WE’RE ON DIETS, my memoir work and I. Actually, we’re always on diets, unrelated to the time of the year. Why? Because at least for one of us, slender is easy. And you? How are you and your work shaping up?
I came to this diet idea after a recent first night of class when I asked for the topic each student will write as one essay, told in first person, at fewer than 750 words. I do this a lot, and as I go around the room, invariably each subject is too big, almost everyone saying something like “Gender. Being a sensitive man who came of age in America in the 1970s, I’m very sensitive to this idea of gender.”
Or: “My great-grandparents.”
These proposed topics must be shrunk or that writer will not come back, having failed to wrestle onto the page a monster of unmanageable heft. We’ll use that writing algorithm to boil down these both vague and enormous ideas into moments illustrating what the writer is truly after. Maybe gender guy is really quite uncomfortable on the sensitive topic of our true selves, and can recall the exact moment when things got slippery.
Those “aha!” moments in life are complex and interesting, as well as interesting to others, certainly more so than a screed on the gender sensitivity of any one man.
Boiling down great-grandparents is a cinch, and I’ll ask questions until the writer sees a moment where perhaps her ancestors’ tale can be told in the dab on the nose of some cupcake icing, or on the head of the inherited hatpin she gave her own daughter to defend herself on the New York City subway.
Right around the fourth or fifth person, someone will inevitably offer up the topic “My rat bastard boyfriend who just left,” and I know we’re making real progress.
“What did he take when he went?” I’ll ask.
If you want, you can simply list what he took. That’s right. Make a list. I love lists. They are a perfect conveyance for memoir. Try one, and see how little else you need for us to know what your story is about.