What I’ve learned about writing a memoir by writing a memoir, Part 1

Enemies of Reading July 17, 2014 1 Comment

“Papa” Hemingway’s advice to writers.

“Papa” Hemingway’s advice to writers.

by Hugh Gilmore

There’s rust building up around the metal frame of the casement window in my office. Its crusty orange blisters seem a little worse every time I look over there. Someone should do something about it, but I can’t because I’m in mid-project now – writing a memoir – and can’t be disturbed.

Perhaps a handyman could come over. But I talked myself out of that right away. First, no one will come and do a single window; it’s not worth his time. Second, even if he did come, he’d come by appointment, and I hate appointments because one or the other of the parties is never on time.

Next: he’ll do the job all at once, which will take hours, and I couldn’t really sit three feet away and work while he’s making all that noise. I don’t even work with a radio on. And finally, why should I call someone else to do a job that I can do myself?

This basic argument I’ve been having with that repairman has been going on for at least nine years now. So, last week I took some actions that should silence all this bickering. I decided to take breaks while I’m writing my memoir, because my back and arms and wrist and fingers and knees and eyes are killing me from sitting at my desk all day.

Writing takes incredible physical stamina if you hang in there and give it your full day-long attention. During my breaks, I decided, I’d sand the window’s edges, then prime them, then paint them. That should shut up all these people in my head for awhile.

Though each of the three phases of this job can be done with great skill, one needn’t do them skillfully in order to get acceptable results. And the job doesn’t need to be done all at once, see?

That’s the difference between my way and the professional repairman’s way. Every time I decide my finger tips can’t take any more keypad mini-torture-taps, I’ll get up, stretch (optional, actually), and resume sanding. Scritcha, scritcha, scritcha. Eventually, after many bouts of sanding, the metal frame will be rust-free, revealing its steely beauty.

Doing it in installments will take a while, I know, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. The pyramids got built a block at a time – with “at a time” meaning years in between. Block a year, something like that. Stonehenge? Forget about it. Just making the molds to pour those rock-looking things took forever.

This is all going somewhere. Relax.

So, this is the pace of my memoir writing lately: write, write, write for an hour or two (breaks are really determined by content; i.e. when I finish a section, or chapter). Then it’s scratch, scratch, scratch with the sandpaper till my arm gets tired.

At the end of the day, I have produced a lot of words, some of them fashioned into sentences that are good enough to keep. The window: not so hot. Not yet. Coarse, coarser and coarsest, sanding block or bare hand, manual or drill, the rust and steel seem to be eternally wed.

I’m really considering Googling the question of whether there’s a primer I can use to paint over rust. That would be too easy though. And put me out of a job.

For you see, at this point, of the two jobs – memoir-writing or sanding – I like sanding more. Writing drives me nuts. It’s so complicated. I go to start and I wonder if I should start elsewhere. Like the comedian Victor Borge’s old routine, I sit at the piano. I stare at the keys. I adjust the seat. I straighten my cuffs. I adjust the seat some more. For quite awhile.

There are so many ideas lapping against the shores of my consciousness, like jetsam in the bay. I write with despair of ever getting a sentence done in time to remember what the other thought was. The one I was having while I was typing the previous one.

And not only that, these thoughts do not arrive to my head in any kind of ideal sequences. They must be sorted and imagined as either leading or following the thought I am … oh heck … just about to have! And now it’s gone.

Whereas, with sanding; I just pick up the block and start rubbing. Nothing to think about, no tricky little ways of doing the job, no hoping for a particularly beautiful stroke, just rub that piece of grit against the rusty steel.

So, that is Lesson # 1 in memoir writing. It’s not just a matter of writing down everything that happened to you up till the moment you sat down to write. That would be foolish. Quite foolish indeed.

Hugh’s memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story about Fatherhood,” is scheduled for August conclusion. He is the author of six “products” to be found in the Amazon.com book department, several of them based on columns he’s written for the Local.

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  • wildmother

    I’m focusing my memoir on what happened in Mt Airy and the gang in City Hall, City Planning and Chestnut Hill. I never cared for Hemingway’s quote. Writing the story is a lot more fun than living it.