Writing a memoir is a journey

“Much of writing a memoir is about the act of remembering. When the memories started to come back to me, they were so vivid and visceral that I could not manage them easily. I cried a lot. This is something that is overlooked quite often in the teaching of memoir. It’s deeply emotional work and getting a handle on your emotions is part of that work…Most people who are writing memoirs these days are writing stories that someone told them never to tell, they’re writing back to themselves. If this is you, remember that on some days the emotions can be overwhelming, they can lead you to believe that you will never be able to do this. No one is required to keep going if it gets too hard, but if you do decide to keep going, remember that dredging up memories and emotions is harrowing work. I spent a lot of time just slogging through the intense images that were coming to me. Creating a narrative structure out of these disparate and powerful images was my biggest challenge.” Alison Smith, “The Autobiographer’s Handbook”

Finally someone said it! In plain, compassionate, sink into me, I get it language.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent so much time in the final stretch reading not just memoirs but what memoirists say about the actual journey of writing a memoir, what it takes out of you, the costs. I’ve been searching for something, maybe evidence that I’m not alone in this, that the emotional intensity is not exclusive to me, that I’m not buggin.’

When I was a kid I was accused so often of being overly sensitive (Mom would say, “¡Ay a ti no se te puede decir na!”). I internalized this. Often, too often, when women react passionately to something, we’re deemed overdramatic, told to calm down, ease up, relax. Someone recently called me a bully for standing up for myself and what I believe. He told me to simmer down. I wanted to gouge his eyes out with my Pilot Precise V5. Since when does passion equate to bullying? Yes, I’m emotional and I won’t apologize for that. When I care about something, I wear it everywhere—in the intonation and, yes, volume, of my voice, in the way my arms and hands flail when I’m talking. I talk with my body, it’s my exclamation point. Sometimes, when I’m feeling especially intensely about an issue (say for example gay rights—remember, I watched my Millie die terrified of going to hell), my voice cracks and I have to pause to swallow the knot that clogs my throat. I squeeze my eyes shut a few times to blink back the tears. It’s because I care. It’s because I was never and will never be a quiet girl. Cuando me importa algo, I smack my hands together and my nostrils flare. It’s who I am and what I do. Period.

I started this blog because despite searching high and low, I haven’t found much, if any, info on the journey of writing memoir. Nothing that actually documents the process as it’s happening. It’s a deeply personal process and often a wrenching one so I get why this is lacking, but I searched for it because I needed it and not finding it kinda bothered me. So I took it upon myself to be the one to do it, to share at least some of what I go through, the challenges, the epiphanies, the healing, the joys. The costs of writing memoir.

I’ve also been bothered (if that’s the word) that I haven’t found any personal narratives similar to mine, what it was like being raised in a gay relationship, by two women, in 70s and 80s America, specifically in NYC, specifically in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Well, I lie, I wasn’t looking for anything that specific. I know my story is rather unique, but, still, something at least similar would do. I’ve found none. And maybe that’s a compliment to my Millie, the butch who danced salsa with her shoulders when she claimed the title of butch. Perhaps this is proof that there was and never will be anyone like her. But a part of me, an I’m-not-alone-in-this part of me, wanted, still wants, some companionship in this experience. I’ve never found it in books though I’ve met a few people (a very few) who lived it or are living it now—a fellow writer whose mother came out to her in her teen years, a lesbian writer at VONA who is raising a child with her partner. Both confirmed the value of my story. Both sad it was important, for them, for the community, for those who de-humanize homosexuals. (If I ever meet Diana Medley, the special ed teacher from Indiana who said LGBT people have no purpose, I swear I think I’m going to slap her with a picture of my Millie.)

I wonder now if that’s what I’ve been looking for in my desperate search for a story like mine—affirmation.

None of us is free from that questioning: Who will read this? Why does it matter? Why should anyone care?

Yesterday, during a meeting with a colleague I’ve known since college, she shared, “When I win the lottery, I want to write my family’s story.” I cocked my head and smiled. All these years and I had no idea this was brewing inside of her. Turns out the seed was planted by a photo album her cousin put together for a recent family reunion. Flipping through it and hearing the stories shared about the pictures, “stories I knew and didn’t know. I want my kids to have those stories. And their kids to have them.” Of course she does. After all, they’re the stories of who they are and where they come from. And I think that’s such a huge part of the reason I’m writing this memoir, to remember, not just for me, but for my daughter and her children and their children. Because they never got see know my Millie. Because I get to share her love with them through story.

I met with a student today who is struggling with writing his story. “I don’t want to be tragic,” he confessed. But when he told me his coming out story, his eyes welled and he stared off into the park, avoiding my eyes. I could tell he was fighting with himself, with those tears. I told him what Alison Smith wrote about the process. I confessed that I’ve spent more time crying during the writing than I’ve spent actually writing. “It’s just a part of the work. I wish I could tell you it isn’t but… You’re staring at everything you’ve avoided and everything you’ve done to avoid feeling like that again.”

