WRITE IT DOWN. I tell this to my memoir students all the time. Carry a notebook, index cards, write on your hands if you must, but write it down. Keep notebooks in car, next to your side of the bed, in the kitchen; tuck an index card into your back pocket, jacket pocket, jeans pocket. And carry a pen. And they do, and then right around the third class, someone asks, “Write what down?” Ah, what good students. I was waiting for that. Were you?
I’m always grateful when the question is asked. After 14 years of teaching, and more than 700 students, you’d think I might be tired of it, but I never am, because what we write down versus what we do not need to write down is about as important a distinction you’ll need to grasp to write well about your family.
The first thing to know is just because someone is going to dispute it, does not mean you don’t write it down. My sister, Margaret, and I have lots of topics on which we do not agree. We’ve made lists. (Here’s hers). We’ve disputed one another’s facts. She even thinks I make things up and that I have done so ever since I had an imaginary friend. No matter. We write things down, she and I. Always have.
But what do we write? Key phrases, the look of a room, bits of dialogue are good places to start. For instance, many of us enjoyed (endured?) the spring high holy days—Easter and Passover—during which we got together with family. Ah, family. Why have them if you can’t write about them? My sister and I have felt this way since birth. Right, Margaret?
And yet, when assigned to write about the those spring holidays, it was another sister I wrote about, a non-biological one, but a sister, all the same, the piece written from notes I took at the time of the event that were stored by subject in a file. Among those notes were the details of my daughter’s imaginary friend, along with details of a Passover spent at a generous sister’s home. I had jotted down a few things that night in my notebook. For instance, to remind me what she cooked, I wrote down, “homemade tortellini.” That detail tells us that it was not traditional Passover fare that was served that night, and is important to the story, since it heightens and adds to the theme of the non-traditional. So: details. Details are good.
How were your holidays? Now is the time to write down details of them so that next year, as these days again approach, you’ll be essay-ready with your version of the tale. It was those notes of Passover at a sister’s gracious home that allowed me to share mine with you. Soon on this site, I’ll be running an interactive calendar to help you along with your advance planning. Keep your eyes open. It’s coming.
In the interim, what’s in your notebook?