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First Things First: write first, worry later

September 10, 2022

About twenty-five years ago, my mother wrote an autobiography. She composed it on lined paper in perfect penmanship—large, deliberate cursive strokes, easily recognizable on an envelope in the mail. Upon completing the manuscript, she photocopied the document, placed each of the 100-or-so pages in a transparent plastic pocket for safekeeping, and snapped them safely into three-ring binders. These were her Christmas gifts to my three siblings and me that year. “I want my children to know things about me they might not otherwise know,” she explains in the manuscript. Of the gifts my mom has given me, her manuscript is my favorite.

It was fun to read my mom’s life story. She filled page after page with memories of Sunday school, special teachers, and thoughtful reflections on eternity. As she intended, I learned things about her I’d not known. She’s always had a vivid memory for the most peculiar details. For instance, she craved fried eggs when she was pregnant with me. I discovered she’s always been a creature of habit, even as a child. I learned she’s always enjoyed simple pleasures. On Saturdays, her older sister, my Aunt Helen, often treated her to lunch at Woolworth’s lunch counter in London, Ontario. Mom routinely ordered an egg-salad sandwich for which Aunt Helen paid a nickel. As I read, I appreciated my mom’s memories of the mundane more than ever.

At one point, she writes, “And then I married your dad, but you know all about that already.” Then she skips right past the twenty-one years she spent in an abusive marriage as though they never happened and continue writing about her life. In a single sentence, she reduced my dad’s significance in her story by affording it only the space of a single sentence. I imagined her composing that sentence as though it were nothing. Perhaps she paused before emphatically planting the obligatory period. “Take that!” Full stop.

Recently, I told my mom that sentence was my favorite part of her autobiography. She seemed surprised. I read that narrative move as an act of agency on her part. She made space in her story for what she chooses to remember as most significant in her journey as a woman, daughter, sister, mother, friend, and writer. Omitting the details of a twenty-one-year marriage to a man who made the relationship and her family a battlefield for more than a few of his demons was a radically liberating move for my mom. She remembered to forget what could have destroyed her story if she’d let it. That’s pretty badass if you ask me.

I coach a lot of writers working on memoirs. Most worry about how to tell their story impactfully without inciting the wrath of anyone whose behavior the writer exposes and condemns. I understand the concern. It’s legitimate. However, the time to worry about such matters is not when composing a draft. The first draft is the “get it all on the page” stage. In due course, we will discuss other strategies. First things first.

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