Delving Down Deep to Become a Better Writer

Memoir writing isn’t as easy as it sounds. Our minds are adept at changing, blocking, or eliminating entirely memories that haunt us or arouse strong, usually negative, feelings in our psyches. Though my friends frequently tell me that I should write a book about the adventures our family has had over the years, I’m not ready to do that quite yet. On the other hand I realize that it might not a bad idea to start exploring the many memories that are lurking below the surface of my mind, waiting for the right moment to appear (usually at 3:00 a.m.).

Like most people I have a stock of positive or quirky memories attached to each person I know. I call these “Remember the time…” and the story is usually funny or memorable in some way. I believe that all memoirs should have a certain amount of these reminisces in them to add balance to the other, less easily accessed and often more potent, recollections and emotions. For a memoir to be truly exceptional, it needs to be a little more substantial. Even family humor queen, Erma Bombeck, had the ability to touch her readers and reach them on a deeper level, even while making us laugh out loud.

How can you rediscover the things you don’t remember es, the thoughts and feelings and circumstances that combine to form the essence that is you? For me, Natalie Goldberg’s book Old Friend from Far Away has been the key to prying open my inner door. In her introduction, she says her writing exercises are designed to “drench you in the writing process and your life of memory”. For Goldberg, writing isn’t a linear process, because our lives don’t usually follow a straight path. We are constantly getting thrown off course in our day-to-day activities, she claims, so we should approach our writing from all directions if we want to discover the connections that make us who we are.

Here’s how I use the book:

  • Every day I turn to a random page, set the timer on the phone for ten minutes and begin writing. Just start anywhere, don’t sit thinking about it or you’ll derail yourself. The other day I had to write “Tell me what you thought was ugly”. For me, it’s really hard to call something or someone ugly. It feels spiteful and petty. But I had to start somewhere so I wrote about my friend’s dog. Of course I qualified this by adding, “But he loves her so much I have to try to see her inner beauty.” Just writing about the dog seemed to unleash my good manners. I quickly moved on to the ugliness of certain fish in city aquariums, describing what characteristics made them ugly to me in vivid detail, followed by specific types of customers I see in a certain big-box store. Thank goodness the timer went off then. Who knows where my mind would have ventured next!
  • When the timer goes off, I allow myself one last sentence and then turn to a new page and repeat the process. I do this four to six times and usually end up with about seven pages of writing and all sorts of new things to ponder.
  • No skipping an exercise because it looks hard or I don’t like the topic. This is important because often the subjects I want to avoid the most are the ones that I do my best writing on.

For example:

  • What did you start over again?
  • Write about Texas
  • A time I itched
  • Tell me everything you know about Jell-O

It’s unbelievable the things I’ve learned about myself from writing about these things, none of which I ever would have thought about on my own. Buy the book. Try it out for a week.  Then let me know which exercise was the most helpful or important to you. Ten minutes. Go!

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