How I love the way the internet connects me to like-minded, interesting people across miles, borders, cultures. I was introduced to Marjorie Simmins, a Canadian memoir writer and fellow horsewoman, by Rona Maynard, a writer/editor (Canada by-way-of-New-Hampshire), with whom I've exchanged Facebook posts for years. Rona knew I would like Marjorie's memoir, Year of the Horse (Pottersfield Press 2016). Marjorie also writes essays for magazines, newspapers and anthologies in Canada and the United States, and divides her time between Nova Scotia and British Columbia. In Coastal Lives (Pottersfield 2014), she wrote about loving two coasts and one man, husband Silver Donald Cameron, a noted Canadian author. Marjorie is currently working on a third non-fiction book, which includes tips, essays, and interviews on memoir—an outgrowth perhaps of her many workshops.
Please welcome Marjorie Simmins.
“You forgot something,” says sharp-eyed Sara, a fine essayist and freelance journalist. She points to the flip-chart, on which I've written the day's itinerary. “That last one—'Starry Night Memories'—what's that?”
Sara is right, and she is wrong. I didn't actually forget, but we did run out of time, and in truth, I am relieved, as I haven’t presented that particular writing exercise to a memoir writing workshop before, and I'm not quite sure how it might go over. But I am busted now.
“Right,” I say, “'Starry Night Memories'...” I hesitate again, when I look up to see eight pairs of alert eyes focused on me, expecting some degree of teacherly articulation. You're supposed to be the memoir writing expert, I chide myself. So speak up.
“You know when you are in bed at night, you're getting sleepy, and your thoughts are moving around from subject to subject, and sometimes, from memory to memory?” Two or three people nod.
Encouraged, I press on. “Sometimes you deliberately take out a cherished memory to visit, and enjoy. It's like an old friend you haven't seen for a while. You're happy when you think about it, and it helps you fall into a happier, more relaxed sleeping state.”
No nods this time, but several heads on a tilt; they're all still listening.
I struggle to underscore the main point. “So those memories—those 'starry night memories,' the ones we keep in our memory vaults—sometimes they're so much a part of us, they need to be written about.” I take a deep breath, wind up for the killer point: “You need to take those memories out from an inner place of safe storage, to a public place of recorded story. One memory could even be the starting point for an entire memoir.”
The group is silent, not a single head nodding now. But I trust this brainy bunch. They just need a moment.
“Ohhhh,” breathes Sara. “You mean our deepest memories – the ones that make us, ourselves.”
“The ones that are as much us, as our fingerprints or our voices,” adds another participant.
“The memory-stars inside us,” chimes a third.
“Yes,” I say. “Those.”
Then I feel that usual slither of fear down my spine – which is probably why I didn't want to do this exercise, hoped no one would notice its omission from our full day of learning and sharing.
More to myself than to the group, I hear myself say: “Of course once you write about those memories, you kinda lose them as your special friends in your own might skies.” I should hold back the next thoughts, too, but somehow I can’t. “Sometimes it feels like there are only a finite number of the most intense, writable memories. So you might … run out.”
A weighted moment of consideration by all, then Sara cries out: “No! That's not it. As soon as you set one memory free, another is able to rise up and take its place. It's like water coming up in our footprints on the beach. All those footprints, all that water and sand: that can't be counted individually, any more than memories can. And think of this,” her voice is triumphant now, “why shouldn't the memory that comes up be even more special than the one you let go of? It certainly could be as special.”
I will not gasp. I will not cry. I will not sag with relief.
“Yes,” I say, with apparent calm, my interior landscape as a memory-hoarder forever changed. “I can see that, Sara.”
What I see, in fact, is what I've known for ages, as an essayist and a memoirist: the memories do change within after you've offered them up publicly, becoming less vivid in some ways, more substantial in others. Most startling of all, they go on to have their own separate lives apart from you, in the memories of those who read about them.
But I have guarded my deepest, most personal memories partly because they are so connected to people I love, many of whom have passed on, either from simple old age, or complicated early deaths; replaying the memories seems like the only way I can spend time with them. Hence the instinct to hoard. Mine, all mine.
Which goes against every writerly instinct to share stories, I know. Somehow I’ve worked around that, my lifelong need to write and share stories winning out over my fears of losing particular, beloved memories.
What startles me more than anything from Sara's outburst is the idea of memories-in-waiting. Archaeological layers of memories, waiting to be troweled up into the sun. Bonus! I have never before thought of memories as infinite. I am exhilarated and delighted … and a wee bit intimidated. I am used to corralling, then gradually sharing what I thought was a finite selection of memories.
I stand silently in front of eight pairs of intelligent, kind eyes, and I think: I could claim that whole vast universe of memory that exists within us all, and I could experience more beauty, feel more sustenance from my waking, day-skies, too. Balance, I think, it’s all about balancing then and now.
Aloud I say: Close your eyes for a moment. Forget that it's daytime. Settle into a pretend night sky. Stars upon stars. When you go to your memories, what are the bright constellations you always go to?
Eight pens find paper. When I give workshops, next to the epiphanies that often come with the sharing of ideas, these silent, working times are my favourites..I love to see writers write. We've talked in and around memoir for most of a day, sharing what fascinates and frustrates us about this saucy, renegade genre. Now it's time for quiet, and the recording of thoughts, perhaps of epiphanies, certainly memories – starry night and otherwise.
*Marjorie's next memoir workshop, The Minefields of Memoir, is scheduled for June 17, 2017, at the Thinkers Lodge National Historic Site, in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. Information is posted at her site.