Be a Filmmaker
I really wanted to be a movie maker. And if I had a do-over again, maybe I'd be that person. But even then, which kind of movie maker? Would I be the director? Would I be the movie star? Would I be the film editor? Would I be the camera person? I'm very drawn to that line of work. Would I be the lighting person? Would I be the set designer? Would I be the costume designer? I really like clothes, they're important to me. Would I be the soundtrack? I love music. Guess what? I get to do all of those things when I write. I am a filmmaker. I make a little, very low-budget movie in your head. And I operate that camera, I zoom in, I set a scene, I direct it, I know when to cut away, because I do not show everything. Some very boring stuff happens in our lives and we don't include those in our memoirs if we want anybody to read them. (audience members chuckle) Think about, I'm a storyteller, yes, how does a story get conveyed? Does a story get conveyed in an interesting way if you say, "Well, ...
I grew up in a family "where my mother had issues with attachment and bonding, "and my father was overly affectionate, "and my sister had a control... "Was paranoid." No, we tell the story. My sister was always thinking that there were men outside the windows who were looking in at us. When you go to a therapist, you tell a story. And out of those stories come the conclusions about who we are. That, if your therapist is good, you kind of figure out for yourself. And the therapist does not need to tell us, we learn them in the course of shining a light on our own stories. And your reader does not need to be told that sister's paranoid, that mother's a control freak, we tell the stories. Readers are so smart, they figure it out. When a Realtor shows a house, they show us the rooms, we look at the rooms, and we figure out. The Realtor doesn't say, you know, "This is a beautiful, amazing, spectacular house." You look and you decide. You, as a reader, look and you decide what you feel about the house that I'm gonna show you and the characters in it. When a lawyer gets into a courtroom, he or she tells the story, it's always story, tells the story of what happened. And of course, shapes the story, very deliberately, in the way that, depending on whether he or she is the prosecutor or the defense, the way that will reflect best on his client or against the client. But it's always story. Be a filmmaker, tell a story, show a story. OK, opening... The small focus. I had a bit of a challenge in At Home in the World, because...The big thing that... That happened...That I want to explore, happens when I'm 18 years old. But to understand why it happens, why I would leave the world, cut off friends, family, give up my full scholarship at Yale, go off to live with a 53-year-old man. For you to understand that, you have to have known me before. You have to see the world before to understand the big change. If you jump right into your story, at the moment of the big event, we cannot comprehend the big event. I often, I'll get student manuscripts where the first line is, "He held the knife to my throat. "I knew I might not live another second." Who is he? Where am I? Why is it happening? I cannot be upset because I don't know these characters, I don't know of this place yet. So, on the one hand, but if I spend 50 pages, and I do, telling you about my growing up and my family, you will not yet know why do we need to know this information. And that is called... The stakes. What are the stakes? What is at stake? So, what I often choose to do, and it's not like this is the way, I certainly don't want everybody who's ever taken a memoir class from me to always do this, but, I begin with what I call the aerial view. And the aerial view is a little preview of coming attractions, told in summary form, I hope not boring, I hope very succinct and economical. Beginning of At Home in the World, "When I was 18, I wrote a magazine article "that changed my life. "The piece was called An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life, "it was published in The New York Times Magazine, "with a photograph of me on the cover. "In it, I described growing up in the 60s, "expressing a profound sense of world weariness "and alienation. "I spoke of wanting to move to the country "and get away from the world. "Retirement sounds tempting, I wrote. "Among the hundreds of letters I received "after that article ran, "was one expressing deep affection for my writing, "and concern that I might be exploited "in the months and years to come. "J.D. Sallinger wrote to me from his house "high on a hill in the country, "where he had retreated many years before. "I embarked on a correspondence with Sallinger that spring, "I fell in love with the voice in those letters." And I continue, very briefly, to tell, in about a page and a half, what I will go on to take about 200 pages to explore in more depth. But now when I go back to the house where I grew up in Durham, New Hampshire, which is actually page 1, after the prologue, you know enough about where you're heading to know what the stakes are going to be. So I gave you, actually, and it's something that I often do, I can't choose between the aerial view and the small focus, so I do both. I first gave you that aerial view, then I focused in on the house. And everything in the middle. And that's of course, really your story. You know, there's a little exercise that I always give writers of memoir. It's an ongoing assignment, to make a whole bunch of sentences that go, "I used to, but now I." And every memoir I have ever read is basically an I used to, but now I sentence. I used to live in a house in Durham, New Hampshire, I used to be afraid of people knowing the truth about me, but now I speak. I used to be a good girl, but now I'm a bad girl. I used to think that the man that I fell in love with when I was 18 years old was the wisest, most spiritually enlightened person on the Earth, but now I know he was human. Just human, not evil, just human. So, everything in the middle is basically everything that happens between I used to and but now I. You've got a character, it's you, send him or her on a journey. Give them a crest. All the great literature of our times, The Odyssey, there was always a crest. The Golden Fleece, whatever it is, we're looking for something. Sometimes it's, you know, it might be just Bridget Jones looking for her boyfriend, but there's somebody who wants something and something that gets in