Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

Manipulating Memories

Okay, yes I get it.  People were gagging on my happy do gooder prose.  Fine.  I’ll turn ‘serious’ for a spell.  It’s better for my book anyway.

I am taking a memoir writing class at The Writer’s Grotto in San Francisco.  When you want to get something done (like oh, I don’t know…write a book), the best way to motivate yourself is by paying someone to give you deadlines and harsh critique.   It helps when the deadline giver is a New York Times Bestselling author (like mine) as opposed to someone who writes for the ‘Neighborhood Daily’ while working as a convenience store clerk.  Best selling authors also charge more, but for some reason the more I pay, the more I seem to write.  Although I have drafted stories and poems since I could hold a pencil in my hand, the art of book creation is not only more complicated, it is also incredibly emotional.  I am not just learning how to better manipulate the written word, I am also learning how to manipulate my memories.

Perception is, after all, reality.

I had a chapter from my book work-shopped last week.  For those that are unfamiliar with writing classes, having a piece work-shopped consists of the following:

  1. You send out a working sample of your work
  2. The class reads it and makes snarky comments in the margins about what they rather enjoyed and what they found rather pathetic
  3. In the next class you read an excerpt aloud and then go in the corner, put on a dunce cap, and remain mute while the rest of the class takes turns critiquing your prose.  They reference you  (“the author”) in the third person.  You cease to exist; your writing is your only identity.
  4. When they are done commenting, you say thank you, take off your dunce cap, and go back to your seat, cheeks red. Everyone passes in their notes and you pretend that you aren’t naked and haven’t just released your innermost thoughts.
  5. Once home you read through the notes, decide what to accept and what to disregard, and type away furiously, fueled by a desire to perfect your story.  It is during this vulnerable time where bottle(s) of wine are consumed for both inspiration and consolation.

Luckily, my classmates were kind to me.  They enjoyed my imagery and position of words of paper.  However, they all had the same critique.  “You allude to skeletons in suitcases but then you stop.  It’s a tease. We need to know more about what happened.  You are still hiding behind your work.”

I didn’t write more depth because I haven’t been able to.  As most people often find, going ‘there’ was challenging.  Not only had I no desire to remember uglier times, I had no clue on how to portray them on paper.  Memories are not facts.  They are a recreated reality based upon our own interpretation….and willingness to admit the details.  Even though I’m a linguist, my own life was one thing I struggled to translate to the masses.

So instead of facing my past, I’d spent the past few weeks writing happy-go-lucky stories about Valentine’s Day. It put a skip in my step….a skip right over the puddles of  ‘stuff’ I was supposed to be writing about. I wonder how many others of us also hide behind sugar coated frivolity or joking banter.  Comedians always seem to have the saddest childhoods.

Writing well requires diving into all facets of yourself and emerging…better, or at least more complete.  In class we learned that the “diving process” can be so painful that memoir writers scream aloud when reliving their lives.  Some authors in the Writer’s Grotto actually have a thick leather belt that they strap themselves to the chair with as they type so that the don’t run away.

I am not sure that I want to completely strap myself in, but I do need to force myself to think through every event that I have been escaping so that I can start to paint a complete picture for both my readers and myself.  I’m doing it for a book, but the effects are quite therapeutic.

Memories are a kaleidoscope of colors.  We can change how we present them by shifting the lens.  Our pasts can become dark or bright, depending on the angle we choose to look through.  But before we color code, we must first unleash them.  Otherwise they will fester inside of us, haunting us for years to come.

It’s time to go down my own rabbit’s hole, confront the uglies, and pick out the color palette to paint them over with.  I will start my chapter again from the beginning….

“Where are you from?”

Anytime I travel I always seem to get this same perplexing question. Well, nowhere. Everywhere.  I don’t know how to explain my movement over the years.

“My parents were carnies,” I lie.  “We traversed the earth.  I also spent a lot of time in a box being sawed in half.”

But it was precisely a box that I wanted to escape. Being from ‘somewhere’ immediately put me in one.  In addition to myself, I was also trying to un-box the women along my journey.  I wanted to write their stories, illustrating their complexities, their beauty, and undo existing stereotypes.  However, I wasn’t prepared for how the stories would affect me, the woman across the table….

1 Discussion on “Manipulating Memories”
  • I haven’t been part of a writing class for a long while, and that is because they are how you described! Quite difficult, but I guess quite helpful too. Perhaps I should follow your lead. 🙂

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