Sometimes it doesn’t take much to open the floodgates of emotion, creativity, and expression. A smell. A sound. A song. Maybe just a few words.
A week ago, I attended the 20th Spring Western Reserve Writers Conference at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland. Technically, I was working. Conference Coordinator Deanna Adams had asked me to be a consulting editor – working one-on-one with writers, critiquing a sample of a work-in-progress and providing helpful feedback. I enjoy the WRWC for a number of reasons, including hanging out with creative people and taking a road trip to the area where I grew up. Editing sessions occur between workshops, so I get to attend the workshops too.
During this particular trip, I attended a memoir writing workshop presented by Vicki Blum Vigil. Vicki loves connecting the past with the present not only through memoir, but also through genealogy and history. She’s written books about researching family history in Northeast Ohio and about the cemeteries of the area. In the memoir workshop at Lakeland, Vicki gave us writing prompts and a few minutes to jot down a few sentences that spun off those prompts.
The first: “I am looking at…”
I wrote: I am looking at my 40th year. I really never expected it to look this way – unemployed, uninvolved, uninspired. Just “un.” I’d expected to be fabulous. Not Hollywood-fab, but at least comfortable, happy, energetic…
Interesting. Yeah, 40 was not a fun year for me. Neither was 39 for that matter. Frankly, I’m happy just to have made it that far and slightly beyond. But I digress. Some of us in the workshop shared what we’d jotted. Every sentence and every view of the world were unique.
Vicki spoke about “telling your truth” when you write. Not the truth. Your truth. Because you can put ten of your relatives in a room together to talk about the same event and everyone will have a different set of recollections, and those recollections will run through unique filters before settling into memory and becoming truth.
The second prompt: “I remember….”
I remember? I laughed to myself. That’s too vague. I can’t come up with anything usable from “I remember.” Then, I told myself this is a workshop. It didn’t have to be Pulitzer material. Just roll with it.
So I started out lame: I remember lots of things…
I remember that my first best friend’s name was Kelly, and she lived in the house three doors down from me in the Slavic Village area of Cleveland. Her birthday is March 25th. (I can’t remember where I put my keys half the time, or remember to buy dishwasher detergent, but I can remember my first best friend’s birthday…and I haven’t seen her in 30 years.)
I remember Kleis’s Deli around the corner from where we lived, and walking there with my Dad to buy Pepsi in 8-packs of bottles, not cans. I remember Dad telling me he and Richie Kleis were best friends growing up, and I’d picture them playing sandlot baseball.
I remember watching Richie’s back, in a brown sport coat, his shoulders shaking as he stood by my Dad’s casket and said goodbye to his childhood friend, and my own pain taking a back seat to wanting to reassure him.
I can’t come up with anything usable from “I remember.” Except my truth.
I went from “This is too vague…” to tears running down my face in less than four minutes.
We talked in the workshop about why we write memoir and personal essay. For some of us, it’s to heal. For some, it’s to reveal hidden stories. For some, it’s to remember.
I laughed at myself again as I blew my nose and wondered aloud at the whys and wherefores of these long-dormant memories suddenly shooting to the surface.
Vicki reiterated something I’d once heard Erin O’Brien say in another memoir workshop: “The fact that you remembered means the story is worth telling.”
Memoir writing isn’t for the spineless. And for those who have had more pain than joy in their lives, it’s doubly so. I’ve had more joy than pain, thank God. I don’t want to just remember the hurt, but we have to dig under it to get to the life and the love. To get to the story and to your truth.