Writing Lessons: The Role of Memory in Writing What You Know

Wedlocked FrontTHE ROLE OF MEMORY in writing is simply one of the most compelling topics there is for memoirists. And then there is the topic of marriage, by far one of the top subjects I read about in my classes. But what happens when you combine the two topics in one lesson? Something magical, I assure you. Taken together, there is no writer whose voice I’d rather hear on those subjects than that of Jay Ponteri, author of Wedlocked. Read on to see why.





Working from Inadvertent Memory

By Jay Ponteri

For me the joy of memory-based writing arises from recalling a memory I could not have imagined and did not plan on recalling before that present moment of composition. I’m talking about working from inadvertent memory. This kind of memory rises to the surface of consciousness without intention or design on my part. I don’t reach for memory—I let memory reach for me. I do my best to clear my mind—to get out of the way—and then pay close attention to what materializes. Inadvertent memory may or may not be recurring memory, may or may not be traumatic memory, may or may not be joyful memory, may or may not be new memory. I hold no expectations about its content or emotional tissue. Like the sensorium rising in that fuzzy liminal space between wakefulness and sleep, inadvertent memory appears unbidden, without explanation or order. Coming from that deeper, more conflicted self we often tuck away to make it through the ordinary day, inadvertent memory drips with contradictory emotion, inexplicable mystery, and myriad possibility. I show my trust in the writing process by making “mystery” a central part. My best and only plan is not to have one.

One memory moves me to the next instance of consciousness, which might be another memory or sequence of memories or a line of inquiry or a dream or a memory of a dream or dream-like inquiry! I attempt to describe whatever passes through my consciousness, and even though I miss tons, I catch some. The poet Mary Ruefle says, “I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

In my memoir, Wedlocked (Hawthorne Books, 2013), I recall my struggles of feeling lonely inside of my marriage and how, in the face of that loneliness, I isolated myself, I escaped—in fantasy, in desiring The Other, in formulating a narrow picture of myself alone amidst others, never with others. Thoughts, ideas took me into inadvertent memory. I recall my desire not to hold my wife’s hand on a vacation. That memory led me to recall my parent’s marriage, which gave way to a daydream of young men bludgeoning each other in medieval Europe. And it all spoke to my present need to make myself more visible in my life, in my marriage, to show my wife the real me I couldn’t show her but in my prose.

My favorite examples of this kind of meditative memoir offer much variety in theme and style: Joe Brainard’s I Remember; Edouard Leve’s Autoportrait; Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Woolgathering; Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights; W.G. Sebald; Robert Walser; Mary Ruefle’s prose; Eileen Myles’s prose; David Shields; Geoff Dyer. The need to remember is investigated just as much as the inadvertent memory is described. Plot and dramatic conflict and “staging” become secondary to meditation and dream.

