Memory & Research
You know when I set out to write At Home in the World and when you set out to write whatever memoir you have, one of the problems- Does anybody have the problem of like I just don't remember what happened? Um I when I finally gave myself permission to tell a story of something that had changed my life unalterably when I was nineteen years old, I was 44 years old. And I thought that I had about five pages worth of things to say about that experience because I had buried it for so long. Um one of the things I'll say is you remember more than you know, once you make space for it. You have to give yourself permission to go there. And it's not a comfortable act. Um and probably what you do not do is sit down and start to write. You sit down and think for a long time. I'm not so good at sitting down actually, so I stand up and think. I pace and think. I go and take a walk. I swim across a lake. I get on my bicycle. What I don't do is go out to lunch with a friend. I have to be alone. It's th...
e part of writing that I, I see no way over this. I have to be alone to do it well. Um I'd have to be alone with my thoughts. And so much more came to me than I ever imagined would. Um, um, So I actually, at the time that I um, approached At Home in the World, I was 44 years old, and I was, two of my three children were still at home. I didn't even want to open up that memory with my sons, my teenage sons around. I left home. I, I found somebody to be with them. Believe me. There were not wild parties every night at my house. Just a few. But um, I went off to a little cabin in Oregon, closed the door, holed up, and let the memories come to me when I was in a safe place for them to come. Um and I assisted myself with research. I played music from that time. I watched um, Salinger happened to um, have it- This was before videos um, he used to have a lot of 16 millimeter old black and white films. And I watched old, old Hitchcock movies. And old Thinman movies. And um, I ordered these um, VHS tapes of um, they were just coming out I guess. Of the Lawrence Welk Show that we used to watch. And they were not- I was not writing about those Hitchcock movies. I was not writing about The Lawrence Welk show. Those were ways to trigger memory. Sometimes as you know, smell triggers memory. Food triggers memory. Um uh, how about interviewing your family and friends for your memoir? That would seem like a really good idea right? Except for one thing. You're gonna get their point of view. You're gonna get their story, not your story. And even if they're your family members, and I happen to have one um, my sister, we have radically different experiences of being, growing up in the same family. I think everybody in this room who's a sibling knows that story. Um they will tell you how it looked to them. And sometimes they will be useful for reminding you what year you moved or um, um why your father lost his job, but ultimately you need to go deep within yourself not out in the world. Um I I've, in my years of working with, with students who want to write memoir, I have also seen what I call the research, the over research syndrome. People who get so involved in reading old journals, they'll spend years reading their journals, going through family, family letters. Um and that's a comfortable place to be. That doesn't take you to the hard part, which is being alone in the room with absolutely no words on the page and you have to create them. Um so research I'll say useful to a point um, I have never been a journal writer, so I don't have journals to, to consult. But um, if I, if I did, I think I would, I would recognize that the things- I, I would seldom- I seldom hear from a student in a class who discovers something in her journal that she didn't, something important that she didn't know. The important stuff tends to sit with us. Um, your wall. And this, this is about getting up from your desk, getting up from this tight little position, sitting over your laptop and moving. And I happen to like to move. Um this is not a big enough wall for me, but a whiteboard is, is already big and physical and it gets your blood pumping and you won't- If you start falling asleep at your laptop by the way, that's not a good sign. And I wouldn't keep sitting at your laptop. I would either go take a nap or go take a walk or go stand up. I do have a stand up desk and that's a good idea. But ultimately it means you're boring yourself. You're not writing something sufficiently interesting to keep you going. You're looking down to see how many words you wrote today. Which is not a good sign. You know, I'm not a fan, I have to say. I'm maybe in the minority here. And I offend somebody here I'm very sorry. That nano rhyme-o thing where you know, you have to write a certain number of words a day. You will write those words, whether they are any good is another matter. Um I'm more a believer in the thinking and the preparation so that when you take off, you just go. You know I often think- It's so funny because I'm not an athlete, but I think about what um, what an athlete does. There is a burst of energy. He does not, he or she does not in the middle of um, a swing or a shot freeze and sort of analyze what's going on. They have to be, they do it all in one big leap. And I like a, a ballerina, same thing. She or he goes out on the stage, or a ballet dancer, and just dances. There is no stopping me once I get going. But before I get going, I take a lot of time to think and to plan. And that's what my wall is about. And it may take the form of writing a lot of little notes to myself on, on a, on a whiteboard. It may be Post-Its that cover a wall. I may just when I'm traveling- Did you know that there are now these giant Post-It notes you can get at places like Staples? That you, if I'm in some hotel room, I could get one of those and make myself a little temporary whiteboard. Because now I'm scribbling stuff and I'm not writing. It's very different from writing. Once you put in your laptop, it's a lot harder to get rid of it. And then it's there, and it might not be very good, but it's there. So I much prefer the impermanent thing of the Post-It note or the, the stuff on the whiteboard, and wait to do my big leap, my big swing, my dance that I won't interrupt until I've got so much stuff. This is the equivalent of my practice. This is me doing the drills, doing the warm-up, being out in the uh, uh, the, the, I can't even think what the places are called in these sporting events. Where you're just warming up and, and, and then you're no longer facing that terrifying blank page. You're facing your nice, friendly whiteboard. Or your blue, yellow, green, pink Post-It notes. Um and it's, it's um, it's, it's a, it's a far less desolate land suddenly.