Last night I went to a reading of short memoir pieces with the theme of A Different Kind of Love Story. My friend Leah Ruekberg has organized a series called StoriesRoc, inviting people to write and deliver true stories on various themes. (Check it out on line if you want to participate.)
On the way in, I ran into a student of mine from years ago, a woman whose writing I still remember. And I remember that she had been told by a previous teacher that she couldn’t write and should quit. Well, she hasn’t quit. Here’s what she said about writing: writing provides a map by which she can know herself; it makes a space for parts of her that are otherwise judged or criticized; it allows new developments to emerge. What a concise articulation of how much writing can contribute to a soul’s evolution!
The topic of the night was how LGBT issues impacted the readers, whether they were gay or straight. I have never come across, collected in one place, such a variety of experiences and insights. What if you’re Catholic and gay and, over twenty years ago, headed for the high school prom with someone of the opposite sex? What if you’re straight and marry a gay person without knowing that until after his death? What if your George-Wallace loving father, with distain, calls you a “fop” when you’re ten years old and you don’t know what the word means or even that you’re a lesbian (or that they exists)? What if you love God and discover that you’re working for an agency that does conversion therapy long after it has been discredited?
Two of the readers had begun their creations in a classes I taught, so I was able to see the process of how a story develops and becomes something the writer may not have expected when they began. This is the beauty of writing. Not only does it connect the dots of disparate experiences you didn’t know were connected, it grows who you are. I can sense this almost as a physical sensation when I pay attention. I can express sensation in imagery: inside me, there’s a cloud of whirling particles; the process of writing brings them together in a structure that keeps growing. Chaos turns into Me. As a result, there is ground under my feet (twice I misspelled that as “feat”…Freudian slip?) which helps me feel relaxed and confident. Also excited, because something new is always growing.
The writer who’s piece I still remember from years ago had written a portrait of her husband through his hands. In my mind, I see his hands holding hers when they court and marry, gently caring for their babies, making things for the house, then cleaning and loading his rifle, wiping the mud of Viet Nam off it, then back home holding the TV remote and not doing much else. The first reader gave a performance of her growing up with the background of the musical HAIR, a series of assassinations, civil rights marches and personal encounters. Her piece began and ended in a beauty parlor getting her first buzz cut.
Writers like these offer us a framework we can use to write our own memoir stories. Here’s a suggestion: pick a body part or a piece of clothing and write your life story through that. What can the reader (and you) learn about your life and times through changes in hairstyles, glasses, shoes, or through how you use your body? Having one focus gives you the structure to tackle a lot of time or difficult, painful material.
I’ve noticed that we rarely write about our bodily experiences unless it’s about having an illness or disability. What about the life of your legs or teeth or reproductive organs? What can your spine teach you if you notice how it has been held throughout the years? And what about your face? What is it really like? How has it lived? What’s true after you look beneath the surface of being critical of it?
Another way to actually allow yourself to write instead of getting scared away by the blank page is to give yourself a limit–10-20 minutes, two pages, longer if you want. Pick a body part, pick a time frame, write. Do it and let me know what happens. We are putting more truth into the world.