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I asked retired University of Wyoming MFA-program professor Vicki Lindner, who’s teaching a 4-week workshop “Starting Your Memoir” at Lighthouse in a couple of weeks, why normal (as in not celebrity, genius, or raised-by-wolves) people should write memoirs, and she wrote up a nice ditty in response, using her own experience as evidence.
I’m Writing a Memoir and You Should Too
by Vicki Lindner
Love Me Tomorrow started when I found Bill’s track medals languishing in my paper clip jar. I’d published one essay about us and called it good, but when the muse whispered, “How about a Memoir?” I quickly yelled, “No!” Sure, sixties books and movies are now in vogue, but I hate long projects, I’m no celebrity, I’d offend at least thirty people… And could I really go back fifty years?
“Back” meant to 1960, the year President Kennedy was elected. Bill was the only African-American male in my New Jersey high school. When the prize winning student journalist (me) and the national high school hurdles champ (him) plunged into our four-year romance, interracial relationships were taboo, even for my liberal parents. The Birmingham Crisis, the March on Washington, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, not to mention the second wave of feminism and the sexual revolution hung fire. So as I thought about this important life passage, I saw it wasn’t all about me.
Once I said “Yes,” a fascinating journey began—one that called for courage, knowledge, and psychological insight, not to mention a fat new quiver of literary skills. Even before I traveled backwards, I was interested in memory science, how and why we remember and forget. I would surely have to beef up the store of images in my fifty-eight year-old hippocampus, stuffed with detritus from other times and places. After whipping off some raw scenes, based on fading recollections, I grew
my memory with hands-on research. It would be unwise to contact Bill, whose present day self would interfere with his literary persona. But I did reach out to other high school pals, whose versions of Bill amplified mine. I’d never made the pilgrimage back to the school itself. “Go!” commanded the muse. A month shy of a major renovation, the ‘fifties brick building was startlingly the same. In its hushed auditorium, Danish-modern library, and green linoleum corridors, vivid memories lay in wait for my brain.
The muse also called for some library duty. No contemporary writer can afford to be as naïve about race issues as the girl I once was. So I read: black literature and biographies galore, civil rights and mid-century history, microfilmed archives of local newspapers. I re-read the books that influenced me then, and listened to the messages pop songs imprinted. Relieved that I didn’t grow up in the texting age, I inhaled his letters (40 of them), my high school journals, poems, stories, and clippings I’d saved. With this paper trail I constructed a personal time line, then plugged in historical events.
As I earned my “memoir” degree, I faced technical and emotional challenges. Remembering, deep remembering, turned out to be scary as hell. Psychic trash rose to the top. I had to dream about Bill during the day as well as at night in order to re-construct conversations with him. And how would I portray my self, the ignorant, embarrassing teenager, who’d had the gall to write, “Go back to your people,” to her Negro boyfriend? The muse advised, “Embrace her”—which lead to an interesting literary device for portraying my “I.” Now that I’m a heartbeat away from a first draft, I have to ask, “Would I do it again?” You bet. Would I advise other writers to take a life-enriching trip into the past? Definitely.
And maybe you should do it, too. Register here and get started on your story.