Chilean Memoirs Update 3: Writing

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been writing, and avoiding writing by reading, and then forcing myself to write some more. Unfortunately, most of the advice I’ve read about memoir writing has suggested that I am not old enough to be writing a memoir,  that I don’t have any life events worth writing a memoir about, and that I need years to find a voice and produce a memoir. Oops. In hindsight, I might have chosen a slightly friendlier literary form, but as I am stuck with memoir, it is memoir I am trying to write. I’ve run into quite a few problems, the main one being that almost all of my physical records of my time in Chile were in a backpack that was stolen 3 days before I left the country. This was totally my own fault, but it is also totally hard to write a memoir that was supposed to be based on 5 months of journaling, without the journals. The backpack also had my laptop, which means 5 months of pictures are gone, and another notebook full of notes about things that I had noticed or found interesting and wanted to remember. I also was supposed to be doing my research on campus, but due to pop-up family events never actually got down to campus, which has meant hopping around coffee shops and libraries and writing in between running to pick up my sister because my parents don’t recognize “research” as a reason that you can’t run errands for them. I’ve also realized that I hate writing about myself, something which would’ve been nice to know before I tried to write something that is supposed to be all about myself.

So here I am with 4 days to go and 7 single-spaced pages of spewed words, feeling years away from anything I want anyone to read. But there is also a positive way to spin this. I wouldn’t say I’ve had any true breakthroughs, but I have realized that when I focus on portraying other people, writing is a little easier. And since my Chilean family was the most important and rewarding part of my experience, I decided to focus on writing about them. Rather than having a narrative of my time in Chile, I’ve been collecting memories and stories and little literary portraits of each member of my family. It’s been a good way of reliving my time with them, and it’s led to other things in the process of writing: mainly the mental translation of experiences that I had in Spanish into English. It’s also opened up the door to a world of decisions and little corrections that writers have to make. I had thought that writing would be more like journaling in that words would just flow out into a narrative, but the truth is writing is gritty and revisionist and a lot of work. For example, just figuring out how to refer to my Chilean host mom required 5 minutes of thought. She isn’t my mom, but using host mom sounds gross and unliterary to me, and when I talk about her I never call her my host mom. And then do I use the Spanish or the English? And if I use English, then how do I distinguish between her and my American mom, if I need to talk about her? I eventually decided to use the Spanish “Mamá”, because that’s exactly how I referred to her in Chile. And I included a little note about this decision at the beginning, to clear up any confusion. There have been a ton of little moments like this that I just hadn’t realized were part of writing.

One of the ways I’ve kept at writing is by continuing to read other authors: I finished Ariel Dorfman’s memoirs about his time in the Chilean desert, and have found that reading is inspiring but also practical because it gives me new ideas about how to write my own experiences. There are a thousand ways to write a memoir, and reading a variety of them has reassured me that there really is no one way to do it. They’re all personal to some extent, but memoirs vary in subject matter and degree of emotion. So memoirs about the dictatorship are often far more emotionally weighty, but memoirs about travelling through the country are slightly less so. If nothing else, I think that writing about my family and my relationships with them helps shed some light on Chilean character from a unique perspective. I was both an outsider and an insider in their world, and I look at things from both of those positions. I’m hoping to have my writing read over and continue to edit and revise even after the project ends, just to try to end up eventually with a piece that I am proud of. Until then, I’ll be doing some more last-minute writing!