First Things First in Writing

notepad
Photo Credit: “Notepad” by Crisderaud

“Pause for a minute…that word order is confusing. Instead of ‘my spiritual life post thirteen,’ how about ‘my post-thirteen spiritual life’?”

I was reading chapter 2 of my memoir to my writers’ group, which, this week, was only one other person. She was stopping me every couple of paragraphs to suggest a syntax change or a modifier deletion.

“The action ‘I put my head in my hands’ makes pretty clear that you dreaded what was coming next. I know you’ve heard it before, but this is a case where you show and tell. You don’t need the telling.”

Putting It into Practice

Two days later as I sit at my keyboard trying to jump back into my memoir, I’m glad for the prose tightening advice. It will be really helpful later…but it’s not what I need right now. Since adding more than ten new chapters, I’m just trying to figure out if the scenes I’ve extracted from my reluctant psyche even belong in my book.

Show, Don’t Tell

“And tell us what you were wearing. I can’t see you as an eleven-year-old. Show the makeup or lack thereof. How did you know it was snowing outside? Show us how you are seeing this. Are you looking out a picture window?”

This writer, an excellent writer, by the way, is a visual person. Her prose overflows with color, texture, and shape. She lent me a memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, by another fellow Minnesotan (my critique-er and I are both Minnesota girls who ended up in Texas), and I wonder if she modeled her writing on Nicole Lea Helget’s style. Helget writes with beautiful imagery that places readers right in the scene.

For example, here’s an excerpt where she’s describing watching/hearing her father “pitchfork” a cow:

A sound snapped the thick air.summer of ordinary ways

Like eggs dropped on the wooden floor of the chicken coop. Or metal bats whacking leather-covered baseballs. There was something of a wooden ruler slapping naughty palms. Something of thunder breaking against the sky. Only more primal, more rooted. I recognized it immediately… It was the sound of girls splitting wish-bones, of Mom dividing chicken breasts, and of shovels crushing black rats breeding in the granary… It was the sound of field stones hitting the loader bucket or hay wagon or rock box….It was bone.

I don’t write like this. At least, I don’t write like this about my early years. These years feel like a cold case. I can’t remember. Or is it that I don’t want to?

The first draft of the memoir I sent off for editing begins with me at age twenty—and I believe that draft was more descriptive than the chapters my writing group has seen in the last month. I can deal with those more recent scenes.

The early scenes? I’ve been writing them, but they kind of suck right now. I feel something about my early life is important, but I’m not sure if I’m capturing it.

Another Book?

I always had the idea I’d save my early life for another book. It deserves a whole book, and, in fact, was going to be my first book. I prepared the manuscript as a series of journal entries, and to this day, the scenes are preserved in my memory as the journal entries. I fear I’ve forgotten the actual scenes—I just remember the journal entries. The scenes I’ve written for draft 2 of my memoir feel fabricated—or at least really detached from my feelings and memories.

Moving Forward, Nonetheless

This week I’m going to send off my new part 1 to Trish. Because I’ve had more time to talk to Trish, and because she’s seen the rest of the manuscript (or where I am going with it all), she will understand that, more than prose tightening, I need help deciding what to include about my early years. Maybe I even need help unlocking memory.

I doubt memory will come back in full color like it seems to for Helget and my fellow Minnesotan, and maybe that’s okay. In my daily life, I don’t often notice what’s around me (I know, I know—as a writer, I should work on this). I don’t think I’m going for a full-color memoir, though. I’m not sure. This is a style question I can work out later. But first things first: figuring out content, order of events, and narrative thread.

Wait a Minute…

Right before I hit “post,” a thought occurs: is writing in “full color” a way to actually unlock memory? What do you think, readers? Have I got the process wrong?

The Playground Kiss (A Rare, Funny Memory)

LITTLE-GIRL-KISSES-BOY
Source: drpinna.com. Apparently, these days a little girl can get the police called for pulling a stunt like this!

What do you find when rooting around in your memory? And do you do this often, or only when together with family or friends?

As a memoir writer, it is my job to sift through memories, but sadly, that’s not always a fun task. On the other hand, when my husband’s family gets together to excavate their collective consciousness, there’s no end to the laughs.

I can only hope my family will get to that point someday, too, but for now, I take hope from a recent realization: Namely, my memory seems to have these gaps—huge gaps—from my childhood.

Anyway, we were at my nephew’s Kindergarten graduation recently, and that jogged my memory back to my own early elementary life. Sitting there pregnant, I started to have memories of me around that age, and I wondered if I really wanted my kid to go to school.

