My husband, Rich, lost his memory after he was hit by a car and suffered traumatic brain injury. In a moment of perfect clarity, he once described his loss like this: “Pretend you are walking up the street with your friend. You are looking in windows. But right behind you is a man with a huge paint roller filled with white paint and he is painting over everywhere you’ve been, erasing everything. He erases your friend. You don’t even remember his name.” It’s terrifying. Because who are we without five minutes ago? Who are we without our stories?
Recently I went to a conference given by the Brain Injury Association of New York State, and I sat in on a talk by the director of a traumatic-brain-injury rehab facility. She said the first thing they do to assist a person who has experienced a loss, not just of memory but of self, is to make a story. With the help of family and friends, they write a story of the patient’s life—the events, names, and faces.
It is basic, our need for story, perhaps because it is such a handy way to carry our experiences around—story as container, so to speak. What was Rich carrying? He stared for a long time at a photograph of himself, his brother, and an old friend, taken maybe 65 years ago. I don’t know what went through his mind. Perhaps he wasn’t thinking; perhaps he was absorbing. There are notebooks he wrote a few things in when he first got hurt, trying to figure things out, things that made no sense to him. It’s what I do, too.
Writing is the way I ground myself, what keeps me sane. Writing is the way I try to make sense of my life, try to find meaning in accident, reasons why what happens happens—even though I know that why is a distraction, and meaning you have to cobble together yourself.
Sometimes just holding a pen in my hand and writing milk butter eggs sugar calms me. Truth is what I’m ultimately after—truth or clarity. I think truth’s what we’re all after, although I’d never have said such a thing when I was young. Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you are.
There are as many different kinds of memoir as there are motives for writing one. There is memoir written as pure story: you start at the beginning and end where you are now, a breathless headlong rush through what happened.
Or you can start at the end and look back, or with some middle moment, an event that precipitated change and clarity, or the need for clarity. Put the point of your compass there, and start circling. Ilene Beckerman has written a perfect memoir called Love, Loss, and What I Wore (Algonquin Books), an account of her life illustrated by what she was wearing at important moments. I believe someone else has fashioned a memoir composed entirely of lists.
The jumping-off place isn’t always obvious. You can’t always find the way in. Sometimes you need a side door. That’s where writing exercises come in. Here’s the one I give all my students the first week of class:
Take any ten years of your life and reduce them to two pages. Every sentence has to be three words long—not two, not four, but three words long.
You discover there’s nowhere to hide in three-word sentences. (“Walk by river. Stare at emptiness. Demons still around.”) You also discover that you can’t include everything, but half of writing is deciding what to leave out.
Learning what to leave out is not the same thing as putting in only what’s important. Sometimes it’s what you’re not saying that gives a piece its shape. And it’s surprising what people include. Marriage, divorce, love, sex—yes, there’s all of that, but often what takes up precious space is sleeping on grass, or an ancient memory of blue Popsicle juice running down your sticky chin.
When you have those two pages, run your mind over everything the way a safecracker turns the tumblers with sandpapered fingers to feel the clicks. If there is one sentence that hums, or gives off sparks, you’ve hit the jackpot.
Write another two pages starting right there.