SINCE PUBLICATION OF THE MEMOIR PROJECT, my irreverent little book on how to write memoir, there has not been one day that I have not wanted to tweak it, adding a small thought or a phrase to what I published in its pages. And why not? Every day I learn another thing or two about this great art of writing what you know. Just today it was something new about how to write a first draft.
Here it is: Your life is a pantry, but to write about it you must choose one feast at a time for which to cook. This came to me while speaking to one of my memoir coaching clients who was wrestling, really struggling, with getting on with a book. Perhaps we’ve reviewed the same opening pages together five or six times now. I’ve got to get her to move on. She wants to move on. And so the pantry metaphor was invented.
The way I see it, your life stories all sit in your pantry closet. Open it up. See them? They are all there on the shelf paper, some better organized than others, some bursting through their wrappings, or filled to the brim in their glass containers. Varied as they are, they have one thing in common: They are waiting to be cooked up. Some, like that organic, twelve-dollar-a pound crystalized ginger, are highly specific to one use or another; others, like all-purpose flour, are positively multi-use; that za’atar, yeah, well, I’m not sure what that’s for either but I own it too. And then there is that two-hundred-year-old Cadbury chocolate pictured above. You know what to do with that, right?
Standing in front of that pantry you take stock. You see what you’ve got and, if you are a beginning memoir writer, you think you are supposed to use all of it in one big book. So stop right there. You’re not, at least if you want anyone to read your work. Instead, let’s think. What feast is coming up? For what specific meal do you need to perform an inventory of your pantry? Oh yeah: here comes Thanksgiving. Okay. So see those Easter Peeps there on the shelf? You know, those neon-colored sugared marshmallow bunnies stuck together like an Any Warhol acid-dream painting? Yeah, those. No matter what you do to them, they cannot go on the Thanksgiving table. Okay. So they stay on the shelf. But there is that can of pumpkin, that all-purpose flour, the salt, the baking powder, baking soda. Grab them.
See how this goes? And let’s just pretend that, like me, you have a shtetl-mentality, meaning you somehow grew up always fearing running out, and your shelves are wildly overstocked. You don’t need to shop. You’ve got everything you need to bake that pie. If you are a normal person, you shop, or in this case you think about what other aspects of your story you are going to need to round out your tale.
Next, it’s time to do what my writer, mentioned above, fears most. It’s time to make a mess. Oh yeah, those five pages of hers that I’ve seen again and again? They’re gorgeous, too gorgeous, in fact. Edited and re-edited, those pages have been gone over so many times that they look like those pies that spin around in the diner: a little too perfect, you know, and not at all like those I make at home.
So make a mess, a total, blow-out the kitchen, move-out-of-the-house-if-you-can-and-leave them-mess-behind, mess. In my little book, I call that mess the vomit draft, a phrase I picked up from my best friend, Gary Taubes who, by the way, does not cook, thus the bodily-function phrase. Here on The Memoir Project, we cook. We make a mess. We make an unholy, scare-the-cats mess in the kitchen when we write a first draft.
And guess what? All that stuff is still on the pantry shelves, waiting for another day, another story, another book. Yes, you will live to write again if you merely go in, grab what you need, and make an unholy mess of your stuff. The lesson? Make a big mess and then make another one tomorrow. Rinse and repeat. And only then do we edit. And edit. And edit. And yes, edit some more. But not until you have a whole first draft.
For those of you who have read The Memoir Project, this new food metaphor will feel familiar, perhaps even reminding you of my NPR essay on how to explain DNA via my mother-in-law’s recipe for Spam Chop Suey. Yeah, I love a good food metaphor and use them whenever I can.
And granted, I’ve covered how to get into your stories in The Memoir Project in my chapter entitled Galileo in Walmart. But now having coached and edited hundreds of writers, and listened to literally thousands of stories in my memoir writing classes, I have learned that Walmart does not work for all writers. And some writers just forget poor old Galileo, or maybe you just need a fresh, new, made-to-order metaphor to kick your butt back into the chair. So it’s this: The pantry. Don’t thank me. Write.
Are you struggling to write? Let me help you. Sign up for one of my upcoming Memoirama courses, a one-shot, 90-minute extravaganza full of metaphor and fun after which, I promise, you’ll go willingly into our pantry and cook us up a tale.