Memoir Thoughts

I have begun work on a memoir and I am finding inspiration in reading the memoirs of others. Some writers prefer not to read anything in the same genre as they are writing in at the time, but these works by others provoke me to think about questions that I might not have thought to ask myself. For example, in his memoir All the Strange Hours, Loren Eiseley writes about “the most perfect day in the world.” He says:

“It is never the same for each. For some it will be the memory of a woman, or a fading bar of music, or a successful night at a gambling table leaving you with the momentary illusion that you have won the game of life. Also the perfect day is apt to be so subjective that no one else who was with you will remember it in the same fashion, if he remembers it at all. It will be a day totally yours.”

And so I begin to comb my mind for memories of a perfect day, or if not perfect, then a day fully remembered, an important day. As I read on, I am surprised to find that Eiseley’s memory of his perfect day is totally lacking in the usual specificities. He doesn’t remember when it was, or exactly where, nor does he recall who was with him.

“I only remember that there were four of us. But out of all the towns and stations of those years, it was somewhere in Kansas in the wheat.”

Suddenly I realize that a memory need not be “an event” to be of importance, that a beginning, middle, and end are not requisite. Thoughts and feelings, moments recalled and perhaps savored, even if seemingly disjointed from time, these are what illuminate a life.

Freed from some unspoken and self-imposed constraint, my childhood mind opens and I smell the chlorine at the Leroy Street swimming pool where my dad and I went swimming, the incense wafting from every doorway on Greenwich Village’s Eighth Street in the 1960s, the burning wood and singed marshmallows of summer camp fires. I feel the heat on my chest from mother’s Vick’s VapoRub cures, the ache in my ankles after hours at the ice skating rink in Central Park, the exhaustion following a marathon at the Folk Dance House. I taste the cinnamon in mom’s rice pudding and an oyster from my grandfather’s plate. I hear my father reading Charlotte’s Web aloud and my mother singing to me to sleep.

What memories and musings will find their way into a manuscript remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I will keep conducting an ongoing self-interview, aided, in part, by questions that I see other writers pose to themselves.

Book Me, Danno

I had hoped to get some reading done this weekend, but I did not make much of a dent — how could I when I have a stack of books awaiting me in every room of the house. I am serving a self-imposed lifetime sentence as a reader, and despite the fact that I am a relatively fast reader, the piles seem to multiply as I discover more memoirs and narrative nonfiction tales that intrigue me. Perhaps I will post a list of all the titles (an idea borrowed from The Millionsreading queue). That will take some time to compile, but for starters, and in no particular order, I’m looking at:

  • Pull Me Up: A Memoir – Dan Barry
  • Living With Jazz: A Reader – Dan Morgenstern
  • Book Ends: Two Women, One Enduring Friendship – Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern
  • Getting Personal – Phillip Lopate
  • The Devil in the White City – Erik Larsen
  • Positively 4th Street – David Hajdu
  • These are in addition to All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life by Loren Eiseley, which I just picked up from the library on the emphatic recommendation of a friend, and The Everlasting Stream, a beautifully written memoir by Walt Harrington that I began reading last night. The Eiseley book looks to be intriguing, though perhaps a bit dark; but it’s too soon to tell. Here’s the beginning of the second paragraph —

    Make no mistake. Everything in the mind is in rat’s country. It doesn’t die. They are merely carried, these disparate memories, back and forth in the desert of a billion neurons, set down, picked up, and dropped again by mental pack rats. Nothing perishes, it is merely lost till a surgeon’s electrode starts the music of an old player piano whose scrolls are dust. Or you yourself do it, tossing in the restless nights, or even in the day on a strange street when a hurdy-gurdy plays. Nothing is lost, but it can never be again as it was.

    On the surface, Harrington’s memoir is about hunting. Being an animal lover, this is not something I wish to explore even from a distance, let alone ‘witness’ in the intimate detail for which Harrington is noted, but it’s the details that draw me in – that, plus the author’s self-awareness and his promise of a larger story —

    My story is about: Alex, Bobby, Lewis, and Carl; my father, my son, and myself; rabbits, dogs, and shotguns; flora and fauna; blood and death; guilt and responsibility; ambition, achievement, and satisfaction; affection of the old rugged male as opposed to the modern sensitive male; friends as family; conversation as ceremony and affirmation not therapy and revelation; pristine moments; and, most of all, memory–the memory of it all told and retold, sharpened like a good knife blade, until the minutiae of living becomes the meaning of life.

    Despite my quest to get these books read, I do hate it when a book I’m really enjoying ends. And I suspect that The Everlasting Stream will be a compelling page-turner for me and so will not last as long as I would like. Still, it will be good to check one more off my everlasting list.