Into the Looking Glass
February 25, 2015
Upon joining the Association of Personal Historians, a growing organization of professionals committed to helping anyone who wants to preserve their life and family stories, I thought I’d check out some of the recommended resources on memoir writing to hone my craft. I started with Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away.
Goldberg is a poet, an author, and a writing teacher. She inspires and encourages writing, in general, and writing memoirs, more specifically, with beautiful language, thoughtful advice, and practical exercises. But she’s also a disciplinarian, a stickler for details. She won’t accept excuses, although she’d be pleased if you wrote about them.
Goldberg rounds up the usual subjects that you can cover in a memoir – grade school, driving lessons, favorite holidays, and places called home. And then there’s the unusual – your mother’s shoes, your father’s dresser, your brother’s bicycle. Regardless, her exercises always have a point: she wants you to get in the practice of writing. As she observes, “There are no prescriptions in writing, no one way that will get you there forever. A little jig, a waltz, the cha cha, the lindy, a polka – it’s good to know a lot of moves, so when it’s your time, which is right now, you can dance your ass off.”
If you’re writing a life history, Goldberg also wants you to get in the routine of remembering. “Memory doesn’t work so directly,” she advises. “You need to wake up different angles.” Often her directive following her ruminations on a topic is: “Go. Ten minutes.” On this particular subject it’s to spend time on the phrase “I remember.”
As imaginative as some of Goldberg’s suggestions are, not everyone will willingly go where she leads. Clients might not feel like jotting down their thoughts about sex or money. Thinking about “the road not taken” or describing a winter funeral once attended might be deemed counterproductive to the task at hand. However, her sentiments are heart-felt and wise.
I recommend Old Friend From Far Away to anyone who wants to step through the looking glass into a seemingly distant world. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, especially if you practice.
© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved