Writing Memories

Finding The Light, Copyright 2002, Joan Z. Rough

My favorite reads have always been creative non-fiction … stories about people, how they live and why they do what they do.  While biography and autobiography are interesting, it’s memoir that I savor. For me, reading a memoir is like reading a manual on living.  It can inspire, horrify, bring tears or laughter. Memoirs are so much more than just the mere facts of one’s life, and so unlike those essays most of us were asked to write when we were kids, about what we did this past summer.

In memoir, the reader is invited in to share the writer’s feelings; to honestly know what that person has experienced and what makes them who they are.  It is a visitation of sorts, like being a fly on the wall.  For me, reading memoir is like being with a friend I’ve never met or talked to, and who through their own challenges in life, can help me over some of the hurdles in my own.  It’s about seeing another take on why I’m here and how I’m doing. It’s about sharing a vision, and nodding as I read, thinking, “Wow, I know what she/he means. I’ve been there myself and know the pain.”  Regardless of how unlike we are from one another, it’s also about how we are alike. No matter how different the writer’s life is from my own, I know I have a companion on this long, crooked highway I’m traveling.

For years I’ve been asking myself why I can’t remember much from my younger years.  How is it that so many other people have such rich rememberings to share, while I have none.  Why is it I can’t recall my first best friend, or my first date? Am I keeping them hidden from myself?  Have I been hiding them, because I feel that any story I have to share, isn’t important?  Embarrassing? An admission of guilt?  Is it that I believe that I’ve not gained any wisdom or learned any lessons?  What are all those boxes of hand written journals about, stashed away in that storeroom across town?

Perhaps, at age 68, soon to be 69, I can’t hold it in any longer.  My story bladder is full and needs to be emptied.  Is it the extremely intense therapy I’ve recently gone through that has brought out what I’ve been secreting away.  It could be I’m beginning to trust that what I have to say is important and needs to be shared.  Maybe my own stories will make other people see their own challenges differently.  Maybe they will nod their head’s in agreement or universal knowing.

Last summer, after a spell of difficult years, I attended a writer’s retreat, led by Jennifer Louden, in Taos, New Mexico.  I hadn’t been anywhere by myself in over a decade. I wasn’t sure why I was going. But I knew that if I didn’t go, I might go crazy, kill myself, or waste away, having made no contribution to the world. I didn’t know what I would write … probably poetry, because that is what I had written in the past.  But for several months prior the retreat, the word memoir, bounced through my mind, teasing me, prompting me to wonder if I would write about my life.

I almost didn’t go. I was feeling excruciatingly anxious, afraid, and somewhat depressed. I was exhausted and overwhelmed by what life had put on my plate.  On the day of my departure, I told Bill that I couldn’t go.  I had too much to do here at home.  His response was, “I’m not going there,” loaded my bags in the car, and drove me to the airport.

As I walked down the narrow hallway through security, and to the plane that would fly me more than halfway across the country, I felt a bit lighter.  Once in the air, I felt an exciting freedom, that I hadn’t experienced in years.  My fear and angst dissolved into thin air.  I had made my first step into the next chapter of my life, in which I would meet some remarkable women, who would inspire and help me feel that I am not alone in this big, challenging world.

It wasn’t a full recovery that I made in that week.  I was still suffering from insomnia, which had been plaguing me for months, allowing me only about 3 hours of sleep a night.  I took short naps and began writing a piece that I called, Returning To Earth.  It was about coming back to life from a lengthy, dark night of the soul.  As I continued writing over the week, memories began to spring up, of times I hadn’t thought about in years.  I got my first 8 hours of sleep in a very long time.  I cried, laughed, shared poems that I’d written in the past, ate delicious, nourishing food and made friends with beautiful women from all over the country.  Best of all I began loving myself.

Later at home, the writing came to a halt, as I became aware of what could have been a serious health issue, uterine cancer.  But I was one of those fortunate ones, who dodged the  bullet.  The cancer was in its early stages and was completely removed by having a hysterectomy.  I remain cancer free today, and am living the promises I made to myself at the time: That regardless of what the prognosis, and no matter how long or short my life, I would make a practice of being grateful for all that I had been given and return the good fortune and kindness that had been gifted to me.