Because suddenly, I was remembering how I’d been scarred by school—specifically, my rejection by many of the girls in my class.

Sad-Little-Girl1
Source: stopbullying.myupsite.com

“Honey, I don’t want our kid to go through that,” I worried to my hubby later that night, explaining how recess used to strike terror in me like class time never did.

“Oh, you’re just assuming it will be the same for our child as it was for you. But you’ve never been comfortable in social situations.”

“Oh really?” I prickled.

“I mean, you’ve gotten somewhat better…” he amended. “But that’s just your personality. Most kids like recess.”

Hmmm. I can’t sort this all out now, meaning I don’t know where our kid will go to school. But I went to bed disappointed that my most prominent memory from early elementary was that painful sting of rejection. I also realized I hadn’t spent much time writing or thinking about my early years, and I hoped doing so would turn up some forgotten gems—and some laughs, like my in-laws enjoy.

So, as I lay in bed, I kept rooting around in my memory. There must be something funny in there, somewhere. Then, I found it.

A Rare, Funny Memory

On that same playground where I remember so often standing on the outside of the circle, I also remembered becoming bold, empowered. I remembered first grade, or the only time I have ever openly pursued a man (well, in this case, a boy).

I don’t remember when it started, or why I thought it a good idea, but for a week or two that school year, before the teacher told me to stop, I became a man-hunter. I spotted a boy I wanted—let’s call him Aaron—and every day at recess I commenced chasing him…past the monkey bars, around the sandbox, under the swings…all in hot pursuit of a kiss.

Poor guy. He was terrified of me, and one day the race, or the stress, gave him a nosebleed. Kindly, that day I desisted.

But one day I finally caught him, cornered him, and bent over his cowering figure. I remember thinking, as I went in for the kill, that it didn’t feel as satisfying as I thought it would, kissing my victim. I suppose it’s that I would have liked the object of my affection to reciprocate, just a little.

girl-kissing-boy-17751309

Anyway, later that day later in class, my teacher, an overweight Trunchbull type, called me out in front of everyone else—in her stern voice and with her lightning eyebrows, she told me to stop chasing Aaron. And I, now terrified, could only stutter, “Y-y-y-y-yes, Ma’am.” It was enough for me, the embarrassment of being publicly chastised.

Aaron didn’t talk to me for the rest of first grade. And then I switched schools for second grade, and when I came back to third grade, he’d also transferred schools. And I’ve never spoken to him since. I wonder how he remembers those moments? If he comes to my ten-year class reunion this summer, I just might ask him. (After I apologize for my appalling behavior, that is.)

In case you didn’t catch it, this story is funny because of my personality now. Docile and quiet, everyone says. What got into that little girl to become a playground terror for a time? Or should I really be asking: What went out of me after that day?

Ever after that, I was never bold enough to send so much as a signed note to a crush—not before he first showed interest in me. So a lot of my crushes—actually most of them—sprouted, withered, and died, all within the confines of my heart, with no one else to witness the damage. I learned to keep it in. Maybe I learned that openness about love was embarrassing?

Coda

girl at pool

There is a coda to my playground story that makes it even funnier, at least in an ironic sort of way.

The summer after first grade, I was swimming with my brother at the community pool, with lots of other elementary kids there. And unbeknownst to me, I was about to get my just deserts for attacking Aaron.

There was another boy in my class—let’s call him James—who had a crush on me, but I thought he was about the grossest boy on the planet. Before that day, I’d never paid him any attention, and may not have known his true feelings for me. He, too, was a quiet child. But after that day at the pool, I would know without a doubt. He, too, got the devil in him, at least for a day.

Suddenly, he started chasing me. Around the perimeter of the pool, in the shallow end, in the deep end, and back again. I couldn’t turn my back for a moment because there he’d be—that big nasty boy—and he wanted more than a kiss!

Though it seems like this went on for hours, it could’ve lasted only minutes. All I knew was I felt trapped, and desperate. I couldn’t get away from this boy, and no one would help me! All they did was laugh!

In the middle of the afternoon, he caught me in the shallow end, cornered me, and caved in on me. His arms and legs wrapped around me like tentacles, and slowly I felt my breath escaping, as if the life were being sucked out of me.

I was thrashing my arms and legs, trying desperately to escape my attacker—and then, suddenly, he released me, and swam away. And that was the end of that. We hardly ever spoke again.

What is the lesson to be learned here? I’ll leave that for you to decide—and comment on. My job was just to turn up a funny memory. Do you think I succeeded?