Once a week I leave my lawyer’s life behind for a few hours and drive to a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. I sit around a large table with seven strangers in an old Victorian train station. Each of us reads a short memoir.
These stories are remarkable and fascinating. They are painful, funny, original and true, and often reveal intimate details of our lives that we have not shared with anyone else. We critique the writing and don’t always agree. The comments often say as much about the listener as they do about the writer.
We try to focus on the writing, but can’t help but relate the stories to our own lives. Death, illness, addiction, familial conflict and loss are universal. Regardless of whether the writing has been polished, the profound emotions of the writer always come through. And the setting is magnificent, the broad river with its endless vistas and the trains rushing by. Although the trains may only be going to Albany, with a little imagination they can evoke a feeling of adventure and mystery, which is perfect for our group.
Unlike some of my fellow writers, I am not compiling an extended story of my life. That is what most of my friends think I am doing when I mention the word “memoir.” I write separate, free-standing vignettes, each of which evokes a small slice of my life in a particular place and time. I have written about 30 of these pieces over the last few years. Someday they could all be strung together like beads on a necklace and tell a future reader something about who I am or who I was. But that is not my intention. I am not trying to create a legacy or share these stories with the world.
The satisfaction of memoir writing for me is purely personal, and to quote our teacher’s latest prompt, my “indulgence.” I do it because the writing process itself immerses me in long forgotten memories that flood my consciousness as soon as I type the first sentence. While I write, I can recreate my two grandmothers and put my younger self in a room with each of them, hearing one play the piano while the other rattles her rosary beads. I can conjure my childhood neighborhood from my perch in a chokecherry tree and feel like I am eight years old again. I can experience the love of my mother as we worked together for hours wallpapering or painting a room, and the contrasting distance of my father, who spent much of my childhood in a neighborhood bar.
Writing not only whisks me back to my past but helps me explain it. I can see the connection between my father’s horrific experience in World War II, his economic frustration after coming home and his escape into a bottle of whisky. And I can discern my mother’s seeking refuge in her oldest son as a replacement for the love and attention she did not get from her husband.
In my writing, I can also relive my biggest crisis as an adult, when I faced a life on dialysis because of a genetic kidney disease. I was rescued by a friend who gave me one of his kidneys. The swirl of emotions generated by this event is profound. I feel compelled to keep them alive in my writing. I can never write enough about the selflessness of my friend, the miraculous resurrection of my body after the transplant, the overwhelming support of the people around me during my recuperation and the unexpected and very rare spirituality I experienced, which led me directly to a conversion to Judaism.
Writing also forces me to convey images that are as sharp as a motion picture in my mind to my seven fellow writers around the table. They have not seen this movie before or any of its prequels or sequels. They can only see my grandmothers if I tell them about Adelaide’s robust playing of her piano and the organ in the church next door, her knitting of afghans with gnarled fingers, Delia’s rosary beads worn smooth with thrice daily recitations and the tea leaves that, ironically, she valued just as highly as the beads. Choosing the right words to bring them back to life is both a challenge and a joy.
I sometimes wonder as much about the things I don’t write about as those I do. I have been a successful litigation lawyer in New York for more than 45 years and, like most lawyers, have many stories to tell. But those professional stories struggle for attention with the more interesting stories of my early life and don’t come to the surface; they will have to wait.
I also don’t write much about my three sons and my relationships with them. I know I was a more caring and involved father than my own, but I think my competitiveness with my sons for Judy’s attention and my high fatherly expectations for them crept into the mix and dulled my enthusiasm for writing about my life as a father. I hope that will change.
My memoir trysts in Sleepy Hollow may not be titillating, but for me they are a perfect way to spend my supply of Wednesday afternoons.
John is a recovering litigation lawyer who has recently shifted his focus from starting lawsuits to mediating them. He uses memoir writing to enhance his understanding of the roots of human conflict.