What Was It Keeping Me Awake?
Though I worked until midnight last night and was dog tired, having got three hours of sleep the night before, I tossed for most of my six hours in the sack, trying not to wake my wife and thinking about that blasted NPR story on the “six-word memoir” that my Facebook friend posted.
I had clicked unwittingly on the link yesterday morning and, like a Koobface virus, the item quickly took hold of my graying brain coils and replicated itself within my consciousness, so that between about 3:00 and 5:50 this morning I could think only of that and whether my 45-year-old prostate was squeezing my bladder enough to warrant a trip out from the warm covers and over to the bathroom. The allure to a writer – of the memoir thingy, not the bladder deal – is how to capture a life in so few words. Legend has it Hemingway was asked to write a complete story in six words. He penned, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The challenge in this case, the article said, is to write a memoir, not a fortune cookie.
The first words that had come to me after the NPR piece had ruminated around a bit were:
Twice born, twice adopted, praise Jesus.
Oh, please say not so. Do I get a white sweatshirt with pastel kittens along with my book purchase, ma’am?
Sometime in the single digit hours last night, though, a more objective string of past participles reared its Medusa-like head:
Conceived. Unwanted. Adopted. Rebelled. Found. Restored.
Forgetting my prostate, I found myself trying to work out for the umpteenth time how I was abandoned by my birth mother – well, it really wasn’t abandonment; it was really more an act of love and selflessness – then adopted into a loving home and how I have considered since I was 23 whether to search for The Woman Who Bore Me,…yada yada yada…and, oh, is it really 3:45 a.m.?! Besides, this memoir was too disjointed, had too many periods, not enough commas or semi-colons and altogether was too much like a John Philip Sousa song, a schizophrenically oppressive-cheerful triumphal march with monotonous meter that made me feel like I was parading straight down the length of my bed toward the foot-board to get on my knees and ask God for forgiveness for writing such a horrid account of my life.
Something that flows. Something that flows. That’s what I need, I thought.
How about: In the blink of an eye. OK. Good cadence and nice variation of the parts of a sentence: some nouns, articles, and prepositions, and it’s not all muscular verbs carrying tubas down Main Street. But it sounds too much like a James Bond film, and Daniel Craig’s body is way too ripped for him to play me in the story of my life.
As a writer, you tend to mull over an idea like it’s a cantaloupe melon. You inspect and sniff and prod and push and then look at the other melons. You imagine shoppers eyeing you and you try to look knowledgeable. Then you think that maybe you want a carton of strawberries. But no: strawberries are way too conventional. Maybe prickly pears. This is New York, after all, and you can try exotic things. No: too pretentious, and you’ve never even tried prickly pears, nor would you know how to eat one. Maybe it’s not even fruit you want, but rather salami.
This kind of insane process goes on in writers like me who, at somewhere around 4:30 in the morning, is still trying to decide how to chronicle his life story without being preachy or trying to impress. Meanwhile, the other shoppers are filling their baskets without a thought of being watched. They’re hungry and this is a chore to check off the list. They do it and are finished.
So I say it straight out, just like this:
I lived the adventure He wrote.
That’s more like it. So…epic. But, alas, too earnest. I know I’ll read this post tomorrow and kick myself for being like a schoolboy trying to get an “A” in English.
Frankly, my six-word memoir will probably consist of an offhand statement to a home health aide at my bedside as I die. She’ll be a busty Jamaican woman with a contagious laugh, who reads her Bible next to my bed, as one did next to my mother as her brained swelled from the cancer, which took her only ten weeks after she started having problems saying nouns. My wife will be gone by then, because frankly she doesn’t sweat so much about life and death and can be plucked from the tree a whole lot easier than a guy like me who needs so much more Divine maintenance. My sons will visit often with their families and will be wonderful and supportive, but at this moment, when I’m alone with the Jamaican woman, she’ll be reading from 2 Samuel and I’ll ask her to read aloud. She’ll tell me about the wise woman who confronted King David about his relationship with Absalom (one of my favorite sections) and read, “But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.”
I’ll smile, an act which I learned fifty years earlier takes fewer facial muscles than frowning, and I will say in a scratchy voice:
What was it keeping me awake?
This article is a reprint of a post originally called Being a man of few words by Howard Freeman.