Thursday, August 6, 2015

What Are You Working On?

It's been a dozen years since I entered the world of writing, seven since my first book, a memoir, was published. Now, three novels later, I'm re-entering the memoir world, re-learning the techniques I've used and taught in multiple classes and workshops.

It's one thing to teach students to list Memoir Moments as a tool for retrieving lost memories and shaping a story. It's a different thing to stare at a blank page with an equally blank mind and try to pull up stubborn memories buried deep in the gray mass of my brain. It's not like I'm writing about my childhood. My work-in-progress deals with my Mexico years. It's a story of friendship. Three women - a Brit, a Bahamian, and an American - meet in Mexico City. They each marry and later divorce Mexican men. Three decades later they reunite in London and joke about writing a book together about their adventure: The Ex-Mexican Wives Club.

I was twenty-five when I moved to Mexico City. I lived there for three years before meeting and marrying my ex-husband. The memories should be there, clear and easy to access. Instead they are hidden behind a veil of thick fog I struggle to navigate through. Who was that confused young woman and why did she make so many self-destructive decisions? Or were they decisions at all? I seemed to float rudderless through my twenties and early thirties, and today I'm left with no compass to find my way back to that younger me.
 How do I retrieve those memories? I do what I tell my students to do. I list memoir moments - those moments that pop into my head, usually as visual images, sometimes triggered by smells or music, often triggered by the simple act of writing. So I spend time writing against the clock, listing memories as they surface, one following another. Just a list to begin with. Later I'll turn those moments into startlines to use each time I practice timed writing.

I also go back to the LPs stashed away under the basement stairs, the boxes of photographs from the 1970s and 1980s, and the box of old journals at the bottom of a closet, in hopes of excavating memories and finding details of the times.

In the postscript to Slow Motion, Dani Shapiro also mentions pulling out old journals to try to piece together memories of her 20-something self as she began writing her memoir. But then she chose not to read her own words. Too many years, too many tragedies and joys, too many changes have filled the intervening decades for me to rely on memory alone. I only hope my journals and photos will jog memories of the young woman I once was, the friends I once had, and the world I once knew. That world existed long before the War on Drugs and 9/11 when crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico in either direction was as simple for a young white American woman as crossing the Washington/Oregon border. That world is gone now, as is the young, naive ex-pat who was convinced she'd found her home in Mexico.


Jack said...

Writers have just three problems: How to start, how to keep going, how to finish. If you solve those three, you've got it made.

arleen said...

You're absolutely right, Jack. Thanks for sharing.