The fall of 1999. I’ve just begun my 2nd year of grad school, after taking a year off to live in Tucson, where my soon-to-be husband was completing his MFA in short fiction. I’m studying and writing only poetry, though the pull to memoir and nonfiction is there, an undercurrent that threatens to pull me out into unknown waters.
I finalize my course list for the semester and my work schedule on campus, where I am an academic advisor to international students. We live in a small one-bedroom apartment on Summer Street in Somerville, about 20 minutes on the red line from downtown Boston. I’ve made the decision to stretch myself by registering for a memoir class. It’s taught by a young woman whose name I don’t remember.
What do I have to write about? I’m 25. I am engaged. I have recovered from bulimia. I am the youngest of three sisters. I grew up in socioeconomic comfort as my parents climbed the academic ladders. I have one student loan but no other debt. I’m fluent in three languages. I want babies. I’ve started smoking again, after quitting, but don’t want my fiance to know. I work out at the gym before class, then smoke in the alley adjacent to 180 Tremont Street, where I take the stairs to my three-and-a-half hour night class with Bill Knott.
I have a love-hate relationship with workshops; I love the conversation that occurs around my classmate’s poems, and hate sitting quietly while they talk about mine. I hate writing poems on a deadline. I love the classes where we read Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams. Where we talk about whether poetry has to be hard. I don’t think so. I think that’s a crock of shit and say so. We have lively discussions and I’m in my element in a small classroom with a passionate teacher.
But the memoir class? I go once. I drop out.
I am not in my element. It’s not time yet.
And instead of exploring this, instead of seeing what happens when I try writing in a new genre, I run. I run to the gym. I run to the alley with my Marlboros. I run to my wedding planning and the dreams we have for starting our life together, all starry-eyed and excitedly talking about what cities or towns we might like to live in after I graduate in the spring.
But I do not write memoir.
My fear of not having anything to write wins this round. I stick to poetry, which feels safer, like I know the landscape, the terrain, the things to avoid and the parts to dive into. My advisor and I meet for beers and I wonder if he has a crush on me, even as I know how inappropriate this wondering is. He is an accomplished but relatively unknown poet himself, whose loneliness and broken heart seem to fuel his existence.
* * *
What I don’t know now is that in ten years, I will begin writing what I think is going to be a memoir. It will feel urgent, not unlike when I knew it was time to try to conceive each of our future children — a drive I can explain only as biological. I have a story inside of my body that needs to be born. I don’t know what its gestation period is, how long it will take. All I know is that I have to nourish it. I start writing as if every word is a prenatal vitamin for this embryonic someday story. I make lists of names. I use giant pieces of sticky paper on the walls as charts and maps and timelines, circles and topics. I print out every blog post I’ve ever written, scouring my own words for themes.
Bulimia, closet smoking, motherhood, marriage, mindfulness, discovering my Jewish identity — these all show up. And yet something is missing and I can’t put my finger on it. I write for several hours a day. I write chronologically, from the very beginning of my life. I’ve never done anything like this and it’s all-consuming, exhilarating, and also frustrating and confusing. Why can’t I figure out what the book is about?
* * *
Eventually, I take everything I’ve drafted and put it in a 3-ring binder. I roll up the charts and put the sharpies in a drawer. I go back to therapy and tell her I’m sitting on a landmine. Everything in me has been activated by the writing.
A few months later, I come out. I come out with so much force that my own body transforms within weeks into a barely recognizable version of myself. It’s as if I literally shed all the padding I’ve worn, of who I’ve tried so hard to be. In an instant, I understand. I understand why I dropped out of that memoir class. I understand why I couldn’t finish my book.
It still wasn’t time. Because I was still living it.
I couldn’t know what the book was about because it was buried too deeply in me.
And it was only then that I could finally begin again. Only after I’d given up on the whole thing. Let the writing go that had brought me as far as it could. It wasn’t a book; it was myself. And yet without the whole journey — the avoiding writing and later the deep dive into it — I would not have found my way to myself.
* * *
I am 25. I am too scared to try my hand at writing true stories. I stick to poetry, where I can swallow my voice and see it move through body or a poem, like an egg through a snake, whole. I can tell it slant, paying homage to Emily Dickinson, with whom I identify so closely that the first stanza of her poem #640 becomes an anthem of sorts:
I cannot live with You —
It would be Life —
And Life is over there —
Behind the Shelf
I fail to see the writing on the wall, the writing inside of my self-reflexive mind and hungry heart, that might have seen this anthem as something of a red flag for a woman about to be married. All I know is that some things don’t feel safe even though I can’t say why. What I am unable to see for another 11 years is that I am the unsafe thing.
* * *
There are many ways into writing memoir and some stories can’t be discovered without writing in big, looping circles. Once you open one door, there’s no telling what you’ll find — and this can feel like scary ground. At 25, I wasn’t ready. And with nearly 20 years between me now and that time, I can look back with great compassion for my younger self. I also feel that same compassion now every time I begin to write something new.
When you sign up for the Mini Memoirs group (March 5-26), you might feel nervous. Maybe you’re not sure what memory or moment in time you want to write about — or maybe you know exactly which one and yikes, this is a first. Maybe you worry you won’t be a good enough writer. (This fear was undoubtedly another reason why I dropped out of that class back in 1999.)
Here’s what I will tell you about this group:
It’s limited to 12 participants. Prompts are three days a week, to give you some breathing room on either side of each. And each prompt asks that you sit and write for just 10 minutes without stopping. It might not sound like much, and on the one hand, it isn’t. It’s manageable, no matter how busy you are. On the other hand, it is so much more than you think, in terms of just how much we can access and write in so short a time. I’ve seen the power of this over and over now for the past three years, and it never ceases to me how much beautiful and true writing can emerge with such seemingly simple and short assignments. I’ve moved through this series of prompts several times, learning more about myself at ages 9, 16, and 38 along the way.
You do not have to know in advance what you want to write.
Last but not least: This is safe and brave space, confidential and contained. What happens in the group stays in the group. Whether you’re writing to heal, explore your past, or generate new material for an essay or book, you will be welcomed, witnessed, and cheered on — by me and your fellow mini memoirists.
Is it time to plant and water those seedlings?
If you have questions about this (or any other) group, or if you want to set up a payment plan, just contact me and we can chat. Learn more about the group here, or register for your spot below. I can’t wait to write with you.