The Memoir-Writing Process: Hazardous

Sometimes as I wrote, I was in a fugue, as when I was drugged at sixteen, an episode of the memoir.  And all along, the process led me toward the precipices of foolish acts, unaccountable acts.  For instance, immersion in old years left leaves me prone to fits of sweet love, when I wanted to fling my arms around all the people of the past, throw caution to the winds, and kiss them passionately.

…This brings me to the hazards associated with writing the memoir. Warnings for the novice, for any about to set their walking sticks on the memoirist’s trail.

Many have noted how the writing robs the writer of his memories.  Nabokov laments, as he refers to the writing implements of his childhood, “Alas, these pencils, too, have been distributed among the characters in my books to keep fictitious children busy; they are not quite my own now…Few things are left, many have been squandered…”

In Proust we find the thought that it is not the author who creates the story, but the story that creates the author. Beware who you create.  She’ll stay with you, take you over, define you forever after.  I think it prudent—and I have done this myself—to purposely leave out, preserve, some memories, episodes, and favorite people, so that not all your memories are stolen from you, trapped in the cage of sentences.

Another hazard of writing a memoir:  the people of your past seem, alternately like a pack of zombies ready to attack and submerge you, and a throng of dream people showering you with love.  Either shakes your little pram.

Originally posted on Monday, November 19th, 2012

The Memoir-Writing Process: The neglect of friends

While in obsession’s thicket—it is true—I neglected my friends.  I couldn’t talk to them while I was in this haze, this morass of yearning, this bubble, while I tried to negotiate this watery ground, palpitate this tumor of the past.

Originally posted on Monday, November 12th, 2012

The Memoir-Writing Process: Frenzy, fever, insomnia

Writing my memoir, I let myself go—both ways—into my head.  I surrendered to the force.  Without me, my mind brushed on the next dab of paint, as if by instinct knowing how to make it all fit by association.  Many days, I worked in a fever, a frenzy, as if the bombing started the next morning at dawn.  Memories and thoughts awakened me at night.  In the darkness, I shuffled around in the bed clothes, hitting my knuckles as I tried to wrest index card and pencil from the bedside table in the dark, waking up my tired husband—and then was blurry and short with the kids in the morning.  But there was the petite, incomparable thrill of note cards spilled around my bed at dawn: little jewels I gathered in the morning, a harvest from the blackness of night.

Originally posted on Monday, November 5th, 2012

How to Write a Memoir: Five Ways of Getting Started

If you want to write a memoir and don’t quite know how to begin, you might start with one of the following five tried and true methods.  The methods may be taken up in any order, singly, or not at all.  But then again, “not at all” might mean just that: no memoir at all.  Best not to choose that. :

  1. The Scribble Down Method: Sit down and toss onto the page all the aspects of  your past you’d like to write about: particular experiences, emotions, people, places, images, metaphors, objects, books, relationships, foods… You name it.  It can be anything, anything at all.  Don’t worry about what comes out or how it’s written.  Get dreamy, free associate, scribble it all down.  Spill until you’re spent—for the moment.  This splatter may be added to at any time—and should be, as more thoughts come to you.  Warning: Now that you’ve opened the spigot, they will.
  2.   The Story Method: Now, if you wish, if this seems right for you, sit down in a comfortable chair and engage in the age-old writer’s exercise: asking yourself what your memoir is to be about.  Here is how it goes: In your easy chair, with your laptop or with a piece of paper and a pen, begin by writing to yourself: “This story is about…” Let the thoughts come and write until you stop.  Next write: “This story is really about…”  Again, write until you stop.  Finally, write: “This story is really about…”  Keep writing, again, until you’re written out.    The goal of this easy exercise is to help you clarify for yourself what your story is, what the purview of your memoir  will be, on both the surface and on the deepest, most essential levels.  It will serve to orient you: the writer who is trying to make a story out of the clutter of life.  With this beginning map at hand, you can set out on your voyage.
  3.   The index card method:  Get yourself a packet or three of index cards.  Any color will do—whichever pleases you—and lined or blank.  On each index card, note down something you’d like to include in your memoir.  Again, these may be incidents, people, cars, etc. Spend index cards like free money.  Toss them in a basket or pile them up into a neat stack. Now you have the ingredients of your memoir (always to be added to, of course).  If you wish, get yourself a little box and plunk them in there.  This is your recipe box, your treasure trove, for your memoir.  If you’re the sort who loves organization, or believes in Divide and Conquer, you can purchase a pack of dividers and sort your cards by subject.  When you sit down in the cool dawn or in the satin-dark of night, you can simply pluck one of the cards and begin to write, or rather cook up, the small dishes which will comprise the banquet of your memoir.
  4. The Pivotal Moment Method: Again, fetch a nice, clean sheet of paper or click yourself up a nice, fresh computer screen.  Now: list all the important moments you would like to include in your slice of autobiography.  Begin writing them, one by one.  Pick out the one that calls to you each time you sit down to write, and conjure it on the page.
  5. The “Just Sit Down—Anywhere, Any time—and Write” Method.  Just write whatever it is that writes itself down.  Collect these issuances, and with time, your memoir will assemble itself like a magnet gathering filings to its heart.

Mind you, if none of the above five methods appeal, just do it your own way:  You might make notes in the bathtub on rubberized notebooks on Thursdays at two o’clock, or sketch ideas on corners of the newspaper while you drink your coffee, or jot thoughts in your secret computer file when you’re supposed to be figuring out your office budget.  The latter, the task of budgeting, come to think of it, might be just onerous and dreaded enough to induce you to engage in the slightly less onerous and dreaded task of writing.  We are all, after all, avoidant, stubborn, rebellious cusses…The bottom line is: Whatever way works, seize it.

*Orlando II, painting by Maud Taber-Thomas.

To see more of her work, go to

Originally published Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Writing, Stillness and Joy

It is a grey, rain-lit new years day.

Pico Iyer’s piece in the New York Times this first 2012 morning –on the unrelenting stream of information with which we are bombarded—hits the mark, I think.  He quotes Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher:  “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”  The average American, Iyer reports, receives 75 text messages a day, and the average office worker experiences no longer than three minutes at a stretch without interruption.  Iyer concludes: “We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say.  Partly because we’re so busy communicating.”  Stillness and time for reflection have become the luxuries we crave.  Jet-setting Iyer, who chooses to live in small Japanese village, advocates, to complement our obligatory involvement in the world, the purposeful creation of regular stretches in our lives when we are “out of radio contact.”  He writes, “Nothing makes me feel better—calmer, clearer, happier—than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music.  It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: it’s joy, which the monk David Stindl-Rast describes as ‘that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.’”

I will be distracting for one minute to let you know that Bethesda Magazine’s January-February 2012 issue contains my article, “The Spy Who Loved Me: With a father’s confession, the pieces of a mysterious childhood fall into place.”  It offers a couple of snippets of my memoir, (due out January 10,) which, during its ten years of gestation, required long, absorbing, sometimes painful but always deeply happy stretches of shutting out the world.  I wish everyone the luxury of such joy in 2012.

Originally published on Sunday, January 1st, 2012