“Memoir Writing.” Do you envision a famous 1950s actress sitting on a dainty chair at a white French Provincial, desk writing in a leather bound book just like Joan Crawford? Or perhaps you envision a famous novelist sitting in the corner of a dark bar scribbling into a notebook in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway? I see 11 women who range in age from 17 to 78; they are my Tuesday night classmates, and we are learning how to plumb the depths of our memories and write evocatively about our life experiences.
The first two classes were loads of fun. The first week we wrote in class about our names. Yes, our names. I learned about Jane, who definitely isn’t plain, but is kind of angry; Jennifer, who found out the hard way that her parents wanted a boy; and Laura, who wants to be a writer and was named after the writer Laura Ingalls. Each of the 10 writers wove the stories of their names around me, a 50-something woman who is reinventing herself as her children leave home.
The writers, my classmates, have distinctive writing styles. I love to close my eyes as they read. My mind’s eye conjures up the places they are describing, the people who populate those places and the feelings their writing evoke in me.
Our first suggested out-of-class assignment was to write about the front of our earliest “home”: the door, the steps, the front yard. So during our second class I heard about a home in Puerto Rico with a well-swept dirt sidewalk to the front door; a country estate in England with a pond and an aviary; and a dilapidated row house in Pennsylvania steel country. The steel country house is mine; I own that memory from the sagging roofline of that rental row house to the soot on the front porch.
Our second suggested out-of-class assignment was to write about a particular song or “tune” or instrumental piece that opened a trove of memory for us. So during our third class I listened as Deborah described her flute, which she never learned to play in unison with her class; “the negative character of some people” stayed with her for decades as she recalled playing out of synch. Dora, who grew up watching her parents dance, described the impact of watching 1984 gold-medal winning, British ice-dancing sensations Torvill and Dean; with tears tracing slowly down her cheeks, Dora spoke of watching a woman skater morph into a cape; of a matador and his love for his cape. Yes, when done well, memoir writing is a gift to both writer and reader.
Music evokes strong memories for me, and when we received that second assignment I immediately knew the song I’d write about. I may not have been born in New Jersey, but I’m a Jersey girl in many ways. I am a huge fan of this Jersey boy who tells stories in his songs. When I was in college, I saw him play with his band in legendary Jersey venues like The Stony Pony and the (now-defunct) Red Bank Theater and Fast Lane. I’ve stood next to him in bars, listening to whatever band played on stage, but knowing I stood next to a near-legend even then. When he sings it’s like magic to me. I dance. I sing along. I remember, even now, how I felt then.
In Jersey he’s known as Bruce. To outsiders he’s Bruce Springsteen. He’s my rock and roll idol and his song “Born to Run” is the song of my youth. It’s me. Let's dance.