I’m not sure I helped him but I hope so. I can only tell him what I’ve been through while I’ve been working on my memoir. And in a way, this encounter reminded me of why I’m doing it. Because, like I told my student, “We all have these pains that live in us, that we avoid because we either don’t want to deal with them or just don’t have the time or whatever reason we come up with. Just because we don’t face them doesn’t mean they go away.” They don’t. What I do know is that when you write about them, their stab is a little less deep each time. But, as I’ve said before, the only way out is in. You may not want to sound tragic but sometimes what we experience is tragic. What’s even more tragic is that we’re taught not to write about ourselves, our lives, what’s devastated us (and sometimes eventually saved us) because it’s narcissistic or self-important or self-aggrandizing and all those other words that are thrown like poison-tipped darts at memoir writers. But when I teach memoir and talk to my students, I am reminded of why I’m doing it. Of how hard this work really is. And, why it’s so very important, not just for me, but for all or at least many of us.
These are the reminders that keep me writing even when it gets hard, which is often, especially now that I see the finish line but feel light years away now because this chapter 3 isn’t budging, or as my sister Cynthia Dewi Okay reminded me:

…The sole work of La Loba is the collecting of bones. She knows to collect and preserve especially that which is in danger of being lost to the world. Her cave is filled with the bones of all manner of desert creatures; the deer, the rattlesnake, the crow. But her specialty is said to be wolves.

She creeps and craws and sifts through the mountains and arroyos looking for wolf bones, and when she has assembled an entire skeleton, when the last bone is in place and the beautiful white sculpture of the creature is laid out before her, she sits by the fire and thinks about what song she will sing.

And when she is sure, she stands over the criatura, raises her arms over it, and sings out. That is when the rib bones and leg bones of the wolf begin to flesh out and the creature becomes furred. La Loba sings some more, and more of the creature comes into being; its tail curls upward, shaggy and strong.

And La Loba sings more and the wolf creature begins to breathe.

And still La Loba sings so deeply that the floor of the desert shakes and she sings, the wolf opens its eyes, leaps up, and runs away down the canyon.

Somewhere in its running, whether by the speed of its running, or by splashing its way into a river, or by way of a ray of sunlight or moonlight hitting it right in the side, the wolf is suddenly transformed into a laughing woman who runs free toward the horizon.” Women Who Run With Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I’ve been collecting these bones, my stories, for so many years. I’ve written them over and over again in different forms and genres and lines. I’ve shared them with my Loba pack and people I’ve met along the way. My stories. The one about when I was five and mom held a knife to me. “By the time I was five, I knew something was wrong with my mother. I knew she wanted to kill me, and I knew it was my fault.” I learned that day no one could protect me from her, not even my Millie. And the story of my earliest memory: I was one and a half, jumping up and down on the bed, trying to touch the ceiling with my fingertips, then my toes. I was relentless. “The truth is I hadn’t even gotten close. Not with my fingers or my toes or my drop kick, but I was too young or too naïve or too stubborn or too much of too much to know the difference or give up. So I fell. My shoulder hit the edge of the bureau with a crack and my elbow struck the steel frame of the bed as I came crashing down. I remember screaming. I remember the scream shattering my eardrums. Then I remember the hospital. Otra carrera con Vanessa.” My memories of my daddy. I only have three and I cherish them like a sorceress does her crystal ball. The story of how mom told me, finally, when I was 36, how she met him, my dad. That day was the first time she admitted that he loved her, that he wasn’t always bad and that she too was to blame for their unraveling. The story of my plum tree in the backyard that I climbed hundreds of times to get away, to lay on the branches and imagine another life, to tell myself stories. Up there, in those branches, I started my journey to becoming a writer. I was all of six years old. The story of when I was called down from that tree by a dirty old man who didn’t know better than to touch little girls. The story of the junkyard next door that I would run into when mom wasn’t looking. The one with the piles of discarded tires, rusted license plates, layers and layers of lumber and two by fours with rusted nails sticking out at all angles. The feral cats I made friends with after I’d chased them down and forced them onto my lap, after they’d hissed and clawed at me. It’s a wonder I didn’t contract some sort of flesh-eating disease. The story of my neighborhood, Bushwick, in the 80s. The rubble. The carnivals that sprang up in the lots leaving the scent of over-burnt cooking oil, cotton candy, and Budweiser in their wake. The block parties. The cardboard boxes laid out flat on the concrete so boys could do windmills and all sorts of acrobatics. The story of a poor neighborhood and its people, who somehow survived and even thrived among the crack vials that gathered in the gutters. The story of my Millie. The time she took me out to the backyard when I told her I was being bullied. I was six, in the first grade. “Vanessa, no dejes que nadie te coja te pendeja.” She taught me how to throw a jab and an uppercut. Warned me to be careful because my thick fists (“esas manos de madera”) could kill somebody. She taught me to always fight back, always “con puños, Vanessa, con puños!”

I have piles of bones in my cave. And I have the full skeleton of this wolf, A Dim Capacity for Wings. I’m just listening for the right song.


  1. I found your blog via Audrey’s Chutney and Chitlins. I stayed because of your words, “You’re staring at everything you’ve avoided and everything you’ve done to avoid feeling like that again.”

    It’s daunting, the process that is, but community encourages, so thanks for writing about writing.

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