River muse

The deeper you dig, the harder it gets

By CASS COLLINS
Posted 10/5/21

I am in the midst of renovating a small cottage that will be my writing space. Eventually. I thought it would be finished in August. August 1, to be precise. But after removing things like a shower …

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River muse

The deeper you dig, the harder it gets

Posted

I am in the midst of renovating a small cottage that will be my writing space. Eventually. I thought it would be finished in August. August 1, to be precise. But after removing things like a shower stall and toilet, other things became apparent. Moldy walls, pest invasions, faulty floor beams. And the place smelled like someone died in the attic.

I’m not doing the work myself. Too yucky for me. I like the decorating part of renovation. That part has been done and is now sitting in boxes in my garage at home. Soon, I will need to put my car in there. Soon, it will get cold in the cottage.

While I am waiting for the cottage to become a writing space, I am writing. My column, of course, but also a memoir. My husband likes to say, “There is no first job.” By that he means, whenever you start a job, you need to gather your materials, or fix your tools, find your tools, or do something else you hadn’t expected to do.

Writing a memoir requires a lot of first jobs. There is excavation. Sometimes you find a memory is not what you thought it was. Sometimes the foundation is cracked or a big piece of support is missing.

I have the support of a group of writers in this project. We are all writing memoirs and they are all as different as we are. One is the daughter of Auschwitz survivors; another grew up in a Black working-class family and went to Princeton; another grew up around a family in organized crime. I think the only way I could have tackled this job is with their support. We meet weekly for two hours online and we each review three pieces of the others’ writing every week.

We have a professional at our helm, one with whom most of us have worked before. He sparks flames of memory, clears paths we didn’t know were there and encourages us with cries of “More, more, we want more!” when we try to write in summary instead of scene. He urges us to write dialogue when we think we can’t possibly remember any. “As long as it’s the truth,” he says “the dialogue need not be verbatim.”

He tells us to research the events of importance in the world during our time, to add music and books and people who shaped our thoughts and feelings. To write about food. When all seems dark, he urges humor. “Lighten it up!” he says. The most crucial piece of advice he has is, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t get there.” That echoed in my thoughts for weeks before I realized, in a middle-of-the-night awakening, what my story was about.

Earlier this summer, I saw a painting on my friend Madame Fortuna’s Instagram. She gathers stuff that once filled other people’s lives and repatriates it to new owners. All of her items seem to have a life force of their own, as if they are begging to be among someone who adores them. This painting called to me and I could see it hanging on the wall of my small cottage, inspiring me. Filled with color, deep reds and cobalt blue it has the composition of an early Matisse painting with pattern and background detail. The figure is a nude woman who confronts the painter with all her flaws and perfection on view. She waits for her turn to inspire anew.

Many of the people I write about are gone. I owe them my truest memories. But even more, I owe myself this excavation.

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