Wedlocked, an excerpt

I remember speaking on the telephone long-distance to a friend, a female friend. We were catching up with each other, e.g., children birthed, books read, votes cast. My pregnant wife was out in the backyard, mowing the dandelions, or I thought she was till I heard a knock at the back door, which meant my wife was locked out and needed back in the house. Continuing to speak on the telephone, I unlocked, then opened the back door to my wife, her eyes swollen, cheeks tear-streaked, and lips crumpled and cracked. I knew right away she’d been in our garage-turned-studio, reading manuscript pages not meant for her to read, manuscript pages to this very book. The work was very rough. I had yet to make up names for secondary characters, which is to say, the women I wrote about, the women I thought and fantasized about or had had past relationships with weren’t named Frannie, the name of my composite character, the name of my female ideal. I’d used actual names of real women, e.g., Georgia Peterson or Elaine Von Waggoner or Missy Navarro, names familiar to my wife because they were friends, co-workers, ex-girlfriends. Even though I write a combination of memoir and essay, the truth is I fabricate brief instances, exaggerate dramatic encounters, and amplify (thus distort) discussions with my various selves, digging for what I do not know, like I do not know how two people can sustain a marriage over a lifetime or how and why we give up erotic love for companionship or why, just as I’ve created something meaningful and, dare I say it, healthy, I punch the self-destruct button or why erotic love, once consummated, begins to vanish or why the best sex I’ve ever had is in my head. (Not that I’ve figured any of this out now having written and revised the manuscript.) My wife had known I felt uncertain about our marriage. In couples therapy, I’d told her there was so much inside me I couldn’t share with her and all of our issues (my struggle with touch and my shameful fear of rejecting her) seemed to press right up against this concealed inner life. What was I dissembling? I had been thinking a lot about Frannie. I couldn’t go ten seconds without conjuring up Frannie’s sullen, hazel-freckled face. — What are you smiling about? My wife would ask, handing me her basket of dirty laundry. — Nothing, I’d say, recalling a disparaging comment Frannie had made earlier in the day over coffee, the kind of bitchy prattle in which my wife would never indulge. — A joke, I’d say to my wife, — One I heard at work. No, I had not initiated any extramarital touch but each afternoon I’d visit the café in which Frannie worked. We’d talk about literature, music, our dogs and she’d pour me free decaf lattes. I didn’t ogle her or linger at the counter like other men who held crushes on her yet inside I constructed a beautifully blistering alternate reality in which Frannie and I muddled around together like teen lovers, broken, lascivious, uncomfortably confessional, unapologetically unhealthy, a life of coffee, cigarettes, and gravy fries. Mine and Frannie’s friendship in reality helped me to populate my capacious and insatiable fantasy life with players and situations, and the loneliness and sadness engendered by such dreams became the manuscript’s raw material. I wrote about imagining my wife’s death and letting Frannie console me. I wrote about my proclivity to sit in cafés dreaming up varying scenarios of meeting women. Certainly one could argue the book, that is, the manuscript taken in its entirety, is a single, sustained dream of the other but that would be reducing the work because it’s about other things too and honestly the writer is not the best person to say what his book is about. The point is the women in my fantasies had drastically different personalities than my wife. Of course there were other daydreams about which I did not write: a first kiss on the steps of a church in Frannie’s neighborhood; a quiet, studious life in North Berkeley, a shabby cottage amidst an unkempt and overgrown yard and inside, unlit rooms that seem to swallow whole the yard’s cool shade, rooms with hardwoods that creak and buckle as our shadows leap out in front of our steps, Frannie standing at our wall of shared books, fisted hands in pockets and head tilted, scanning spines for a title to bring with her to bed, me kneeling before her mons pubis. What was more beautiful than the mons pubis of the woman about whom I dreamt? Perhaps more beautiful were her bare legs tangled in blue sheets. Her body in repose. Mine and Frannie’s life is not heavily scheduled. We do not have a baby or pets. We do not obsess over house repairs or lawn and garden care because we rent. We sit around and read sad books and listen to sad records and watch sad movies and we fuck a lot too and if we leave the house, it is for food or coffee or a book and occasionally we ride BART into the city and we don’t stay in touch with extended family nor do we discuss 401(k)s, drywall materials, or getting together with So-and-So for dinner. Very romantic stuff, I admit. I didn’t imagine the painful route I’d have to take to arrive at a new relationship: screams, fist poundings, door slams, the spit of our incompetence, a frosty separation followed by a soul-killing divorce and a new apartment in which my son couldn’t fall asleep, the dark hallway (bulb burnt out) connecting his new bedroom to the living area with kitchenette and lumpy futon. Or if I imagined cheating on my wife, did I imagine the elaborate lies and the shabby network of visible tunnels through which adulterers must move, did I imagine the substantial time commitment necessary to flip between two relationships or the bodily exhaustion of living so close to the heart’s white knuckle or my wife’s face upon finding a condom wrapper in the basement? Which is to ask, did I imagine the reality of adultery, that it rarely lasted? Did I imagine the chiseling pain and unending disappointment my wife might feel after finding out I had betrayed her? Did I imagine the indefatigable shame I might feel about my own behavior? My secret desire for Frannie seemed to fasten me to an illusory present moment, but not any foreseeable future. And of course I realized human beings were naturally inclined to share meals with other human beings, and yes, I enjoyed the company of my adult siblings and parents and great aunt but I wished to free myself from activity that didn’t bring me the kind of pleasure I felt from solitude, beauty, and desire. I still felt like that kid tired of being dragged around by his parents on this or that errand or to that family brunch or Sunday mass or golf club. My dreams pulled me out of bed, placed one foot in front of the other, padded the lonely walls up against which my life threw me. Mine and my wife’s marriage seemed to  balloon with inventory. We owned a house, two dogs, a car, we shared bank accounts and credit cards and my wife scheduled nights and weekends with activities (dinner parties, movies, etc…) and now, a baby? This inventory required cataloguing, monitoring, maintenance. My wife kept a calendar on which I forgot to write down all of my important events. I needed to take the car in for an oil change and then check and reset the rat traps. My head felt overcrowded with to-dos: work, doctors’ appointments, electronic bill pay, household chores, grocery lists, weekend plans, weekday plans, weeknight plans. My secret, imagined life consoled me while erasing my wife into a smooth, blank space, an empty screen on which to project more dreams. I flew to Berkeley by myself to conduct research for a story I was writing and I recall walking up Shattuck Avenue towards Black Oak Books, nurturing a Frannie dream, spotting a bungalow I liked, a ramshackle, leaning house with untended garden. This house became a reality prop with which I could now use to furnish the house I truly wanted to inhabit – the one of my dreams. Braiding the real with strands of the fantastic distorted my sense of self enough to mute the loneliness I felt. I thought, Frannie, let’s deal with overgrown myrtle next year, or: Is my copy of Too Loud A Solitude in your to-read pile? Or:

