Think of a performance on stage. It has a setting, it has action, it has dialogue, it has a time and place, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. And it gets plenty of attention.
Say you're writing about your honeymoon trip to a resort. The two of you are having dinner in the dining room.
A gentleman in a tuxedo is playing Let's Do It on the piano. You describe the blue, fringed draperies on the windows. The Dover sole, wild rice and mushrooms on your plate. The mauve chiffon dress you are wearing from your trousseau. The aromas of your husband's steak, your perfume, the red wine in your glass.
You notice a strange-looking man at the next table. He has a pock-marked face, icy blue eyes and white hair. He needs a shave. He is dining with a beautiful young woman in red lace. He is shouting and slamming his fist on the table as the beautiful young woman weeps.
Your new husband becomes so distressed that he cannot eat and insists on checking out of the hotel immediately and going home. Your marriage lasts only three more months. (Your children never knew you had been married before.) This is a scene.
What you write about doesn't have to be that dramatic to be interesting, but you do want to lay the words of the page with as much detail as you can so that your readers can relive the scene that you are capturing.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
You remember more than you think you do. It’s all there in the recesses of your mind, and will return through the very process of writing. Writing is the trigger you use to release your memory. Don’t worry about precise names, places, facts and dates. It is the memory of your feeling and the incidents you have chosen to write about that can be truer, more significant and more interesting than chronological facts. (They can always be checked or reconstructed later.)
Keep a notebook in your car, in your handbag, in your pocket and on your nightstand to record random memories and thoughts. It is important, because these flashes of memory or ideas can otherwise drift through your mind and vanish like a dream. Catch them and write then down.
Then set aside time during the day or evening to write. Write and write with no judgement about the results. Write and write freely and recklessly. Write and write even if you hate what you’ve come up with. Most professionals keep only about ten percent of what they produce, but they understand that writing the discarded ni
nety percent is how they will get to the buried memory, the treassure, the sentence or paragraph or passage that says what is in their heart and mind. It’s a wonderful feeling when it happens—like hitting a hole in one, playing a grand slam, winning a lottery. It’s what keeps writers writing.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
As long as you’re not hurting anyone who is still alive, reveal family secrets. It is what your children and grandchildren want to know, it will bring your story to life and it can be an important cathartic experience for you.
Martha Norman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, writes, “Every family has something they don’t want to talk about. In my family it was epilepsy and suicide. In other families it’s violence, or depression, or stupidity, or sex, or money, or even genius.The human condition can probably be defined as the stuff families won’t talk about.”
In my very own family, it was murder. Or murders. My bootlegging father and my uncle (who was innocent and just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time} were murdered by the Mafia in a turf war during Prohibition.
I was an infant at the time, and when I became old enough to ask Mother about my father’s death, she told me he died of pneumonia. To the end of her life, she was unable to tell me the truth, and it remained a tightly held secret within the entire family.
After my mother died, I researched my father’s life and death and wrote about the secret in my memoir, Lost And Found. When the book was published, to my surprise, it was received with compassion and fascination by my family and my readers (who often took me aside at book signings to tell me their family secrets. And I experienced first-hand the liberating, life-changing, power of the truth.
Monday, April 11, 2011
Every life has drama: joy, loss, surprise, knowledge, conflict, wisdom—the stuff of memoir. Writing yours can be a treasured gift to your children, grandchildren and others because it tells them something eloquent about who you are and who they are. It can also be a gift to yourself by providing the motivation to look back on your life with wisdom and experience, discovering yourself anew.
Start simple. Write abut a trip, your first date or a teacher who changed your life. Other topics: your wedding or your divorce, the birth of a child, an illness, your grandmother, a friendship, a falling out. What you choose can be sad or funny, short or long. The only rule is that you choose a theme from your life and your heart.
Check out from the library or buy The Art of the Personal Essay by Philip Lopate. It contains nearly 800 pages of short, wonderful memoirs, any one of which might spark an idea of your own.
There is Joan Didion’s Goodbye To All That in which she writes, “Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve. For that is how those years appear to me now.”
Here, too, is Adrianne Rich in Split At The Root, describing her Jewish father and gentile mother, her ambivalence as a Jew and “the daily, mundane anti-Semitisms of my entire life. Split at the root, neither gentile nor Jew, Yankee nor Rebel, still trying to have it both ways.”
You’ve heard of many of the writers, others are strangers. But they all impart important wisdom, often delivered wryly. In Hubert Butler’s Aunt Harriet, for example,
He writes, “My mother said Aunt Harriet became a Christian Scientist because a certain Mr. Davis had failed to meet her under the clock on the platform at Kingbridge Station in Dublin.
