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Everyone Has a Story to Tell

To write a memoir, cultivate the habit of listening to yourself.

A lot of writing consists of waiting around for the aquarium to settle so you can see the fish. Walking around muttering seems to hasten the process. Taking public transportation nowhere helps. Looking out the bus window lets the back of your mind move forward. Don’t listen to anything but natural sound. Don’t look at anything you have to turn on. This is about the pleasure of silence. This is not meditating; this is reacquainting yourself with yourself. Something interesting might enter your head if you let it alone.

Write two pages of uninspiring diary entries (to break the ice).

When I began writing Safekeeping—which is, for lack of a better word, a sort of memoir—I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was that I couldn’t stop. What were these little pieces I was feverishly scribbling? They had started coming a few weeks after an old friend had died, a man I’d been married to once upon a time, someone I’d known half my life. The pages piled up. Memories, moments, scenes, nothing longer than a few pages, some only a line or two. There was no narrative flow. There was no narrative at all. But these bits and pieces kept flying out of me, and I kept writing them down. I didn’t know if what I was doing would amount to anything, but I never cross-examine the muse. The only thing I was sure of was that I would stop with my friend’s death. Grief had been the catalyst; grief would be the end.

My editor turned it down. She wanted me to write a novel about that marriage. But life doesn’t arrange itself conveniently into chapters—not mine, anyway. And I wanted it to feel like the way I’ve lived my life.

Write two pages about the moment you knew something was over.

Write two pages that end with “You can’t get away from it.”

Write two pages of something that makes you laugh every time.

Is there one image or object that appears over and over in your memories? I don’t know what baked Indian pudding is doing alongside certain terrible moments, but I know that stirring at the stove is a meditative activity for me. My mind can go elsewhere, off its leash, while I stir the spoon round and round making circles, ellipses, parabolas, keeping the stuff smooth, keeping it moving so as not to burn the bottom. Adding more butter when nobody is looking.

Write two pages about the softest thing.

Write two pages about where you would fly if you could.

Sometimes all you have to do is open a jar. The smell of Noxzema takes me back to the summer of 1957 and the front seat of the old Hudson my boyfriend drove, and how we parked at the Amagansett beach at night and made out like crazy. Afterward I was afraid I was pregnant, even though we didn’t do anything but kiss. The fear and the pleasure is fresh to me every time I smell the stuff, and I keep a jar around so I can remember being young.

Write an ode to a part of your body.

Write two pages about your treasures.

Be sure to include what you can’t make fit neatly into your idea of yourself, or whatever it is that ruffles the smooth surface of your life story. Suppose at some point your mother told you that you had a half sister who was ten years older than you. Suppose you once discovered love letters in your father’s raincoat pocket, and never asked questions. So where does this stuff go? It doesn’t fit anywhere. To which I say, well, what is the anywhere where this doesn’t fit?

Write two pages about something you wish you didn’t know.

Write two pages about something you regret revealing.

Memoir is not a place to get revenge or to appear angelic or to cast oneself as victim. If that’s on your mind, write fiction. Memoir should not be self-serving, even accidentally. If you come out as anything but profoundly human, you’ve probably got the wrong motives for your writing or you haven’t stood far enough back, or come close enough.

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