Strout’s narrator says, “…recording this now I think of something Sarah Payne had said at the writing class in Arizona. ‘You will have only one story,’ she had said. ‘You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.'”
This morning I saw a bird walking along the sidewalk holding a clump of small sticks in her mouth.
Max and I came back inside and I picked up where I’d left off with my memoir revisions.
Why do we write memoir anyway?
Probably there are nearly as many reasons as memoirists, but one of my reasons is to create a nest. A nest for myself and other people, a resting place made of pieces of life that, on their own, have little obvious value, pieces that, some days, seem to be debris.
It’s in the spirit of nest-making that I celebrate Women’t History Month.
Women who’ve gone before me, from Emma Hart Willard to Charlotte Forten Grimke to countless unnamed foremothers and sisters, both closer and farther away, have made nests for me, either by telling their stories or making it more possible for other women to tell theirs.
Starting tomorrow, and through the end of March, I’ll be welcoming some of my favorite bloggers to share their stories of women’s empowerment and women’s education and women’s history.
I hope you’ll stop back by to read, find refuge in the nests they’ve made, and gather bits for nest-making of your own.
“I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy.”
I’ve had a bad case of holiday blues this month, and two remedies: baking cookies and reading Christopher Hitchens.
Nigella Lawson has been my guide to the former; Andrew Sullivan to the latter.
It’s easy enough to explain the cookies–butter, flour, sugar, and I are old friends. My near-obsession with Hitchens since his death is a little more complicated, its causes still percolating, not yet clear enough to write about here.
But my admiration for his commitment to writing is simple enough.
To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.
Voice again. How I have struggled with it. But really, read the whole essay.
Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review. His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame.” Right to the end.
My partly edited manuscript sits in the corner of my desk, Nigella Christmas on top of it. I cough from my holiday cold. And I know I’m right when I tell myself, Just write.
My friend bought this notebook for me on her recent trip to Florence.
Ten years ago, we were there together, with our then-husbands and other friends.
I’ve written memoir and fiction about that trip, but the story still resists and begs for a best way to be told.
Maybe a ricetta:
Start with six friends.
Stir in one red Ferragamo purse, Michelangelo’s David, dinner at Cibreo, a visit to the Uffizi, and a rabbit.
Store them overnight in convent rooms.
The next day, place the mixture in a van and whirl in traffic roundabouts escorted by polizia.
Using white-coated men, remove from van and allow to rest for an afternoon. Season to taste with pharmaceuticals.
Return to van and proceed to Venice.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, on her porch in Cross Creek, Florida, has decorated twenty years of my refrigerators, bulletin boards, and walls above desks.
She lives in my imagination: solitary, independent, strong, writing.
I look up at her now, as I’ve crossed the forty-thousand-word threshold, and know it’s finally safe to say that I will finish NaNoWriMo.
I have planned and preached daily writing, but I haven’t always practiced it.
This month I have. I will have used NaNo to complete a draft of the third version (version, not draft; there have been many, many drafts) of my memoir.
A few thoughts after nineteen consecutive 2,000+/- word days:
A focus on word count helps me to write big rather than small, expand scenes, comb my mind for details. I don’t worry about saying too much–I want to say as much as possible. I mine the depths and explore the outer limits of my memories.
Telling the same story in different ways allows new ideas to rise to the surface, unexpected patterns and threads to emerge. My desire for completion is stronger than ever, but I also see that this book has needed to cook–in a crock pot, not a microwave.
My perfectionistic internal editor is no match for the fast flow of words. Her day will come on December 1. I tell her that if there is just one good idea or phrase per page, it will have been a good month, and she relaxes.