1. FIRST, REMEMBER your favorite collage-style memoirs, those books assembled from fragments which seem unrelated, but still build to a meaningful whole. Maybe all you need to do is gather your random jottings, arrange them in a pleasing pattern, and glue them together. Then wave your Elmer’s glue-and-glitter-covered fingers in the air, and voilà! You’ll have written a book.
2. Then consider your own past efforts, your many experiments and failures. Admit to yourself that the best of these published nontraditional narratives may, in fact, have been the most difficult to put together.
3. Case in point: A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations, by Christine Hale. Decide to study it: list the many, disparate story lines she’s snipped into pieces and scattered throughout the book:
- Her childhood in Appalachia with a needy and abusive mother, emotionally distant father, and two sisters — one developmentally disabled
- The story of her parents’ courtship and early marriage
- Her parents’ old age and deaths
- Her own short marriage to her high school sweetheart
- Her painful divorce from her second husband, the father of her children
- Her third marriage to a late-life love
- Her relationship with her children
- Her history of depression
- Snippets of dreams
- A series of frightening hurricanes
- Her life as an aspiring writer
- Her experience as a Tibetan Buddhist, including her relationship to her Buddhist teacher, a series of spiritual retreats, and a trip to Tibet
4. Wonder how she covers so much content and still creates a sense of unity. Examine her structure. Turns out she has a frame: she begins and ends with a story about getting tattoos with her nearly grown children. That’s the narrative she weaves throughout — a touchstone.
5. Note that some story lines move chronologically, but many do not. Ask yourself how Hale keeps you from getting lost. Discover she almost always, with a few gracefully placed phrases, grounds you in time and place. She’s generous that way.
6. But how, you ask yourself, does she create a sense of flow, and the feeling all these fragments are adding up to something? Read the book again. Observe her strategies for linking sections: A Christmas scene introduces memories of Christmases past. Excerpts from her high school letters to her fiancé follow passages from her father’s letters to her mother. In one scene she tries to end a relationship with the man who will become her third husband; in the next she divorces her first.
7. Notice she doesn’t emphasize her cleverness. She’s subtle: she incorporates no obvious transitions, nor does she reflect on the meaning she makes from these kinds of juxtapositions. Enjoy the room she leaves for you to make your own meaning.
8. Conclude that Hale is not telling so much as layering a story. This is a portrait of a consciousness, shaped by memories, associations, and the effort to form an identity in relationship to others.
9. Realize the book does, after all, have an arc. In the opening section, Hale tells us she’s the third and last daughter in the family — an accident. Her depressed, alcoholic mother, who often flies into terrifying rages and critical rants, wishes out loud that they’d both died in childbirth. In the next breath, she sobs that only Hale loves her, and insists that her youngest is “smarter, prettier,” and has “better manners” than other children in town. This creates in Hale an exaggerated sense of her responsibility for others’ suffering as well as their happiness, damaging her self-confidence and encumbering her relationships. In the first section, Hale foreshadows both her trials and transformation. She writes: “Still more years will pass before I begin to give up my habits of guilty self-judgment and of seeking outside myself answers to my pain.”
10. Decide that this memoir, though spiritual, is not designed to teach or offer tidy aphorisms to copy down and keep in your pocket. Hale remains too full of self-doubt, too humble for that. She questions herself:
I wonder if my commitment to participating in Buddhist practice makes me a good mother or a slack one. After all, I leave my children home alone all morning every weekend. I’ve given up drugs, depressive anhedonia, suicidal ideation, but isn’t it possible I’ve replaced those addictions with new ones: all those mantra, and adherence to the teacher’s instructions?
(She decides, whether or not Buddhism is the true path, she needs good habits.)
11. Having determined that the story has an arc, try to find its climax. Hale refers to her “dual awakening.” First, while ill in Tibet, she fears that she may die. In that moment she is able to let go of her need to fix, control, or be overly intertwined with those she loves. Second, not long after, weary from illness and altitude, she hikes to the top of a mountain to view a sky burial — a body prepared for the vultures. When the birds, with bits of human flesh in their beaks, lift into the air, she “felt neither awe nor fear. Through a scrim of antipathy about all that emptiness, I just saw what I saw: What it all comes to in the end, for every ambition, and every body.”
12. You believe her — these events are a turning point. And, for you, her reader, there’s a third: days after the sky burial, on a bus, watching a Buddhist monk doing full body prostrations, length-by-length, the distance between towns, Hale writes: “I felt how extremely small were my headache and body ache and hunger and weariness — in relation to all that others feel, and endure.” So far, the book has spiraled around Hale’s inner world, her emotions, memories, longings, and fears. This scene opens up to the wider world. It’s a relief to have some space. Some air.
13. Recall Hale’s description of her first writing workshop. The criticism devastates her. “Even at nearly forty,” she writes,
I couldn’t tell the difference between my emotions and other people. I’d lived in blind, solitary enclosure with my feelings so long — depended so long on nothing but my keen ability to feel my loss and loneliness — that the derision of people I thought I was one of left me gasping with shock.
14. Reread the section in which Hale, as a child, is obsessed with her sister’s dollhouse town, especially the way her objects and people are often out of proportion. A giant teacher doll presides over a classroom of little figures wearing swim caps, overalls, or suits and ties. She writes, “I could not stop marveling in the disjunctions of scale.”
15. Think about the power of memoir to adjust scale: writing about the past can shift our perspective, provide a larger context, shrink memories to less terrifying size, and sometimes allow us to forgive. You suspect this has been the process for Hale.
16. Realize at this point that crafting this kind of memoir — a collage — is not the easier choice, but one that makes rigorous intellectual and emotional demands. Among them are practical challenges: like how and where to come to an end.
17. Go back to the moment near the end of the book when Hale recreates a conversation with her daughter about her plan for a new tattoo:
“Okay,” I say, “what’ll it be, and where?”
“The Celtic symbol for healing,” she says. “On my wrist.”
She shows me a picture, on the screen of her cell phone, of a triskelion, three small wheels of tight, concentric spirals, flush on one side but open on the other, spinning out energy. Constraining and emanating momentum.
So Hale reminds you of where she began and the themes throughout — the pain, the progress. She goes on:
I gaze at her fine-boned wrist, the translucent skin, and beneath it, the tracery of blue, beating veins.
“This is going to hurt,” I say.
Ink on the body, ink on the page.
18. Open your files — look at all those fragments. This time you know: there won’t be glue or glitter or hand-waving. The work will bruise you; it may even leave you permanently marked. It will be harder than you thought, but promises more than you imagined. Begin.
Tarn Wilson is the author of the memoir The Slow Farm (Ovenbird Books: Judith Kitchen Select, 2014). Her essays appear in Brevity, Defunct, Gulf Stream, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, River Teeth, Ruminate, South Loop Review, and The Sun, among others.