Commonplace

seeking the story in the ordinary

The garage door lifted against the night. 4am may be morning, but all pitch black and silence, you wouldn’t know it. The car beep startled me awake as I slid into the driver seat, coffee clutched, and set out for Pittsburgh.

Minutes before, I’d fingered the wisps of hair that fell across my baby’s forehead. When he woke for the day, I’d be halfway across the state.

As much as I crave time away, it’s always hard to leave my children. I grip that moment of farewell—when we are still within reach.

This dark morning, I followed 76 West clear across Pennsylvania amid unwelcome truck company, the sun’s coppery first light at my back—as if driving away from day and deeper into the departing night. We are always moving away from something. Each minute leaves behind the last.

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And yet, I carry a relentless sentimentality for all that came before, all that once was. I walk forward with my head slung over one shoulder, ever looking back.

In Pittsburgh, I was met—at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference—with a room full of people who believe in excavating their minds and memories for story. “Memory should be interrogated,” Dinty W. Moore taught, “it’s where the discovery happens.” “Telling stories matters. It’s always mattered…” said Lee Gutkind.

In writing memoir, we are researching our own lives (to paraphrase Jill Kandel)—to seek understanding, to ask endless questions about why something was the way it was, why we were the way we were, to push on what we’re curious about, what we don’t understand, what continues to puzzle us, even years later (to paraphrase Moore).

We take our idiosyncratic experience, examine it, and then throw it out into the world, hoping it helps. “The reason to write,” Gutkind said, “is to make a difference…to figure out how what we know can impact other people.”

Many are troubled by how much of our lives are now lived out loud—in this age of (over)exposure, where every person has a platform, where the minutiae of any given day are splashed across the screen: Joe had pancakes for breakfast, people! Jamie chopped off her hair! People (like me) create their own websites on a whim and post personal content for public consumption.

It bothers me little, perhaps because I like to know the mundane details of others’ lives—even acquaintances or strangers. I’m that much of a voyeur.

But also because I believe that’s how Joe and Jamie are marking their moments, telling their stories. Is it the stuff of memoir? Probably not. (I often think of Dani Shapiro’s writing advice that “just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting.”) But they’re letting people in, sharing their truths.

All we have is who we are and what’s happened to us along the way. Every lived life is a story worth telling. I soften, harboring a strange affection for my mind’s hoarding tendencies, my reluctance to let go—I’m gathering data. What better fodder for story than the stuff of real people and place? What better way to connect to your before and to the world all around than to tell the tale of your one little life?

At the Pittsburgh conference, there were several opportunities for attendees to share their stories orally: a “pitch slam,” where brave participants delivered their book or essay pitch to a panel of editors—with the entire conference looking on (did I mention brave?), or the “story slam,” where volunteers took the stage to deliver a five minute true story on the theme of rejection.

A writing conference is already wonderfully strange for putting you within reach of those you’ve only known on the page. Suddenly, the faces and voices of the people behind the prose take shape, stand before you, trade jokes in the foyer, have chance encounters on street corners, affectionately pat your shoulder.

Your mind works overtime, trying to square what you’ve read with what you see; you know, from now on, you will hear their voices as you read their words.

It’s sensory overload. It’s almost too much.

Hearing writers deliver deeply personal narratives in the rise and fall of their own voices before a stilled crowd added yet another dimension to this work of storytelling. My preference remains the written word, which permits us precision—the luxury to revise and refine, to approach control over our expression—the words we use, where they fall—while allowing the reader his own intimate interplay with the text.

But at the end of the day, the key is that we’re standing up and speaking our stories at all—with pen, on paper, on screen, by mouth. The young and old, black and white, gay and straight, the 70ish Russian history PhD and the wild-haired 17-year-old high school student. Each tale worth telling, every story worth hearing.

So tell me about those pancakes, Joe. Share on.

“Memoir is important…so people can be inside the life of another person. That’s where empathy begins.” – Dinty W. Moore

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26 thoughts on “Life: True Story

  1. Beautifully written. Ending with an absolutely perfect quote.

    So true. We all have whatever we have in this life to share with others. And it is worth hearing. Aside from the sensory overload, I am completely envious. Also, happy for you. I’m allowed to be both. 🙂

    1. “We all have whatever we have in this life to share with others.” Well put! I love that. And absolutely you can be both–I am often both. Thanks so much, Sarah. xox

  2. Dana says:

    Beautiful Dina! The conference sounded wonderful, and I love your description of departure. I have a hard time leaving too, “ever looking back.”

    Pittsburgh is where my mom grew up and yet I know so little about it. One day I will travel there and retrace her steps. I would’ve loved to have attended the conference, which is now in my home state though clear across the other side 🙂

    Thank you for sharing these lovely details. One day I can’t wait to read your memoir.

    1. Pittsburgh is lovely, and it didn’t hurt that the weather was absolutely perfect while we were there. It’s certainly a rich scene for creative nonfiction–perhaps we’ll attend the conference together next time around! Thank you, always, for your warm support–it means more than you know. xo

  3. What a lovely post with so much truth. I relished every word.

    1. Thank you so much, Christie!

  4. zsmc says:

    We are all so lucky to be able to read your stories.

    1. Thank you for always reading…xox

  5. Dakota says:

    I’m a voyeur too, and yet shy about sharing “pancake details,” as you say (love that) for fear of being too mundane. Also, thank you for the explanation of why a person might write memoir… I have often been puzzled by it!

    1. Yes, I try to avoid “pancake details” (great phrase!) too, although it doesn’t bother me so much if others stray into that territory…all sharing, all story, all to the good. And you can always turn it off if it’s too much, right? Thanks for reading & commenting, Dakota!

