Getting Past the Blank Page

One of the scariest things for most writers is that first blank page. I like to start with an actual sheet of paper because I can doodle. A blank screen is worse. The blinking cursor seems impatient, and the screensaver keeps reminding me I’ve been chewing my fingernail and typing nothing for ten minutes. The “delete” key is wimpy, anyway. There’s something satisfying about wadding up the first six or eight false starts and hitting the waste basket dead center.

Since I intended to write a memoir, I backed off from starting cold turkey on the writing and instead began listing strong memories from the past. I wrote them down as they came to me, not worrying about whether I would use them or where they should go in the story. My list was cryptic: “watching my mother put on makeup,” “picking up the goat in Mom’s hatchback,” and so forth. I listed emotional memories, tragic ones, funny ones. Each had the potential to become a scene in the manuscript.

I spent a few weeks on this list. I kept a notepad next to the bed, since ideas came to me late at night or when I first awoke. Once I had a few pages of memories, I started looking for themes and common topics. I grouped the memories by time periods and discovered a lot of them happened in clumps — when I was seven, fifteen, seventeen and my late thirties. The strongest topic was the relationship with my mother, which remained difficult until the end of her life. It also felt like unfinished business, which would make a suitable story backbone and a good reason to explore the past. I built a chronological “front story” consisting of the traumatic two weeks I spent in my mother’s small town after her cardiac arrest and leading up to her death and funeral. Two weeks is a perfect time period to cover in a full-length book. And this would give me a framework that would springboard the story into flashbacks, every other chapter. I still hadn’t fully explored story structure, but at least I started with a plan.

Memoirs aren’t diaries or journals, nor are they a series of short stories. They’re coherent life stories, told using all the tools available to fiction writers such as conflict, character development, dialog, transitions, metaphor, and climactic plot points. The story has to move forward. It must have scenes, action and self-examination. Memoir is a way of exploring your life in storytelling form and ultimately making sense of the past. So it had to hold together.

Although I had a bit of a plan, I don’t like outlines, as I’ve mentioned. I like things to happen while I’m writing. All the ideas aren’t there at the beginning; they form themselves in the process of putting words together. It’s like faith. You walk courageously forward in the dark, holding out your lamp, and new discoveries that weren’t on your original map come into focus in the pool of light. Writing illuminates the story like a swinging Coleman lantern.

Some items on the memory list wouldn’t take a whole chapter or even support a scene. I realized I had to be selective at some point. I couldn’t include everything. But I had to see it all first. So I began writing scenes based on my list of memories and I just let things happen. I let the writing and ideas audition for me. I would choose the best and cut out extraneous stuff later. I would add more where it was needed.

It took me a while to get some traction. The first draft of my manuscript took ten months and was scattered and out of order. I didn’t write a certain minimum number of words a day consistently, like some writers do. I lack that discipline. But when the muse began to move, I went along for the ride. Some months I wrote into the wee hours of the morning because I couldn’t stop. Other months I wrote nothing. I tried not to beat myself up during the dry spells. As the writing unfolded, there were some bright moments and some disasters. For inspiration along the way I read some good published memoirs. I read Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and tried to relax since, as she says, first drafts are supposed to be “shitty.” Crafting and polishing would make all the difference.

Mostly I gave myself a lot of grace. There’s no such thing as getting it right the first time.