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Woman Who.
Woman Whom you love.

I didn’t exactly breathe complications into my fantasies, that is, in fantasy I turned away from (not towards) complexity and mystery. In fantasy the mist-filled atmosphere, the loose dress, the minimal furnishings, the scratched timbre of two voices folding into each other – it all lacked ordinariness, the accumulation of burnished years. Dried skin flaked off to reveal moist dermis vulnerable to any touch. In fantasy I was not becoming my father (and not-my-father) nor did I scratch myself or fart. Nobody was beating me up or making me watch. No sour breath or lumps in breasts or funerals I felt guilty for not attending, no car pools, no stained underpants balled up inside a dirty T-shirt or denial or awareness of said denial, no hard and cold lips on my stubbly cheeks. No broken bicycle, no empty wallet. The moment I brushed up against such mystery, the fantasy ended. I didn’t understand that the elation wrought by my dreams was, at best, fleeting and at worst, intoxicating. I woke up in a bad mood for no discernible reason. The day seemed to end before it really did. A child comes upon a closet in a cold unfinished basement, dark, seemingly endless, unfathomable, and he retreats back upstairs. My dreams seemed to say, Come to me, follow along, but there was no place to go except away. Some images I could have never dreamt, could only attain through experience, e.g., what her face looked like when it was close to mine, her clammy skin and hair tumbling, her eyes sort of lolling beneath halfopen lids, her wolfing mouth rising to mine. Meanwhile my wife, five-months preggers, dined with close friends and discussed the alien inside her body, possible names, would there be a shower, with or without those stupid games, the benefits of midwifery, ten fingers and ten toes. In other words, very real things.

Author bio

Jay Ponteri‘s memoir, Wedlocked, was recently published by Hawthorne Books, April 2013. He directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Marylhurst University and show:tell, The Workshop for Teen Writers & Artists. He is the founding editor of both the online literary magazine M Review and HABIT Books, a publisher of prose and poetry chapbooks. His chapbook of short prose, Darkmouth Strikes Again, is being published by Future Tense Books, summer 2014. His essay “Listen to this” was mentioned as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2010. He has published prose inDel Sol ReviewSeattle ReviewSalamanderCimarron ReviewPuerto Del Sol, andForklift, Ohio, among others. Most recently he published an essay on a Robert Walser sentence in Tinhouse.com‘s “Art of the Sentence” series. New work has just appeared in Ghost Proposal.


I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.

It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.

The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.

The winner of the book is Amy Mak. Congratulations, Amy! I’ll be in touch to send your book.


