Saturday, March 17, 2012

Elephant Trails: Memoir Meanderings

Do you belong to the goal-setting, daily planning, outlining tribe or to the other one—you know, the one that does have a plan and does get there in the end, but whose path in between resembles that of a pack of pee wee soccer players?

About four hours ago I sat down to write another segment of Carolyn’s (From trashcans to table cloths) story. But first I checked some of my favorite writers’ sites, just in case there was a nugget to be had. Of course one link led to another and I had to stop and buy a book (Will Love 4 Crumbs) and check out the author’s website (where there is a call for submissions you might want to check out).

Along the way, I gathered notes for a class in memoir/personal essay that I will be teaching next month which led to the book Writing about your Life by William Zinsser. Just as I was about to berate myself for taking such a circuitous route to the keyboard, (my students used to call my meanderings, “elephant trails”) I read Zinsser’s words, “Go with what interests and amuses you, even if it’s not as planned.”

Whew! A man of my own tribe.

Zinsser tells about the time he sat to write about writing, but first had to return a phone call. It was from a woman who wanted to know if she could shellac the fence that she had come to realize her husband was never going to paint. Zinsser knew all about shellac because it had been his family’s business for years, and he often received wrong-number calls from people looking for the company. Turns out the woman’s shellac can had a NY address on it—an address the Zinsser company had moved from fifteen years earlier.

One thing led to another as one-things do and the conversation covered everything from how time flies, to husbands who don’t paint fences, to grandfather’s shellac business.Instead of bemoaning time lost, Zinsser enjoyed his interruption, then wrote a thousand-word piece about it, and published in the New York Times.

His comfort with exploring interruptions is evidenced in his advice to memoirists: Don’t be locked in to what it is about, at least not at first. But, “be ready to be surprised by what comes out when you start stirring memory.”

I can feel the organizer tribe trembling. Not to fret. Sooner or later, you will have to root around in those memories and see what story is begging to come out, and then every pleasant elephant trail that doesn’t belong will have to go, and the outlines and story curves will have their time.

But when you’re starting out, even if you do have a firm idea in mind, be willing to relax and let the life of the story take form.

And remember—you are the storytellers for the next generation. As Zinsser says:Writers are the custodians of memory, and memories have a way of dying with their owners. One of the saddest sentences I know is: “I wish I had asked my mother about that.”
You, my God, have put your words in my mouth and covered me with the shadow of your hand—you who have set the heavens in place, and laid the foundations of the earth . . . Isaiah 51

Lord, be glorified in the lives of those stopping here today. And Lord, you are the memory keeper. I pray that whatever surfaces be covered with healing and hope.


  1. Thank you for sharing this tidbit with us. Eases my conscious. I find many distractions as well, and as you and Zinsser pointed out, sometimes the distractions are the most rewarding. Great post, Marcia!

  2. I caught myself telling someone last week "I wish I had asked my grandmother..." and immediately realized I no longer had access to past stories within my family. Zinsser's right - it is sad. Oh, I wish I could take your memoir classes.

    BTW, Zinsser's book is one of my favorites! Another great post, Marcia. :)


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