I also promised that I would begin writing down the family stories that began to come as I spent several months recovering from surgery.  My goal was to record as much as I could about my clan, so that my children and their children would know more about their roots.  My parents had left little or nothing of themselves, except for their possessions and behaviors. This blog became the vehicle of that sharing, not only of my family’s history, but of myself and the winding paths I have wandered down.  Little did I know, that it would become a healing mechanism for me, and that I would feel richer and happier for all of my experiences, good and bad.

Now, the more that I write what I remember, the more I remember and write.  What started out as a little writing project about my family, has turned into something much bigger.  I’ll often choose to write, rather than paint, though I must confess, both of these loves of mine, inform and feed each other.  I’m still not sure what this project will ultimately turn into, but it doesn’t really matter. I can say that it is a memoir.  It may take me years to finish.  Only one thing is certain: Writing down my stories and memories has become life changing for me.

This entry was posted in Navigating Through Life, Retreats and Workshops, stories. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Writing Memories

  1. Jessie Laurita-Spanglet says:

    Hi Joan, I am just returning from my travels and settling in here in MD. Looking through Facebook, and then following the link to your story. I wanted to tell you again how much I enjoy your voice and stories, and I love that you are doing it finally for yourself!

    Hope all is well in Charlottesville, please tell Cynthia hi for me.

    Best, Jessie

    • jzrart says:

      Jessie, Thanks so much for commenting. I’m happy that you enjoy my blog. We sure do miss you down here in ole C’ville, but know you are going to have a spectacular couple of years dancing it up. Your summer trip with Reid, looked wonderful and you, my dear, radiant!! Please keep in touch!

      Love, Joan

  2. Gail says:

    Joan, I loved this post of yours in particular. I have read all of them and look forward to seeing one in my mail box. You have indeed had (and are having and will have) such a rich life. I am happy that your experience in Taos played a part in your healing. When Aimee and I met up with you in Albuquerque, I had no idea how fragile you were. I just thought you were really cool, although you later shared some of your recent past and anxieties with us. Writing my life has meant a great deal to me. At my workshop this summer, I submitted a whole new story about a painful time in my twenties, but instead of working on it when I got home, I find myself pulled back to work on my main story, the one of growing up in the segregated South. As I remember, I felt a little sad that the story did not seem to resonate with you. It’s been too long now to expect you to recall the details. anyhow, I hope to make it come more alive as soon as I feel stronger after spraining my knee two weeks ago. Anyhow, blessings on you and much metta for your writing. Even if I don’t comment, please know that I read and treasure every one. Remember what the Dharma says: “Dwell, you are the light.” Hugs, Gail Livingston

    • jzrart says:

      Gail, Thanks so much for your very loving comment. You were one of those amazing women at the retreat that made it so healing for me. I very much did love your story that you sent me, but you asked for a real critique, and that’s what I tried to do. If I recall, I just got a bit confused moving back and forth through time. You are a fabulous writer and you have so much to share with the world. Especially your growing up amidst the civil rights tragedies that must have surrounded you on a daily basis.

      Metta and blessing right back at you!

  3. Sharon says:

    Beautiful friend – another beautiful sharing. I am left speechless.

  4. Lailey says:

    Joan my mom past away several years ago from a rare leukemia. I think the hardest thing has been she took her stories with her. What a gift this will be for your family!!! Congratulations you are creating something sacred and powerful!!!

  5. patricia says:

    and life changing for those of us blessed to read you, thank you for giving the gift of you.

  6. jzrart says:

    Patricia, I don’t know what to say, except thanks for being on the other end of the phone when we were working with Patti and David.

    So much love to you,

  7. Becca says:

    I think your words, better than any I’ve ever read, describe why memoir is so powerful to me. I will keep this post and re-read it whenever I’m tempted to set aside the writing of my own stories, thinking they are unimportant.

    • jzrart says:

      Thank you for your kind words. Please know your words and stories are important to all of us who read you blog. And of course, I know there is a book in there somewhere!!


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