MEMOIR REQUIRES TRANSCENDENCE. Something has to happen. Or shift. Or merely move. Someone has to change a little. Or grow. It’s the bare hack minimum of memoir. But don’t confuse transcendence with spiritual awakening or conversion. We’re not asking that much of you, particularly in short memoir. We just want to see something happen. And we deserve it, we the reader. We do.
I’m not out in the world actively mining for transcendent moments. I’m an American from Queens, New York, who possesses little more than a patchwork, sandlot sense of the divine. I am no more Zen, enlightened, or realized than the next person, stumbling into and through little moments of realization. But I do catch some of those moments in my notebook, or on my handy index cards. What frequently happens to me is that some odd aspect of an encounter amuses or disturbs me, and when I’m in my car or walking home, I’ll jot down one image, or piece of conversation, which I’ll start to think about, and worry like a set of prayer beads. What was that I just saw, I’ll ask myself. What just happened there? Like those after-bubbles from a camera flash, they’ll stick around only so long, so I write them down, having learned that what at first might seem tangential, frequently expands upon consideration.
Here’s an example
I wrote this essay, set on the evening that my neighbor’s dog died. A big event, absolutely, and unforgettable, though what I wrote down when I arrived home was none of the regular fragments of experience—the who, what, when—but merely a description of an article of clothing someone was wearing that night.
There had once been a time when our dogs divided us. It happens in neighborhoods, and it did, in ours. Each of us lived behind our own invisible electric fence, keeping our dogs in our own territories, allowing for no mixing of our pedigreed charges. The humans walked, we waved, but we knew little of one another’s lives, except, perhaps, that it was the woman in each home who walked the dog. That much was clear. And for a while that’s how it was: Not much contact, little to say, we walked our dogs along the perimeter of each other’s lives.
We became aware of changes in our homes only via a husband’s obituary in the newspaper, the absence of the truck in another’s driveway, the vision of one of us walking without a dog, but crying. Small inquiries at the hem of the yard, nods exchanged, solace offered, we edged closer. A new dog appeared; there is always something to say about a puppy. Always.
Then, as that puppy grew and neared his third birthday, he got very sick. He nearly died from something that a neighbor’s dog had survived only the week before, from which she, too, had nearly died, and the exchanges, and the information, cards, a bouquet, a note, and longer conversations ensued.
What we talked about when we talked about our dogs, of course, was love.
And then one summer evening came a pounding on my front door.
“Marion! Marion!” I heard, as I was making an upstairs bed.
My dog and I went running to find my neighbor. Smeared with dirt and tears, having come in from hours of gardening, she had just found her beloved dog motionless on the kitchen floor.
Oh no, I thought. Oh no.
Soon we two were standing over the peaceful body of her hulking animal, all 140 pounds of him. He seemed asleep. He was not. And as we knelt and stroked him, a car door slammed outside and I went out to see our other woman in our dog-friend-triangle, coming up the driveway. But something was odd. My, I thought, how thin she is. How thin. Or something. Maybe that’s not it. But there is some aspect of the equation of her body size that’s off. Just one of those snatched thoughts you get under pressure, the very thinking collapsing as I saw that she, too, was in tears.
And then there were three of us standing over the 10-year-old body of the dog we had known since he was all ears and paws.
Others arrived to help. There were plans made, and calls made, and for 30 minutes or so there was a lot of action, and then for an instant, it was again just us three in the kitchen.
We were going to take the body to the local animal hospital for cremation. Not even we could dig a hole this big, though I know that for an instant we considered it. Keeping him close. Keeping him home. But no.
And then, as we began to pile into cars, came the question.
“Do I look like shit?” This, from the woman whose dog had just died.
Only a woman would ask.
And only two such friends would think before they replied. She had been gardening most of the day, on her knees, in the dirt. She had been crying. It was hot. We all looked like shit. But what do you say to move forward a woman who needs to go say goodbye to her dog? How do you not lie, and yet get her onward into the place she needs to go? How to be tender, yet prodding?
I hadn’t needed to debate this, as the other of us had this clearly covered, gently touching the voluminous shorts I now saw that had been the reason she looked so thin, so fragile, at first.
And then came the gift.
“I’m wearing my dead husband’s swimming trunks. I think we’re good.”
And I snorted. And the woman who just lost her dog belted out a laugh, a laugh so big that it propelled us where we needed to go next.
It’s the small stuff
Never forget about the small stuff and how it reveals the big stuff of life. In this case, it had been the bathing trunks that had provoked me, noticed and tucked away amid the sadness and the heat. It was those shorts I carried home in my head—like a burr in a sweater, a sand particle in an oyster—and after I wrote down, “swimming trunks,” they did their job to irritate me just enough to see their larger theme. It’s the little stuff that matters. Never disrespect its power.
A dead giveaway that someone is disparaging the truth is that cool kind of cynicism that voices many memoirs. No writer should aspire to being too cool to care about the small stuff. Doing so is an offense to us all. The great A. J. Leibling addresses the crime beautifully, reminding us, “Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience.”