the story I insisted I wasn’t writing

Four and a half weeks ago on a whim, I signed up for an 8-week writing workshop — a memoir bootcamp — held at a literary nonprofit in downtown Portland. Sucked in by a Facebook sponsored ad on a Friday morning before work and stir-crazy from over a week of rare wintry snowy weather, I knew from enough experience and inertia that if I didn’t jump in and sign up, I wouldn’t write a damned thing. But if I did, I just might.

There were only two spots left before the class started two days later. I fired off an email to the name of a woman I found on the website to get more information on what exactly an “aggressive writing schedule” meant in practical times, but I also didn’t want to miss out on an unexpected, accidental gift of timing. Paralysis and overthinking are always my nemeses, not spontaneity. I signed up ten minutes later. 

Over the next few days, I set ground rules for myself, a ward against freaking out:

  1. Show up.
  2. Do the work.
  3. Do what I can.**

    **and forgive myself for what I can’t. 

That was it. I repeated the rules to myself over and over that first week, jotted them down in a notebook to really own them. In my head, they often morphed into longer versions: Don’t quit the class; don’t skip it or stop showing up; don’t obsess and get neurotic about it; don’t beat myself up if anything I drafted was complete garbage; don’t worry about how much I wrote or if it was even any good. Not only were we theoretically supposed to write a complete first draft of a memoir in eight weeks (a teensy tiny detail I somehow glossed over in the class description before enrolling), but we were also supposed to read 8-10 pages of writing from up to 6 people each week — every week. (That’s 48-60 pages of double-spaced manuscript per week, for you non-mathy folks!)

I signed up for this five days after hiring a career coach to potentially figure out what I wanted to do for my career, and at the beginning of what I knew would be an insane two months at work. I blame insomnia and the snow.

But it’s been an amazing experience so far. We’re five weeks in, with another three to go. Everyone has shared a set of pages twice and had them workshopped twice for fifteen minutes each during the 2-hour Sunday sessions. There are eleven of us, plus the instructor. It’s like being back in college writing classes, minus the grades, final drafts, or late nights. I love it.

I don’t know if I’ve even written 20 pages, but it’s 20 more pages than I’d have written otherwise. And it gives me something to do each week, things to focus on (and an excuse to stay away from Facebook), and every Sunday I get to spend three or more glorious kid-free hours downtown. I’ve even spent a few hours at coffee shops that aren’t Starbucks! I’m reading books — the memoirs the instructor suggests or the instructional how-to essays she sends us — and the pages from ten other brave souls trying to see where and how this bootcamp process goes.

There’s the story I planned to write — something about a medical incident in 2012 — but that’s not the story that’s coming out. Or at least not yet. Instead it’s far too much about what I insisted (to myself) I wasn’t going to write: how I was widowed without warning back in 2005, when I was so very, very young and so very freshly married. Yet that’s inevitably what’s coming out, especially as my writing cohorts want to know the backstory: how my husband died, what he was like, our daughter, my relationship with his family, my family.

Fiction writers will often say they don’t know where the plot or characters are going and that they have to write to find it out for themselves; I never would have thought the same would apply to memoir. I lived it, of course; I know what the story is, what the beginning and middle and end were. And yet I don’t know what’s going to come out until it does. The first time I had to send 8-10 pages to people, I only had 7 days’ warning, with absolutely nothing written and only a loose idea of my topic. I scribbled what I could remember of an ER visit, longhand on blank printer paper, two nights after our first session of the bootcamp; I typed it up and barely read or edited it before having to email it to everyone the next Sunday night. Work was crazy, and there just wasn’t any time to do more than barf on a page and hit send.

My second time to have my pages workshopped was Sunday, two days ago. I’d started writing the drafts the night before my third colonoscopy three weeks before, and before I knew it, I was writing about colonoscopies — and my late husband’s autopsy report. I didn’t want to write chronologically about his death, or how he died, or about grief and widowhood…but it shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me, least of all me, that that’s what’s came out. The story I insist I’m not writing. Writing makes me remember things I hadn’t thought about in years, the small echoes and undertows that were there all along.

As we start to workshop our work each week, the instructor has us pick a few lines of our own writing to read out loud before we dive into feedback. It’s a strangely illuminating way to highlight where you really ought to be starting your writing in that section. When it was my turn two days ago, I knew the autopsy piece was probably the more potent one to read aloud — but I didn’t think I could. It’s been over twelve years since he died, but I knew I couldn’t actually read it out loud, no mater how many times I may have written around or about or in reference to it over the last 8-12 years. This class makes it — different. Reading it out loud is different. And rather terrifying.

We’re supposed to remain silent as everyone discusses the work. A number of people are writing about hard, intense things; I’m not the only one. But shortly into the discussion of my pages this week, the one man in the group said how he hoped I was being mindful of my own self-care as I’m writing about painful things.

His comment has stayed with me the past two days. Because of course I’m not, not really. Self-care? When work is insane, and I’m still a single parent of a 12-year-old, and I rarely ever get to choose what or when or where my self-care may be? When I forget to be wary of what may come up during this writing?

Except this class is my self-care, my antidote to work stress and not going too far, of trying to stay in the moment and not plan too far…and giving me something to do.

And besides, I actually am doing a good job of keeping to my mantra — Show up. Do what I can. Let go of the rest. — whether it’s the writing workshop, the career coach, my job, or cooking dinner and sleeping at night. Which I suppose is self-care enough….

– From a fortune cookie at lunch with a coworker last week, on the 20th anniversary of her mom’s death. I tucked it into the back of my phone case so I can remind myself to be brave … and it’s still there a year later.



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