the way. The big turning point. There has to be a moment of some kind of climax. And if you're writing an essay, there's only one. But in a memoir, there are likely to be, your arc may not look quite as simple as this, your arc is more likely to look like this. But there's still forward motion. And the way that it happens is not summarizing everything, but choosing particular moments that exemplify big events that change. And they may only last a few minutes, sometimes they're the obvious things like, I got this job, I met this man. Sometimes they're very small, and I'm going to read you one moment of, one scene that represents, in At Home in the World, a big change moment. It happens near the end of the book, I'm 44 years old, I have not laid eyes on this man whose presence and then absence from my life and judgment of me has haunted me for 25 years, I have not spoken about him, I've decided that I need to go back and see him. I fly 3,000 miles across the country, rent a car, drive up to the front of his house, go knock on the door. "I'm standing at the door now, next to the bird feeder. "Through the window overlooking the doorstep "a woman stands at the sink, washing dishes. "She's a sweet-faced person with a no-nonsense haircut. "I ring the bell. "She moves back and forth, in and out of view "for a moment of two, "then calls out through the window, "not unpleasantly, what do you want? "I've come to see Jerry, I say. "Could you tell him Joyce Maynard's here? "The steadiness of my voice surprises me. "A flicker of a smile crosses her face." Think how differently this would be written if it was written by, if there had been a reporter. You're writing, if a reporter had been standing there, he could have said what was going on in me, within me, and that is an essential difference of memoir. Do not report on the action, you are the action, be inside you while the action is happening. "She goes to one of the back rooms. "I've come to see Jerry, I say. "Could you tell him Joyce Maynard's here? "The steadiness of my voice surprises me. "She goes into one of the back rooms. "Someday you may find yourself in a situation "where it may help you to say this word "he told me once, OM." Now that's something that the reporter watching could not have said. Because the reporter watching did not see what was going on in my head. And although I am reporting on, I am telling you the story of the moment I stood on that doorstep waiting to see Sallinger, I am summoning up a memory from 25 years earlier, of him teaching me to say the word OM when I was in a moment of great stress. And now the moment of great stress is all about him. Next paragraph: "There are certain moments in your life" And, once again, the reporter watching could not be saying any of this. "There are certain moments in your life "when all the senses seem to enter "a state of intensified acuity, "and you notice every single thing. "Your eyes take in more." This is me reflecting. "And what they take in, they take in with a sharpness "they didn't possess 10 minutes earlier "and will not possess 10 minutes later. "A cloud formation, a stick on the ground "that looks chewed by a dog. "You hear the sound your boot heel makes, "touching the rubber mat on the doorstep. "And the pecking of a bird picking up "a single grain of birdseed. "You feel your own blood moving through your veins." Can the reporter say any of that? No, don't write like a reporter. "Childbirth was one of those times for me." Look what I'm doing, I'm 44 years old, it's 13 years since I gave birth to my last baby, and I am summoning up a memory of giving birth, as I'm standing on J.D. Sallinger's doorstep waiting for him to come to the door. "Childbirth was one of those moments." And that's the way our brains work, that is not the way reporters work, that is not the way pure chronological recounting of events goes, it is the way good memoir goes. "Childbirth was one of those moments for me. "Holding a baby a few hours at a time, "watching her nurse. "So was sitting beside my mother while she lay dying." I have just summoned a memory from a totally other time in my life. "And all I could do was watch the breath "come in and out of her." And now I go back to the doorway, 'cause that's what we do in our brains, we go back and forth. We think about 1962, we think about 2016, we think about yesterday, we think about tomorrow. "It's hard to say how long I stand on this doorway. "Five minutes, maybe? "More likely 10. "There is no reason in the world "why he would come out of that room. "Only I know he will and he does." Are you curious now to know what's gonna happen? (audience laughs) Oh, sorry, time's up! No, I'm kidding. (audience laughs) "And he does. "All these years" And I'm not gonna give it to you so quick, I'm gonna go back inside me again. "All these years I have thought of him "as such a tall man, "now, as Jerry emerges slowly from the bedroom "and stands in front of me in the doorway, "he seems shrunken, he is a little bent over. "He's wearing a very fine bathrobe." Don't describe, you know, some bad English teachers say, just use a whole lot of adjectives, give a lot of details. Not random details, please, but the details that matter, when they matter. "He's wearing a very fine bathrobe and slippers, "he is thinner than ever. "At 78, he still has all his hair, it is pure white now. "He is clean-shaven and his face is deeply lined." All of this I take in in one second. This is, you know, when we see a person, that's how long it takes to register all that information. "He does not invite me in." Now I go back to the physical. I've been in the perception, now I'm in the physical again. "He does not invite me in, I remain standing on the step." That could've been said by the reporter, but not the next sentence. "I have never looked a man in the eye "who looked back at me with an expression "of greater bitterness or rage. "What are you doing here? He says. "The words come at me, spitting. "Why didn't you write me a letter? "I wrote you many letters, Jerry, I say. "You never answered them. "What are you doing here? He says. "His voice comes from that place deep in the diaphragm. "It's a voice that doesn't have to be loud "to make itself heard. "I came to ask you a question, Jerry, I say. "What was my purpose in your life?" That's not the end of the book, it's not even the end of the scene, but that is my moment of change and climax. When I am realizing the stakes of my quest, what was my purpose in your life?