The motivation may be to leave something for posterity, to write your own history without interference, or to try to get to the bottom of one’s own personal mysteries. Maybe you want to write a memoir to explore a specific time in your past, the years you spent teaching English in China, or the story of the fishing boat you tried to make a living on.
Memoir doesn’t have to be confined to a particular place or series of events. A memoir can be organized around themes in your life, challenges you’ve faced, recurring patterns that carry meaning if only you can figure them out. But all memoirs have in common a resurrection of the past, memory being used in the assistance of story.
But how to get at the story? It’s easy to be stymied by an inability to remember, or to articulate, one’s own history. And that’s where help is available.
Not a Blueprint, But an Inspiration
One of the best books on writing I’ve ever read is Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. (Note: all links in this post are affiliate links.)
This book is well named. It’s not the kind of book you read to learn about writing memoir, there are other books for that. This is a book that almost forces you to pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard, and write. Almost every page is an instruction in how to recover memory, through the practice of writing.
Natalie Goldberg, a Zen Buddhist and a writing teacher and author, has shown in her earlier books Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, how to use free writing to get at memories and experiences hidden from our conscious mind. This is also the place we can come in contact with our own creative flow.
In Old Friend from Far Away, Goldberg turns this technique to use to help us explore our own past, the millions of moments that have accumulated to bring us to where we are today, right now.
Writing Memoir as Practice
At the beginning, Goldberg shows us the approach she will take:
Writing is an athletic activity. It comes from the whole body, your knees and arms, kidneys, liver, fingers, teeth, lungs, spine . . . And just like any other sport, it takes practice.
And reading this book does become a practice. There are invigorating, funny, and touching short essays throughout the book. But that’s not what makes a practice. What has made me return to this book every day since I’ve owned it is the writing practice the author provides.
Many pages in the book are blank except for a heading and one or two sentences. Here’s an example:
Tell me about how a relationship ended. Go. Ten minutes.
The idea is you start with the prompt. You put pen to paper and start writing, and you don’t stop until your time is up. You get out of the way of what wants to be said. This is an act of exploration, not an act of literature.
Here’s another page:
What can you give up knowing? Go for ten.
Where would that prompt lead you, once you ran out of the obvious, top-of-the-mind stuff? Hmmm.
What was on top of your daddy’s dresser? In the drawers? Or your uncle’s, your grandfather’s, your stepfather’s, your mother’s boyfriend’s? Go for ten.
Like a good student, every morning I sit and read the lesson for the day. Some days it’s an essay on “Politics” or “Death” or “Practice Notebook” or “Nuts.” Some days it’s just one sentence. Pen in hand, timer ticking down, I’m off on an adventure in inner space, traveling through the space of memory storage.
What was the smell in the kitchen like on Saturday mornings, when Mom was cooking breakfast for the family? What was the exact yellow of the vinyl on that folding stool in the back hall? As the doors to the hallways of memory drift open, I’m led into my own past, guided by the sensory signals that anchor me to various experiences.
Did you feel how crumbly the earth was under your feet, standing by your father’s grave? What was that like?
Day after day, month after month. I’ve been at it with this book for most of a year, filling notebooks with memories, reflections, bits of the past floating up to the surface, to be admired and recorded, another tile in the huge mosaic laid out before me.
Daily Writing Becomes Daily Practice
The experience I’ve had with Old Friend from Far Away has deepened over the months. Continually accessing my own storehouse of memories, I’ve found that the things usually lost in the busy-ness of day to day life have instead become part of my life now, enriching me tremendously. The practice itself has become the end, the reason for doing it.
If you have any interest in memoir, in recovering the parts of yourself that drift backward in time as we move forward, or if you just want to explore a remarkable approach to writing, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you.
Takeaway: Using Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away to learn to write memoir may lead you to a new daily practice that opens you up to your own past.