“I remember…”

Painting The Writing Master by Thomas Eakins

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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.


15 thoughts on ““I remember…”

  1. Yeah I have lots of stories that I have been telling myself I need to write…someday. I do think I am gaining the courage and connecting with others, like you, who have the courage is helping me. I am so glad Donna conneted here with you as well. Her stories are inspiring.

    I love the idea – and believe it as well – that our words find their way to those who need it when they need it. It has been true that words have founf their way to me when I have needed it most. I think back to your Mother of all Questions post and you believing you are here to help others on their journey…stories do that.

    17 years this coming June when my dad passed away. I still miss him terribly and think about him every day. I feel him with me always. He gives me signs…especialy when I need them most. 🙂

    And yes – please do email me about being a guest blogger!

  2. Elizabeth, Liane Benedict from Walkabout sent me your way and I am glad she did…..I contribute writing pieces for her blog…I add bits of memories to my blog writing and it is many times for all the reasons you give…I love how Vicki said it is about telling your truth and that is what I write in hopes it helps me…if it helps others than so much the better…can’t wait to read more of your blog

    • Thank you, Donna! I’d told Vicki during the workshop that I always equated memoir with “important, lofty, grand, elegant, famous” and words like that. I would think about multi-volume autobiographies, or memoirs of people who lived in the jungles of Africa doing “important work” or something like that. And I figured my life was too normal to be interesting, lol!

      But it’s my story, it’s made me who I am and put me on a path. It helps me remember, and I find that regular practice of writing the memories and the feelings that go with them makes it easier for me to verbalize what I’m feeling too.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts!


  3. And Elizabeth…I would love for this to appear on WalkaboutChronicles. Might you consider sharing another post with us? In fact, might you consider being a regular guest blogger for WC sometimes?

    • First of all, a virtual hug (((Liane))). 🙂 This July marks 20 years since my dad died (I was just out of college), and sometimes it hurts like it happened last week. I still miss him and he would have been a super grandfather.

      What I am finding out is that there is always someone who will care about what you have to say, and there is always someone who’s life will be impacted by your words. When I spoke at church in February about the healing power of writing, one thing I really wanted to express was that even decades or centuries from now, your words will find their way to the person who needs to hear them the most. They have immediacy and importance for you, but who knows? Years from now, your story may be sitting on a shelf somewhere, or your great-great-grandchildren might find it in a box in the attic and sit down and read it…and something, even one sentence, will resonate. And that feeling is something they’ll take with them and share with someone else.

      “Memoir writing is not for the spineless”…that occurred to me as I was working with the prompt, and as I was revisiting an essay I wrote. It was kind of like issuing a “triple dog dare” to myself. There are lots of joys, but lots of tears too and I think we have to have one to appreciate the other. I miss people and places from my childhood and I do not want to forget them. I have been saying to myself “I’m going to write about this” for about five years…maybe longer. So it was time to ask myself if I had the “ordinary courage” necessary to actually write it…and I think I do now.

      I hope you DO write the stories that are telling you to write them, and I hope there’s some happy tears in there too!

      And, by all means, I would be honored to have this appear on WalkaboutChronicles! Please feel free to use it. And I’d love to be a regular guest blogger. I will email you!


  4. I was crying within about a minute….I did not see that coming. A few things you said here really stand out for me…

    Telling “your” truth…so being authentic not only with how we live in the moment but how we remember our story.

    The fact that you remembered it a story worth telling…I have always felt I have such a bad memory of my life and the details but as I read your details a flood of things that mattered came rushing into my head – even standing at my own father’s casket. And I have always felt no one would care about what I had to say…but maybe its not for them that I tell it…which brings me to the other things that stood out…

    Memoir writing is not for the spineless…

    I think I need to write. I thank you for thispost that has helped me have this in the moment realization that has been lingering underneath for some time. I have felt compelled to write something. I squashed my writing and telling of stories a long time ago and its been slowly rising to the surface again. Now I know I need to write.

    Thank you! 🙂

  5. Wow…thank you for this. Having just written a memoir of sorts (and by the way, I had a FABULOUS editor 😉 I can very much relate. But you know what?? Your musing about “I remember” made ME remember something I did many years ago for my Dad. I wrote about a whole slew of little memories about him and me and I wrote each one on a small piece of paper and folded each one and put it in a ceramic jar. He treasured that. After he died, it was the only thing I really wanted. Now it sits on my shelf behind my desk. And now I’m thinking about something… 🙂

  6. Isn’t it shocking the way two little words ” I Remember …” could set off a succession of thoughts and memories? I think “Memoir” writing is the most difficult because of the painful memories that do start to surface; yet, those are the stories that most people want to read. We seem to find solice in knowing someone elses pain was greater.
    Enjoyed this Elizabeth

    • Thanks, Isadora! It does seem like the more painful or sensational memoirs are the ones that become best sellers, or that get reviewed and wind up on NPR or Oprah. That’s why I’ve kind of tap-danced around the idea of writing memoir up to this point – my life has been really normal. And normal I’ve equated with boring. But it doesn’t have to be. In the workshop, it was one of the things I brought up and that the group discussed: “memoir” has this patina of grandeur and stature and loftiness, and I’m so not lofty or elegant or notable.

      But we all have our own stories, and sometimes the meadowlark is more noticeable than the marching band. 😉

  7. Thanks, Rox! I’ve read Adair Lara’s articles in Writers Digest – very encouraging. In a common sense way, I know that we all have to start somewhere…the important thing is to start. Yet, for some crazy reason I expect the first sentence to rival “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” every time. After I wrote the “lame” sentence – I could hear Anne Lamott prodding me with three words: $h!tty first drafts. And after that, I just wrote what floated up from my subconscious.

  8. roxanelinnell says:

    Wow. This is incredibly moving. Shoulders shaking in a brown sports coat – that image brought tears to my eyes a well, and about as fast. And how odd that we both chose to write about memoirs today – at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference I attended a workshop of Adair Lara’s on memoir writing, something I had never thought much about previously. In regard to “starting out lame”, may I say that I am a huge fan of the technique? Almost always leads to something decidedly not lame. {{hugs}}, great memories, great thoughts.

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