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.
A version of this post was published in the January 5th edition of the WriterHouse newsletter.
On New Year’s Day, 1985, I wrote down a list of goals for the new year and promised to do this until the year I die. Thirty-two years have passed. Every year, I faithfully sit on my bed and read past resolutions before creating new ones. I keep them in a pink fiberboard jewelry box my great-grandmother gave me. The earliest resolutions were oragamied into squares teens of a certain decade will recognize.
Over the years, resolutions have included travel plans, getting a boyfriend, skydiving from 10,000 feet, and being kinder to others. Some were completely unrealistic, like be 100% happy all the time, while others were easily achieved. Goals I met received stars or checks. Unmet goals were left for another year. From an early age, being a published writer made the list. For a very long time, it remained unchecked.
As I completed this year’s ritual, I realized many of my early goals were beyond my control (like the whole boyfriend thing). Much of our writing lives—like whether our submissions are read, accepted, or liked—are also out of our control. In many ways, writing down published writer was like getting a boyfriend. I could write it down, but I couldn’t make it happen.
So, what is in my control?
The work and only the work.
I can commit to writing or revising a certain number of pages, learning new skills, or making a certain number of submissions. I can register for classes and conferences and make new writing friends. Some people I know are also making rejection goals, which we all know is much easier than publication ones. (By the way, mine is 29.)
But more important than setting goals is creating a plan for accomplishing them. Over the years, I’ve discovered my plans always include the following elements:
- A breakdown of mini-tasks required to meet my big goal
- A schedule for completing these tasks
- A support team who will help me stay accountable. Often this includes classmates and members of writing groups.
- One big reward and a series of small ones to celebrate the milestones along the way
- A self-care plan
- A letter of intention that addresses how I want to feel, think, or believe once I’ve completed this goal. I write this in the present tense as if the goal has already been achieved.
- A mantra, or positive phrase I can say to myself when things get tough
- A list of encouraging phrases and quotes from authors I can use as inspiration
- A gratitude jar for all the gifts along the way.
At the end of my yearly ritual, I create my plan and carefully refold the yellowing pages written decades ago. Then I say thank you for all of them, even the ones I never accomplished.
What goals have you set for yourself?
What do you need to make them a reality?
How can I help?
In my high school biology class we sliced off transparent films of onion skin with our fingernails then slipped them under wet-mount slides in order study plant cells. My onion was red. I dyed it with a single drop of methylene blue so the nuclei would be visible. As kids around me chomped gum and slipped notes to each other, I pressed my forehead to the eyepiece, certain I was about to witness a miracle. With a few adjustments to the focus, the plant’s cells appeared. Rows of nuclei stared back at me. It was like looking into the onion’s soul.
Sometime editing feels like working under a microscope. We lean into the page, hoping our intense study will reveal the story’s genetic code. Strings of words are analyzed, sentences built then tossed out. It’s easy to believe that composing beautiful sentences is the pinnacle of editorial work, but the very first thing you need to do is determine what your story is about.
Staring at the page won’t help you figure that out.
Over the years I’ve heard lots of advice regarding how to develop psychic distance, the perspective needed to make good writing great. Put your manuscript in a drawer. Print out the pages and spread them on the floor. Cut up your paragraphs and rearrange them like puzzle pieces. Find a reader. Hire an editor. I have used all of these techniques to improve my own work.
At the 2016 creative writing conference, Kristin Kovacic, co-editor of the anthology Birth: A Literary Companion, offered three questions writers can use to develop distance from their work. Here is her incredibly helpful list.
1. How many things is this piece about? At this stage you want to think about multiplicity. If you’re writing a piece about a young woman who owns a dog in a small town, your piece may be about dogs, women, and small town life. If you expand from character and place to feelings you may find that the piece is about security, shame, or vulnerability. Maybe it’s about innocence. If you drill into the category dog, you may find that it’s about mutts, or fleas, or purebreds. It could be about a fur. Think broadly and cast a wide net.
2. Are there connections between things on your list? Look for points of intersection. Perhaps you notice that the dog helps the young woman hide her vulnerability. Maybe the dog represents the love she’s always wanted. Maybe the dog is a mutt in a neighborhood full of purebreds Like the family, he never feels accepted. See how many connections you can create. Make it a game. Novel connections boost your creativity.
3. Who does the narrator represent? We all have identities we represent in some way—woman, journalist, mother, etc. Make these lists all the time. See which group needs to be represented by this piece of writing.
Once you’ve answered these questions, see which connections seem most relevant. Figure out who the narrator represents and build your structure based on the realizations you’ve established. Examine what you’ve introduced in the beginning of the piece and see if you’ve wrapped it up in the end. As Kristin said during the conference, “a good piece resolves its central tension. It doesn’t simply end.”
Once you know what your piece is about, you figure out what structure best serves it. Then you can begin the microscopic work of line editing and fact checking. Stare at the page as often as you like. You will have seen the story’s soul.