By Lyssa Tall Anolik
September, with its crisp mornings and falling-leaf smells, is a good time to embark on new projects or re-energize old ones that have lost steam.* This month, I invite you to join an expedition.
Memoir as archaeology
You are squatting in a dusty pit, scraping and sweeping, scraping and sweeping. Day after day you uncover bits of broken pottery, pieces of old water vessels, cups, ceremonial bowls. Then one day, a shiny, amber-colored tip appears in your plot of gray-brown earth. You work around it with brush and chisel, layer by layer exposing the piece of pointed stone. You wiggle it gently like a loose tooth until it finally pulls free from the bed of soil that has held it these many years. A stone arrowhead lies in the palm of your hand. Sunlight bounces off its translucent surface. The point is still sharp, connecting you to the last human who used this arrow and left it lying on the ground, or perhaps propped against the wall of a dwelling lashed to a wooden pole. You’re connected to the last animal, perhaps a deer, whose hide this amber arrow pierced. You have joined the chain of history that belongs to this single artifact.
Memoir is like this. We dig into the strata of our personal, family and cultural histories. Layer by layer we uncover the artifacts that have shaped and informed who we are, and who we are becoming. It’s a dynamic way to learn about ourselves and our evolving place in the world. It’s a process of discovery, of exploring our histories through multiple lenses, resulting in a textured story that we had not considered before.
Don your digging duds
Now it’s your turn. Below are some thematic lists of questions to help you mine your life history for hidden (or not so hidden) stories. Spend a minute or two listing answers for each question. They can be a single word or short phrases. Don’t over-think; just write the first things that pop into your head. If you’re overwhelmed by the number of questions, pick one or two of the topics to work with and go … .
Where did your name come from?
What does it mean?
How does it influence who you are?
Name three things you know about your family history.
Name three things you’d like to know more about your family’s history.
Where could you go to find this information?
How does this history influence who you are?
List three (or more) family artifacts (old photos, diaries/letters, recipes, a piece of jewelry, a porcelain figurine, etc.)
Culture and religion
What culture(s) and religion(s) do you come from historically?
Name three things (objects or ideas) that represent these (traditional dress, incense, language, etc.)
What myths/stories/sacred texts tell you where your ancestors came from and how their world was created?
What is your relationship to these stories?
What culture do you most identify with today?
Landscape and place
What is the name of the land/place where you grew up?
What are three words that describe it?
How long has your family lived there?
Who else lived in that place before your people? What common history do you share?
Where do you live now?
When you’ve completed this list, read through your answers and star the items you’d like to explore further. Pick one starred item and use it as a freewriting prompt. (See the October 2012 column for how to freewrite.) Write for 5-10 minutes. Repeat with as many prompts from your list as you like.
Whether you’re just beginning a memoir project or seeking renewed inspiration for an ongoing one, this process of digging deep can help you make connections and see old stories in new light. Don’t be afraid to get dust in your nose and grit between your teeth as you work. You’ll know that translucent amber arrowhead when you see it.
*If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the October 2012 installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started.
This is VoiceCatcher’s ninth article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.