The essays touch on events and themes that may resonate in your own life. Think of them and everything you read as a potential starting-point for your own work.
MORE TO COME
Friday, April 1, 2011
In the pictures I have of my mother she looks like the Duchess of Windsor. My husband, who didn’t like her, would say, Oh oh, here comes the Duchess, when he heard her car in the driveway. Raised in an orphanage, how did she come by that royal presence? How could she have been so fragile, and yet accomplish so much in her young widowhood, raising my brother and me? How can she exist so powerfully after she is dead? She seems to have left tracks in my brain like indelible markers that are more than memory, leaking into my present.
She died while I was downstairs in the hospital coffee shop drinking a milkshake and leafing through Newsweek. I found her on the floor of the room after her last desperate moment of pride trying to get to the bathroom alone. She was crumpled on the floor at the foot of the bed, a terrifying stranger in a hospital gown. I screamed for the nurse who came running. It took the two of us to get her back in the bed where she lay, dignified once again, even in this unbelievable death.
In life she didn’t look like anyone’s mother. She was too young-looking, too chic. Back then mothers stayed home but she went to work every day in high heels and bracelets; people thought she was my sister. She fascinated my friends with how unmotherish she was, how charming, vivacious, flirtatious; how much like a girlfriend. But I wanted her to be like their apron-clad moms who didn’t scare and excite and hypnotize and then slip away like ether. I longed for safer plumper arms, the smell of dinner cooking in a warm kitchen. My mother brought home cardboard cartons of Chinese food for our dinner, smelling of her office and stale perfume.
In those days the sex life of single women was hidden, but I could always tell when she had a date with a new boyfriend because she’s get in such a high mood. Once she sent me to live with a relative while she went off to a hotel. To my vast relief, that one lasted only a couple of months and she came back for me. Other times I remember hearing a man’s voice from my bed at night, laughter, the clinking of ice in glasses. The next day my mother would look younger, prettier; even then I recognized the signs. The whisky glasses. The scent of a male mixed with the sort of flowery mannerliness my mother had in those days. Once there was a whole bouquet in a vase; he was a sport, my mother said. She was always alone when I got up for school the next morning and I wondered if maybe her boyfriend was married. But I pretended she didn’t let him stay overnight because of me--for her dignity and mine.
Self-educated in literature, music and art, fluent in the German and Hebrew that she learned growing up in the Jewish Orphan Home, she had nothing but scorn for the institutions the rest of the world lives by—school, organized religion, government, marriage, politics. But anyone who dared label her iconoclast, existentialist or feminist or any other “ist” would have been meet with a withering look. Her independence and courage thrilled me because I always knew how alone and frightened she was. She was my heroine. No book or movie ever had such a star.
But she was too alone and overwhelmed for mothering, too damaged from her orphanhood. Exhausted most of the time, often asthmatic, she shipped me around to the relatives she didn’t like. I never rebelled, not even in adolescence. My girlfriends’ complaints about their mothers amused me because when it came to mothers I was the one with plenty to criticize, and I never did. The way I saw it the only thing that stood between me and total terrifying orphanhood was my flawed and fragile mother. Who somehow always managed to be there. Sort of. More or less. Anyway, I wasn’t about to pick on my mother. I felt this kind of weird loyalty. I had to take care of her. But of course I couldn’t. I was too young for her neediness and fragility.
So I broke away from her grasp on my life and heart into a teenage marriage. Her unhappiness at my abandonment ooze from her pores, her moist eyes, her eager misery, blackmailing me into visits I didn’t want to make, sneaking money to her from my grocery allowance. I was a dutiful daughter, attentive to her complaints and demands for attention, feeling as guilty as if her frailties were my own.
She could electrify a room with her brilliance and charm, but she didn’t know when or how to stop; people became restless; they looked away, they would leave if they could. I was ashamed of her. I was proud of her. But I didn’t know what I had learned from her. That is, until my divorce. Needing independence and courage, I discovered it within myself, put there by her spirit. Also, the pleasure of learning and the life of the mind. Integrity of the self. Compassion, from watching her struggle, and even, from my own unmet needs, how to mother my children.
I was often asked why my attractive youthful never remarried. But deprived from birth of parental love and widowed at twenty-eight, she seemed to demand more love than there was in the world, more than anyone could ever give her, souring every relationship of her life.
The night before her funeral I dreamed I was the only pallbearer.