  1. says

    What amazing writing. Thank you. For two years house sitting and traveling I resonate fully with being ‘alone amidst others, never with others’, and yet blessed with the time and space for allowing inadvertent memory (not a concept I was aware of until reading this) to work its magic.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Becky. I think many artists and writers get used to working in solitude or simply watching others, being on the outside looking in. It can be a very helpful thing for writing but not so helpful in our relationships.

  2. Lynda Lee says

    Oh my goodness… this excerpt from Wedlocked reminds me of Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone, an Oprah’s Book Club choice in May 2000. I did not typically go for Oprah’s book selections, but when I saw the commercial for this one, with Oprah asking “When does adultery begin? Does it begin when you first THINK about it?” — I knew I had to read that book. In those now-distant days, I was “happily” married (the lie I told myself), but in my fantasies I was having a torrid affair with a gorgeous guy I was mentoring on a charity committee.
    Warning: Books like this can totally change the direction of your life!
    Back in May 2000, as I was reading Sue MIller’s While I Was Gone, I became so overwhelmed with how closely that book paralleled my own life, that I stopped halfway through and wrote an email to Oprah, pouring out my feelings. I did it as a catharsis, expecting nothing more to come of it. But within 30 minutes the phone rang. It was a producer from the Oprah Show, asking if my husband and I would be willing to appear on her show to discuss Sue Miller’s book.
    We said yes, a decision that destroyed our marriage and very nearly destroyed me in the process…. but ultimately saved my sanity!

    • says

      Wow, Lynda. Thanks for sharing your story! What a great question (“Does Adultery first begin when you think about it?”). I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question. I think plenty of people think about adultery (dream of others); the more operative question is do you somehow share that with your spouse, even acknowledge it, have a conversation about it, or does it become a source of isolation, as in, I will hide this. What Wedlocked explores is the latter—that impulse to hide. Thanks again for your comment. Kind regards.

      • Lynda Lee says

        I agree, Jay, the danger lies in the isolation that secrets cause in a marriage. Thanks to my experience in the summer of 2000, I have a new motto: Fear No Truth. Facing the truth, painful though it may sometimes be, really does set us free. In my warning about books like this having the capacity to change one’s life, I should have also said “…and that’s a very GOOD thing!” Because, when the truth came out it hurt, but it also ultimately led to freedom and healing. I would not want to undo any of it!

  3. says

    The writing is so good! And made me so mad – I could just see the wife at the back door, so betrayed after reading the pages of an alternate fantasy life with no mortgage or rat traps. I learned I want to write like this; to make other people feel as mad as I did :)

    • says

      hi, Amy. Thanks so much for your comment. I understand your anger for sure. The fantasy life is ordinary, but isolating from your spouse can be very hurtful. As I gesture towards in one of the replies above, what I didn’t know to do (or didn’t have experience up to that point doing) was STAY in the most difficult of moments together. My book tells the story is not staying. Again, thanks so much for reading the excerpt and sharing your thoughts. Kind regards.

  4. says

    Hi Jay–although I don’t think I’m up for sticking with the sordid devolution of your marriage, I have to say the writing is breath-taking. Almost enough to make me want to read it. Even from this little excerpt I gleaned some important clues about my own forms of detachment, and the too-easy slide into quotidian business with a spouse. Good reminder, thank you. But I will indeed pursue some of your other writing. I’ve never heard a better description of this state of mind: “Like the sensorium rising in that fuzzy liminal space between wakefulness and sleep…” I’ve been looking for that description for years. Thank you.

  5. says

    Describing whatever inadvertently passes through one’s consciousness is powerful. Deadly. Honest. Life-giving. I doubt many married men would have the courage to write—I mean publish—Wedlocked. Are you sure the manuscript pages were not meant for your wife to read? Did you need to be exposed?

    As I read the excerpt, I became lost in the fantasies to the extent I began to actually believe them. And then I wondered if you believed them, too. The liminal space between fantasy and reality is thin and fluid.

    For me, the whole of your memoir is a mystery I’d love solved. What a mind and pen you have, Jay—thank you!

    Keeping Spirits Alive,

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