By Jerry Waxler
It’s July 4, 2007 and I’m sitting in an outdoor pavilion at a new local shopping mall, writing in my journal while I wait for my wife. The pavilion is empty, perhaps because all the shoppers are getting ready for the fireworks or scared away by the rain. A few moments ago I was in the bookstore thumbing through a book called “Come to your senses.” The author, Jon Kabat-Zinn, says that by tuning in to sensory information, those things we see, feel, hear, smell, and taste, we become more alert and can connect more genuinely with our world.
Creative writing teachers offer the exact same advice. By writing specific sensory details, you invite the reader in. As my pen glides across the page of the spiral bound notebook, the electric air caresses my skin. I feel almost confused by the air’s cooling touch, considering that at this time of year, Pennsylvania summers are usually muggy, and make my skin feel sticky. The chair I’m sitting on is cushioned, another pleasant surprise. Most shopping areas have stiff chairs designed to keep you moving. I wouldn’t mind sitting on this chair at home on my porch.
Then a family sits near me and a little boy asks his father if he has ever been on a train. The man says, “Yes, when I was young, I went with my older brother on a train in the Punjab.” The boy asks, “What’s the Punjab?” Their voices are like music – the childish American singsong playing against the deeper resonance of India. The son’s curiosity has awakened an excursion into the past, and without realizing it, they are taking me with them to the other side of the world.
Memoirs are everywhere. In fact, in ten years, this moment itself could be part of my memoir. I start playing with this idea of time travel. The words I am writing right now will remind me of what I was seeing today. My journal takes on new significance, as I look around with keener attention, and wonder what I can record that will make a great story.
If you want to write your memoir some day, try this experiment. Think about today as an important day. What parts of your life right now, today, this month, this year, will be worth reading? This exercise can expand your relationship to memoir writing. For one thing, it will give you an incentive to keep a journal. Since diaries are not intended for public reading, you can say anything you want. This gives you writing practice without worrying about what other people think.
I kept a journal for many years, but in those days I had no intention of saving facts for posterity. I did it because I enjoyed writing. It was a powerful introspective exercise, but now when I look through those old journals I find little worth knowing. To write a journal intended for a future memoir, I need to write more than just raw feelings. I need to describe what I see, hear, and feel. To help me get back to the good stuff, I would highlight interesting passages. Perhaps I would transfer the good entries to a blog and let the computer keep track of them for me.
Once you get into the habit, you’ll realize that you don’t need to wait for ten years to make use of this material. As in most writing exercises, the benefits become apparent as soon as you start. Not only will it bring more attention to your writing. It might help you “come to your senses,” becoming more intimately aware of life itself.
When Alice Sebold, author of the memoir Lucky, told her writing professor Tobias Wolff, that she was going to the police station to identify her assailant, he took her by the shoulders, looked her in the eye and said, “Remember everything.” By thinking about your future memoir, you will become more vigilant, and sharpen your insights into the life you are living right now.