Bring a memory you want to write about.
The writing seminar’s theme was “Personal Narrative” – memoir, creative nonfiction, telling your own story. Jonathan Rogers, my writing teacher, held it just before the Hutchmoot Conference of 2022 – a faith and arts conference that I’ve dreamed about going to since 2018.
A memory I wanted to write about . . . fresh out of college in 2017, eager to finally begin my career as a creative writer, I listed memories and experiences in a spiral-bound notebook. Our magical trip to Hawaii when I was nine; summers backpacking in Yosemite; sunscreen-and-ice-cream days by the lake; the cross-country road trip west along I-40 after graduation. I had pillaged a lot of these for my writing already, and I don’t like to rewrite the same memories if I can help it – at least, not yet.
It’s not 2017 anymore. It’s 2022. Somehow, the “me” that applied frantically to every writing or editing job within a fifty-mile radius of home, read Robert Frost and G.K. Chesterton at lunch breaks, and devoured podcasts on faith, literature, and beauty on long commutes is gone. I’m not a new college grad trying to market herself to potential employers. I’m not the bewildered new car owner trying to figure out if $200 was an overcharge for an oil change.
This summer, I wrote a speech for a friend’s wedding. Writing that speech required me to delve into the memories of all that we had been at summer camp and college together, from kayaking at dawn to late-night hot chocolate. Remembering it all, and knowing that the years between then and now will only continue to grow, gave me that same feeling you get when you’re underwater and look up to see the shimmering circle of the sun.
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” said Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners. That may be true, but it’s a lot easier to find things to write about now that I have worked in the adult world for a few years. For the seminar, I chose a memory from 2018: the morning when I woke up alone in a lakehouse in February. I had forgotten to pull the curtains closed, so my first sight was of whist mist hovering over the snow-muffled lake under a rosy sunrise.
Is it ok to change or rearrange details in my story? What is your earliest memory? Are we remembering, or reconstructing? What is episodic vs. semantic memory? How do you draw meaning out of sensory data and specific events? The writing seminar group met in a barn-turned-venue full of framed mirrors. Squirrels and chipmunks skittered over the tin roof as we talked. Tiny flames flickered in tea lights on the table. We shared memories, stories, techniques, questions, and mutual wonder, taking breaks to scribble thoughts for writing exercises.
That night, my first in-person Hutchmoot conference began.
Rooms named for C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, Frederick Buechner, and Walter Wangerin; a pottery wheel and freshly-fired pieces in one corner; books on poetry, philosophy, aesthetics, and story everywhere; a gallery of paintings, sketches, linocuts, and engravings; jam and coffee and biscuits; secret puzzles stashed in random places. Concerts and writing workshops; sessions on sacred symbolism, the art of adaptation, and the making of chai; conversations with people who loved books, had traveled to or from Libya, Japan, Mali, and other faraway, and many people who had suffered deeply.
It was a feast, a carnival, a holiday, and a whirlwind in one. I found that two years of limited large-group interactions had left me ill-prepared for so much richness all at once – by the end of some sessions or discussions I was exhausted beyond coherent thought or speech. I met many sweet friends for the first time, or the first time in a long time, who have shared their hearts and imaginations with me through their writing. Our conversations were the best part; their wisdom and encouragement was a walled garden in itself, lovely and safe.
I couldn’t help thinking about how my 2017 and 2018-selves would have reacted to all of it. I was hopeful; lonely; ambitious; a yearner, a day-dreamer, and an anxious worker. Younger-me may have handled the exhaustion better than my 2022-self, being more used to in-person interaction. She would have been breathless with excitement, eager to join in this fellowship of beauty and adventure. Her own life would have appeared dull, boring, and limited compared with the beautiful worlds of art-making, travel, and friendships that each speaker and conversant wove with their words.
At 2022, I don’t think I’m wiser, but I do know one thing: the world I ached to join, the realm in which people do walking-tours and have house concerts and read the most wonderful books, is not something far away and unattainable. It’s real, but it’s something I can make for myself, in my own way. A good life is made as well as given.
Between my younger and current self, I feel a little lost – partly in attending this conference, partly because my move to Tennessee is still so recent. In speaking of age and childlikeness, Madeline L’Engle said something that has encouraged me: “I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and . . . and . . . and . . . / If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.” (Taken from Walking on Water.)
I am all the ages I have ever been. I’m still the new college grad, the child, the entry-level employee, and the graduate student. I’m also all the selves of all the places I’ve been, including New England, Maui, Yosemite, Glacier, Iceland, Scotland, and Tennessee. Thinking of myself as many overlapping selves is somehow comforting. It turns aging into addition and expansion instead of loss. It turns my heart into a forest growing taller and wilder and thicker with golden leaves.