Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:
Write for 10 minutes on this topic that “hits smack-dab into the heart of memoir.” Don’t sit there and wonder what to write about. Just write what you remember: a list of memories, a sustained memory, something in between, WRITE.
I remember . . .
those summer suppers. My mother, often brittle or rigid–afraid?–loosened up in the moist heat of Michigan summers and served those marvelous easy-going summer suppers. Bisquick strawberry shortbread for main course–one summer on the picnic table out back and one summer in the dank basement during a tornado warning. Huge zucchinis from ripping brown bags brought by family and neighbors were sliced, then dipped in beaten egg and flour and fried individually in my mother’s trusty electric frying pan. She carried that pan with her from our house in town to our lake cottage where we lived for three months every summer. The pan’s striped black cord snakelike between outlet and the pan heated right on our table, but the breaded slices were forked and eaten almost the moment she slipped her spatula under them and placed them on the paper-toweled plate. Large red tomatoes, also sliced, dripped seedy juice over the plate and then down our chins. Peapods, just hours off their stems from a farmer’s roadside stand, we ate with the zucchini and tomatoes. Boiled new potatoes. When I bit into one, its flesh so creamy and smooth, I barely recognized it as related to the aging Russets we ate in winter. I remember that in the winter, my mother built our meals around fried chicken, fried “hamburgs,” calves liver (‘n onions), pot roast, chicken (n’ dumplings), ground beef spaghetti, pork tenderloin, and the like. But in the summer, the only meats I remember were from my father’s grill–chicken breasts and hamburgers–and hot dogs for the fire pit Dad had built on the sand in front of the cottage. Summer foods were Michigan cherries, the raspberries my father grew because I loved them, strawberries, and peaches. They were the vegetables from my grandfather’s garden, from our neighbors’ gardens, from the farmstands. And I remember the ice cream that we swirled with Hershey’s syrup. The cherry and orange popsicles, the creamsicles and pushups. The fudgesicles. Next morning we had blueberries or strawberries with our cereal. When I make fried squash today I can have as much as I want–I don’t have to share with my parents, my brother, the ubiquitous guests at our table. I can have as many popsicles as I like. There is nobody to say, “One is enough.”
I went over the 10 minutes a bit as I didn’t feel I had finished what I wanted to say.
When you have a lot of memories it is sometimes hard to grab just one and write. I could have listed memories, but instead I took the very first memory that showed up right before my eyes and went with it for the assignment. When I look back at it, I see something interesting about memory and memories. I created a bit of a palimpsest. From Merriam-Webster:
noun pa·limp·sest \ˈpa-ləm(p)-ˌsest, pə-ˈlim(p)-\Popularity: Top 40% of words
Simple Definition of palimpsest
: a very old document on which the original writing has been erased and replaced with new writing
: something that has changed over time and shows evidence of that change
The palimpsest in this assignment can be found in the layering of the ages I was for these memories and the layering of the houses we lived in. For the strawberry shortcake memories in the basement and at the picnic table, we lived in the first house I remember. We lived there until I was past 8 1/2; that house had a bomb shelter in the basement. But we didn’t have the lake cottage until I turned 12. And, at the time we lived at the lake, we didn’t even live during the winter in the house we moved to after the bomb shelter house. We had already moved on to a third house! But you can’t see evidence of this in the assignment unless you have more information. This is one thing that makes memoir writing so difficult. Our memories form this palimpsest, where we are the documents upon which
“original writing” memories have been erased and replaced with new memories. But the original memories are never completely erased. We retain them in bits and pieces and they meld with the new memories. This creates these complex human brains of ours, but it makes memoir writing super difficult.
Go ahead and try it. Start here: I remember . . .