  6. Mimi says:

    Loved all of it! I so enjoy your words. Could especially relate to this: “I like to know the mundane details of others’ lives—even acquaintances or strangers. I’m that much of a voyeur.” And that ending quote: perfection. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Mimi! And yes, Dinty was nothing short of inspiring. Hard to scribble fast enough to capture his wise words.

  7. Jill Kandel says:

    Dina, so great to meet you at the conference. I really enjoyed attending and being part of a panel discussion, too. It was fun to be both teacher and learner! I blogged about the conference today, too. More in the sense of why I go to conferences. It’s always such a great place to meet other writers. I came home inspired, exhausted, and fueled up to continue on in this writing life.

    1. It was great to be there with you! I enjoyed hearing your thoughts both on & off the panel, and I hope our paths cross again someday–perhaps at another conference! It’s true, finding and connecting with other writers is invaluable in these pursuits. I look forward to reading your post-conference blog post & staying in touch.

  8. jsolot says:

    I love your stories. Lately, I’ve been bogged down in the trenches, parenting my three little ones and I haven’t written at all. I’m inspired by your writing success, attending conferences, and generally putting yourself out there. I hope to follow your lead and make my writing more of a priority this year.

    1. Oh gosh, Justine. I smiled as I read this, with one boy crawling all over my lap and two others loudly demanding my attention from the other room. Don’t get me wrong–I am *beyond* grateful that I was able to attend this conference, but rest assured, my days are filled far more with diaper changes and yogurt spills than penning the next great memoir ;). All this to say, I know it can feel like others are doing more/writing more/moving along, but I’m right there in the trenches with you, wishing I had more time, clarity, opportunity to do the work all while trying to appreciate these fleeting days while my kids are still young. It’s a tenuous, tiring balancing act–we all do what we can to fill ourselves up with what makes us happy, what keeps us going–and it, of course, helps to know we’re not alone. xo

      1. jsolot says:

        Thank you for your reply Dina, reading it was a wake up call for me. Then I came across your essay “It Can’t Wait”, which I relate to completely, our lives are very similar, the husbands, the minivans, the stolen moments, etc. We get snapshots of other people’s lives on blogs/social media, and I easily get swept away in the mindset that everyone else has their sh** together so much more than me, when we are all struggling to keep our heads above water and do what we can for ourselves. All that being said, I so admire your writing and dedication and do hope to write more, join a writing group, and formulate relationships with other writers. From my perspective, you are doing great and should be proud of what you’ve accomplished. xo

  9. Nina Badzin says:

    So cool that you had this opportunity! I love so many of the writers you mention and their advice– Dinty Moore and Dani Shapiro especially.

    I’m sort of struggling lately to decide what I’m comfortable writing about. I’m not willing to do just anything for a byline, and I wonder if that makes the personal essay arena the wrong one for me. But I also don’t want to prattle on about things that are just not interesting!

    1. I agree–it’s a perpetual balancing of what I’m willing to reveal vs. what I consider off-limits. For example, CNF has a great call for submissions on “Marriage” out right now. I could probably find a fair amount of interesting, worthy things to say on the matter, but I’m not sure I’m willing to go there (probably not). Some things feel sacred, right? Tough, tough stuff, this world of nonfiction, personal narrative…

      Thanks for reading & adding your thoughts here, Nina. One day, I hope we can attend a conference together!

  10. How timely! I’m struggling to define my genre in a world (and among writer friends) that seem to favor fiction. Your essay was published the same day two great books on personal essay by Dinty W. Moore, were delivered to my house. I have just discovered his work and here you were at a conference with him. I’m sufficiently jealous.

    1. Yeah, Dinty is pretty much the boss–wise and witty as hell. Absolutely a new writer crush for me. So glad to hear you’re discovering him too!

      Next year: you. me. The 2016 CNF Writers’ Conference. It is so on. xox

  11. triciaraisinghumans says:

    I love this. I love memoir – reading it, writing it – I’m also a voyeur but the part about learning something is so so true. I learn something every time I sit to read someone else’s experiences and every time I sit to write my own.

    1. So, so true. Well said. I miss you, Tricia! Hoping all is well & you’re getting some time in the cave ;). xo

  12. rudrip says:

    I am coming late to the conversation, but I enjoyed reading your perspective. I’ve struggled recently on what to reveal, but I know readers respond to authenticity. If I censor my truth, then what’s the point? I tow the line, picking up scraps, keeping some to myself and doling out those words I feel comfortable revealing.

    1. Never too late! Yes, this pretty much sums up how I approach writing personal narrative, too. Sometimes, as I draft, I’ll feel myself pulling back–part of me will try to push through it, get it all on the page, write my truth, etc.–but I also believe there’s some value to that inner censor in the long run. We don’t exist alone in the world; there are other people and other feelings to consider, not to mention our own comfort levels. It’s an ever evolving balance–and it sounds like (not surprisingly) you have a wise, thoughtful approach. Thanks for reading & commenting, Rudri!

  13. Julie Jo Severson says:

    I’m late too. But I just have to tell you how helpful and motivating this post is to me. I, too, have a “relentless sentimentality for all that came before, all that once was.” I created a family heritage website and also write about past, present, future coming sort of living side by side. I’ve been amazed at how many family members are really quite disinterested in my parent’s old stories and our family lines and are baffled by what I’m so intrigued about. I don’t see it as living in the past, but rather filling my soul with the moments that led to the here and now, which guide me to all that’s ahead. Anyway, I appreciated your perspective here so much. Thank you for sharing. Really beautiful.

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