Finding the A-Ha Moments in Memoir

By Melissa Coleman

It was on a particularly trying day near the end of summer 2005 that I knew I had to start writing again. I’d had identical twin girls in February and my mommy patience was stretching to the limits of its elastic cord, threatening breakage. I’d been working on a novel before I got pregnant, but found that pregnancy and nursing demanded all of the creative energies I’d previously put into writing. I was also troubled by memories of my little sister, who was not much older than my own babies when she died. My husband said I should write about my sister, and my childhood growing up during the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, and try to make peace with it, but I knew I needed to find a new voice, one that reflected the ways in which my life had changed with the birth of children.

At Muse and the Marketplace that May, I’d found I had nothing literary to share with anyone, and while my babies brought me enough joy to make up for it, I was missing the sense of peace I found when writing regularly. Grub Street’s Six Weeks, Six Stories class seemed like a good way to get back in the saddle that fall. Living as I do in Freeport, Maine, I drove down to Boston once a week, dropping the girls in Cambridge with my mother and step dad during class. Jamie Cat Callan had us speed writing immediately, penning in urgent and messy, but often beautiful surges about whatever we could put to words during the flash assignments. It was there that I began to write about the pond that my sister and I used to play in as children. The pond in which my sister drowned. It was similar to an experience I’d had in a workshop with Tom Spanbauer five years earlier in Portland, Oregon. Shortly after finishing the Grub class, I began writing This Life Is in Your Hands, my memoir published by HarperCollins this April, 2011.

While I’ve been a freelance nonfiction writer most of my life and had the rough draft of a novel on a thumb drive, I had little clue what I was doing when I started writing This Life Is in Your Hands. I began by simply collecting the moments from the past that stood out for me as important somehow. I wrote them down on scraps of paper and added them to my file. Little things as simple as the smell of damp earth in spring, or the chickens scratching in the dust of the garden paths, the whistle of the wind in the trees, and the sound of the kerosene lanterns we used in our off-the-grid home. There were more specific memories like the joy of sitting on my father’s lap as he seeded his flats in spring, and my mother riding on the bus with me my first day of school, or “Pants Dance,” the call our farm apprentices used to warn each other of approaching customers when working naked in the garden.

Some of these memories were not so much mine as they were stories that had been passed down through the family over the years, like the motorcycle accident that my grandmother said changed my father’s life, or my mother telling me she learned to milk a goat with a learn-to-milk book in one hand and a goat’s teat in the other. Other memories came from photos. Over time the photo had supplanted the sensory memory, but in looking at the photo I could revive those lost details in a manner similar to Proust’s famous madeleine cookie.

I began to think of my core memories as glass beads. Each bead was slightly different and possessed its own unique beauty. Every time I sat down to write, I would take one of those beads from the basket and examine it and it would tell me its part of tale. The book that resulted was essentially the stringing together of these beads into a necklace.

I found that the most important memories are the incomplete ones. The ones you can’t quite grasp. These are the ones that you need to do some work to recover, whether it be research and interviews to uncover the facts, or just writing about them until they become clear. Sometimes when writing in the early mornings, I thought I was making the story up, but after checking with those present at the time, the stories turned out to be accurate. I had to trust that my writer’s brain had a lot better memory than I did.

The creative process, like memory, is a sequence of metaphors, really. One thing that reminds you of something else, that leads you to the next clue, that offers up a bit of wisdom, that finally answers a question you’d been trying to answer, or better yet, asks a new question. I would start off with an idea about something I wanted to write, but only through letting the writing guide me would I discover why I wanted to write about it and what its secret really was. I began to cherish the moment in writing when my breath caught and the fine hair on my arms stood up as when cold. It was the feeling of remembering a long forgotten clue, or realizing a truth I’d been so long hiding from myself.

Auden once said, “I look at what I write so that I can see what I think.” That is the key, I found, in writing memoir. Our written words can tell us more than we know on the surface.

The aha moments didn’t usually happen during the first draft when I was just trying to get the story down. They came days or months later when I read the draft over and could see the thing the words were trying to tell me beneath the details of the story. The clues might not be obvious to anyone else, only I knew what they meant. I began writing for that moment when they became clear.

And soon enough, (well, okay, four years after I began), the story and book crystallized into the form it was meant to take.

E. L. Doctorow once said writing is like driving in darkness. You don’t need the headlights to show you your final destination, only the road in front of you as you drive. Those flash writing assignments in that Grub Street class helped turn on those headlights and get me started on my way.

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