Memoir Writing


Front Door


As in each exercise, I suggest that when you settle down to begin to write a memoir that you start by finding a comfortable place and settling down, half close your eyes. Now, take a few comforting breaths. Think about the air coming in and going out of your body and giving you a sense of lightness. See yourself in that place of memory you are about to write about. Smile, a small smile of familiarity and take up your pen, or whatever, and begin to write.

In this exercise I am going to ask you to write about the front door of the first place you lived that you can remember. Think about that door. Try to remember what it looked like. Maybe people didn't use the front door to that residence? Maybe they used the back door? Think about what that door looked like. What color is it? What is it made of? Maybe there is a smell you associate with that door? Maybe there is a vine with sweet smelling flowers growing near by? Maybe someone next door was always cooking cabbage? Maybe someone inside is burning incense? Maybe you don't remember a smell. Maybe you remember a color? A nearby plant? Maybe there was usually someone with you when you approached that door? Who was that? Do you want to go through the door? Who will be in there? What will you find? Would you rather stay outside?

It is oddly true that if one tells a life story again, starting at the very same remembered place, the story often takes the same details and strings them together and evokes an entirely different memory.

Try describing the door, if you have trouble getting started, answer the questions about the door that I offered in the assignment above.

Below you will find what I wrote when I set about doing the exercise. You will notice that I had to spend a little time discarding extraneous thoughts I brought to this exercise before I got to the actual memoir. In my memoir collection, I would probably edit that stray musing out. I am leaving it in here, in hopes it will help you understand my process.

I had fun doing this. I hope you will, too.


Example: Front Door

What I planed to do when I wrote the title at the top of the assignment was to write a new response to the Front Door Assignment I started this series of assignments with. I came up with this lesson plan because my daughter and I are going to do a memoir workshop at the local library on Friday. When I suggested that we start with the Front Door Exercise from our web site, she balked. She thought the people who came to the class would not find enough to write about in that lesson. I assured her that has never been the case in classes where I have used it. I told her a person could use any of the exercises we have tried again and again and each time the exercises will always open a new writing path. In that way, you can know that if nothing comes to your mind that you want to write about, and yet you feel like you have a story that needs telling, it is always interesting to revisit an exercise you have done before. The details that assignment offers you will connect you in a different way to some memory you haven't visited in a long time. The point I want to emphasize is that

News Reporters have a saying: The Devil is in the details.

Poets have almost the same saying: Heaven is in the details.

It has been my experience that while appearing to be contradictory, both axioms contain their own truth. For the purposes of this exercise, it is in the details that we work from that determine which associations that hold things in our memory come into play.

When I suggest to Kathy that she sit down and actually write the exercise, she began to answer those questions out lout to me. When she told me that she remembered the patio in Fullerton being a certain way I was so caught up in our shared details, that I told her, "No. That was not the house on Lee Street; it was the house on Woodcrest." I shouldn't have done that. It interrupted the flow of the details in her mind bank. There is an interesting thing about writing down the details: the details almost literally take you to the place you are writing about. Quite often each of us remember different details of the same or similar event. I told her don't pay any attention to what I said. Go and write the story down the way you remember it. Later, she sent me an e mail with her story. Reading it was like a visit back at our home on Lee Street. (Even though she was wrong about the patio.)

When I first started thinking about doing this exercise in preparation for the Friday class, I was going to go back and see what front door I described when we began this course. And then I was going to go through the steps of remembering that door and see what I wrote this time. But, I read Kathy's story about Lee Street right before I went in to fix supper. While I was spreading the cream cheese on the rye bread for the pastrami sandwiches, I thought about the girls tipping over the railroad ties that boarded our flowerbed there under the apricot tree in our back yard in Fullerton. They would have been hunting for salamanders. Those details would lead me to the Jackson's and Perkins's test roses that flourished there and the sweet peas that covered our side of Gary Carter's fence and the purple and vermilion epitheliums in the shade bed by the driveway.

But, we are not going there. We are going to Sykesville. Our three story Italianate house in Sykesville has since gentrified. The whole town has been gentrified. When we lived there Sykesville was defunct mill town. Before it dwindled into being a mill town it had been an exclusive resort. Wealthy Baltimoreans took the commuter train our to Sykesville to escape the sweltering summer heat of their Charles Street mansions. By comparison to their town houses, their summer homes scattered among the hills in the scenic piedmont region along the Patapsco River were gloriously cool.

The fact that the bay windows of our Italianate Victorian house in Sykesville featured stained glass windows identical to those in the Sykesville Train Station could easily be explained by the fact that a hundred years before we moved into our house, it had been built as the summer home of the Norwood family, the father of which happened to be the president of the B & O Railroad.

The front porch of our house at 29 Norwood Ave. was rarely accessed by any other means than by walking out through the ornate white painted front door with it's ancient wavy glass window. The porch could be reached from the street below, but I wouldn't recommend it. Flight after flight of granite stairs alternated with uneven mossy red brick paths found their higgledy pigeldy way downóthe rough equivalent of three stories downóbetween massive dripping wet juniper sentinels.

The porch, which was best accessed through the large ornate, double, white- painted front doors, came with a half dozen matching cane backed rocking chairs and a wide canvas hammock that was suspended between large iron rings affixed to a pillar corner at the corner of the porch and the jamb of the library window.

It is hard to say when the best times to visit the front porch were.

Early summer mornings, everything was always fresh and cool. You could not but think of Grandma Moses when you looked down on the whole of Sykesville. Sykesville is one of those towns that is built in a narrow gorge. The shops on Main Street nestle in the bottom of the vee, well below the houses that range up the steep hills behind them. From our front porch, we looked straight into the bell tower of the Methodist church, which was just across Norwood Rd. from our house.

In the summer the air was fragrant with honeysuckles and that faint sweetness of the brown flowering bush in the plantings that I always suspected of being an allspice bush. The giant black and gold wolf spider would have stretched her intricate web between the porch pillars, the white painted porch rail and the gingerbread bric-a-brac along the roof's edge. Dew would sparkle at it's intersections.

Autumn afternoons when it hasn't yet turned cold could be pretty amazing on that front porch. The tulip poplar across the way shines golden. The sugar maples off beyond the south end of the porch and the very air around them are flaming orange. Beyond them the red bud tree sparkles like a garnet. And that red squirrel who likes to lounge out on the branch of the red maple tree that runs parallel to the hammock. The squirrel chatters away as though he is taking part of our conversations.

In November, when the first snow of the season comes, and the beam of the light that illuminates the first flight of stairs down from the porch roof cuts through the darkest of nights and catches the first fat wet snow flakes as they float down through the night.


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