How to Write a Memoir

Writing a memoir can be as simple as taking a stroll through the neighborhood, and is often undertaken for similar reasons: we’re looking for something to get ourselves out of the rut of our moods and agendas. There is actually not a lot of difference between a stroll and a memoir. But unfortunately, what we think to write about can feel like it is being spooned out of a stagnant pond dammed off from the river in which understanding keeps surfacing.

A problem with memory is that we become lost in familiar ones and can’t find our way back to the living source that originally left them for us to find. Whether we’re just trying to make sense of some current situation or writing the story of our lives, we easily forget why we embarked on this journey in the first place. And so, we can’t return with the bounty of our travels.

With a memoir–as in each moment of our lives–when a remembered incident or insight arrives unexpectedly, almost as if it could have happened to someone else, it reminds us that there is a current running through our entire lifetime—even if we mainly notice the sparks of daily friction. Memories that come to mind frequently—for instance, every time we wash the dishes—speed past like taxis in a rain storm; and whatever journey they might have taken us on at one time, we are now left standing out in the rain. But when we are caught by surprise, we may realize “That too was me. I was really there, in this very lifetime”.

That forgotten moment may not carry us very far into the crannies into which our lives once took us, but once underway in the act of remembering, a doorway may open into an entire dimension we have forgotten. If we have become stuck in the ways we think about life, or want to write a memoir, it’s worth remembering that if we aren’t interested in our life, no one else will be either.

If I actually wanted to write a memoir, I might peer through the doorway of an incident that came back into my mind this morning. I was hiking in the Sandia Mountains with Bob Sinescu, a revered psychiatrist and teacher at UNM (he kindled in budding psychiatrists, recognition that they would encounter trauma and loss in their rotations at the Mental Health Center).

That morning, we hiked up the Piedra Lisa Trail at the east edge of Albuquerque and had reached the ridge that looks down on Placitas, 10 miles north of the city. I paused to rest beside a gnarled pinon tree for a few minutes, while Bob continued up the ridge. Just as I caught up with him, a deafening crack of thunder and simultaneous flash of lightening halted us in our tracks.

As we raced to get off this exposed ridge, I glanced towards the Pinon tree where I had paused to rest.

It was no longer there. In its place were scorched logs and kindling strewn across the clearing in which I had been sitting just moments before.

This memory came into my mind like a traveler returning from exotic foreign lands. Someone who was once me had witnessed that exploded pinon tree, and had known that if he had not stood up when he did, he would have been beheaded by a flying log hurled at the speed of sound.

Bob is not here to remember that moment. He died of cancer that year. But I have been granted another 40 years of life to weave into the stories I tell. Since I have already written two memoirs, talking about writing another one is just a metaphor for appreciating whatever continues to pop up on the surface of this river of life.

Strange that the thought of death has just come flying in the guise of an exploding tree. For Bob it was cancer that cut off his head. A sudden and unforgiving variant descended into his life not long after our hike. It prevented him taking a sip of the vichyssoise I made for him one afternoon, which, Betty, his wife, kindly claimed that he had tasted. But I knew he was already past the time of life when we can greet with pleasure the sensations that reside in embodiment.

Strange too that even this memory doesn’t have the power to remind me that my own death is waiting on the sidelines. I continue to act as if the Reaper may have forgotten about me. With so many of us dying every day, I still apparently believe that he may forget to collect some of us from time to time.

One comment to “How to Write a Memoir”
  1. Michael this blog is so evocative of so many things for me. Since I’m currently writing a memoir, I can relate first of all to the “stagnant pond” and how whole dimensions open up when we tug on a memory thread. I find the more weighted the memory emotionally, the more valuable for the memoir, and the more it takes out of me to open it up. Then the part about death and living as if death will pass us by. Even as the body proclaims it’s winding down, I find I still dream big dreams rather than appreciate everyday wonders.

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