. On one copy, highlight the areas where you’re feeling the greatest sense of doubt. Give the other copy to a writing friend and ask for feedback. Don’t tell them about the first copy. Afer the critique compare the two copies. Does the feedback match your doubts? If it does, then you know your gut is serving you well. If it doesn’t, maybe you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Pay attention to your affirmations and keep writing.
Talk back to your doubts. Get out your journal and do a little automatic writing. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Write down the following question: Doubt, what do you want me to know? Write whatever comes to mind. If you can, use your nondominant hand. Don’t stop until the timer goes off. If you run out of thoughts, write the word thinking until the next idea comes to you. You’ll be surprised to find out what’s really going on.
Develop a gratitude practice. Some people start and end the day by writing down three things they’re grateful for. At the end of each writing session, writer Andre Dubus used to write the words thank you. The more you pay attention to what’s working, the more you’ll be able to counter what’s not.
If none of these suggestions work, go for a walk and ask your higher power, your creative self, or a trusted friend the questions your doubts are bringing to the surface. When you’re done, ask for a sign, or better yet a happy surprise, then keep writing and be on the lookout for something good
*This post also appeared in the April 17, 2018 edition of the WriterHouse Newsletter
This essay was originally published in the January 31st edition of the WriterHouse Newsletter.
In 1993, the movie Groundhog Day was released in cinemas. If you’ve forgotten the movie’s premise, here’s a recap. Phil Connors, an arrogant Pittsburg weatherman played by Bill Murray, is assigned to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania—home of the famous Punxsutawney Phil. The next day he finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same miserable day over and over. And, because it’s a comedy, hilarity ensues.
I enjoyed Murray’s irreverence and the director’s use of the radio to cue the time loop. But what I remember most about the movie is that while each day was a repeat of the one before, we as viewers perceived them differently based on the details.
In Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir Sue Silverman writes, “you’ve all heard the cliché ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ but it’s also true—maybe more true—that one word is worth a thousand pictures if it’s the right word.” She says we need to tell it slant—as in not just rendering what happened, but flavoring what happened by choosing precise sensory details that create the right emotional tone.
Silverman’s book is full of helpful exercises, such as writing about a first (as in the first day of school, a date, a love, or house) and slanting the details to reveal how you feel, or writing a physical description of yourself that reveals the inner you.
My favorite exercise on telling it slant comes from Dinty Moore’s book The Story Cure. He suggests writers choose a house they once lived in and describe it from the perspective of a character who’s just returned from war. Once you’re done, describe the same house from the perspective of a character who’s just fallen in love. Read both pieces and pay attention to how the light, color, and sounds differ? Which items are emphasized? Which ones are ignored?
You can modify this exercise by writing or revising scenes while listening to music. Many writers find lyric-free movie soundtracks work best. If you’re not sure where to find them, try iTunes or Spotify. Just for fun, take a scene you’ve written, (perhaps about one of Silverman’s firsts) and re-write it while listening to the soundtracks for Manchester by the Sea, Star Wars, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When you finish, examine the details in your drafts. How did the music influence your writing? Which soundtrack seemed like the right fit?
If you’re not sure what soundtracks might work best, consider the following suggestions:
When it comes to telling it slant, experimentation is key. Rarely do writers find a detail worth a thousand pictures on their first try. Often, our work looks like the movie Groundhog Day—drafts of the same day written again and again. Rather than thinking of these drafts as failures, see them as opportunities—each version a tuning fork you’ll ring to your scene’s perfect tone.
Today is the twenty-one-year anniversary of my brother’s suicide. Twenty-one years. On his twenty-first birthday, I planned to take him skydiving. I was researching drop zones, having already made ten jumps myself. I couldn’t wait to give him the thumbs up as he scooted to the open doorway and prepared to leave a perfectly good airplane for the first time. To free fall and experience the vast silence of the sky.
On his twenty-first birthday, I stood with family members around the patch of tender new grass marking his grave plot and sang happy birthday to the wind, hoping he would stop freefalling long enough to relieve the silent wringing of my heart. We placed a cake made of flowers by his plaque (his gravestone was still on order) and released balloons that floated skyward—to the air I wanted us to touch together.
During the hardest times, before and after my parents’ divorce, my twin brothers and I were inseparable. That life was short, was a certitude we never forgot. Deep in our marrow, we knew at least one of us wouldn’t survive to adulthood, that this short childhood was our only gift. We made each day an adventure—the good ones epic victories, the bad ones battles to surmount. We didn’t always behave wisely (there were way too many fires) or do the right thing, but we captured what we could, even during the darkest of times.
I’d forgotten that lesson just before Joe’s death. Busy adulting and trying to get ahead, I worked sixty-hour weeks and let important events slide. During the January before he died, Joe and I chatted on AOL during the nascent days of the public internet. We almost always said I love you at the end of our sessions.
I say almost because the last time we were kicked off early and never reconnected. Had I known this was the last time, I would’ve tried harder. I would’ve made sure he knew how I felt. I would’ve stayed up all night trying to get online or braved a long-distance call I couldn’t afford.
Rarely do we know it’s the last time.
Most days we expect to wake up along with the rest of the world. Our time feels endless. Since Joe’s death, I’ve operated as if any day could be my last, paying attention, sucking the good out of life and seeing the challenges as cinematic battles I’ll one day conquer. I say I love you, even if it means no one else will.
Courses in grief are a human requirement we can neither drop nor escape. A year doesn’t go by when I don’t cry at least a couple of minutes on this anniversary or his birthday. Nor does a year go by when I don’t hear his cackle in my laugh or see the outline of his face in mine and light up with joy.
After Joe’s death, I made three more jumps out of perfectly good airplanes. Each time, I carried the heaviness of his ghost in my jumpsuit and said, “This one’s for us.” I imagined us sharing the harness, him probably complaining that the straps were ball crushers, but also hitching his breath as he experienced an unencumbered view of the earth from sky—reveling in how at sunset mist rises to the sky, how heights are relative above 1,000 feet, and how we’re all just specks from up high.
For everyone who reads this, may your courses in grief teach you about abundance and love. I love you for all that you are and all that you will be. May you find comfort in knowing your sorrows are equivalent to your love. Each wave of grief is an opportunity to experience the preciousness of life and to love again. And may you enjoy this song. Listen to it, sing it, and pass it on. Namaste.