HOW TO START? It’s a question I get all the time. Where to begin a piece of memoir?
A few years ago, while writing a book, I went behind the scenes in the world of forensic science, attending forensic entomology school, and blood-spatter-analysis class, and somehow managed not only to enter the morgue but to stay for a five-and-a-half-hour autopsy, my first.
And it was there, as the fear subsided, that I inched closer to the body of a man dead ten days, and marveled at the connection between things. In the big experience, it was the small things that changed me: The ribcage’s perfect arch harboring the heart made me weep; witnessing it felt like a near occasion to faith.
The morgue also presented some unique metaphors for understanding writing, the most profound of which was there in the spine: The vertebrae, those odd individual muffins of bone that hold us together. Take one out, weigh it in your hand, bounce it up and down and have a look at it, and that’s an essay, or a blog post, each of which must be as precisely designed as individual vertebrae. Snap that vertebra back into being an essential part of the spine and the spine is whole again, much like a long-form memoir.
Seeing our connections, considering them, describing them—that’s where writing what you know begins. I’m quite sure of that, as well as of a few more things, at least when it comes to writing memoir. Beginning memoir writers frequently think that the only place to begin is at the beginning — at their births. Not so. Look to the things that connect us. You’ll be amazed.
If you’d like to see what I did with my moments in the autopsy suite, see here, a piece I read on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.