Where do stories begin? A sentence…a word, an image, a character, a dream, a question, a puzzle, a mystery, a hope, an overheard conversation, a picture, a feeling? Or is it the story itself which is compelling you: the struggle through crisis towards the happy ending, the illness and grief followed by healing, the joy found and hope revived after heartbreak, the resiliency of the human spirit, your spirit? Do memoir and novels begin the same ways? Do you begin with a character or a story?
My novels always begin with a character or characters. The birth of a child and the midwife-medicine woman-priestess disturbed and enthralled by the signs that appear is how my story MoonSense starts. One novel began with the image of a Mexican mother keening into the ground because her son has left to go up to El Norte. A young woman vacations in Mexico when her traveling companion mysteriosuly disappears. Eventually these two characters will meet. Another began with an elderly woman watching from a window in her wheelchair, lonely and aching for companionship, a grumpy, stubborn woman who must face her own difficult personality. And another starts with a singer who songs heal but has a family secret she must uncover.
A poem, however, may begin with an emotion and an image from the world around me, where I happen to be sitting, in nature, in a cafe, or on a bus, for example.
Memoir has to begin with a story, as well, but where do we start? Which memory do we choose? In Flowers in the Wind, my memoir of ten years of communal living, I wanted to start with the first time I walked into the hostel and met the people who would become my family, the tribe I had been seeking, for the rest of my life. But I had to fill in the reasons why this was an important encounter. I had to write about the influence of the ‘60s and the ways that freedom was intertwined with wanting to belong, a sense of belonging. Without that urgency of wanting to belong, the story of joining a commune and sticking with in despite the challenges and shadows does not make sense. Why would I give up my own choices, why would I allow my autonomy to be taken away, unless there was an investment, a huge emotional investment? I believed we were heading towards salvation, towards perfection, toward being able to heal the blind and the lame and take care of the oppressed, and that these people were mine to keep.
But then I had to tell the story of the first time I traveled to Mexico and was shocked by the extreme poverty and humbled by the simple grace of the family who received us into their home, a home without even a toilet, who treated us as special, important guests even though we barely spoke their language and hardly had anything in common except faith in Jesus. And how I recognized my own selfishness and self-centeredness.
And then I realized I had to go back even further, to the epiphany at Arlington Cemetery when I was 11 years old and suddenly awakened to a belief that war is wrong. The moment I became a pacifist. The moment that became my purpose when the anti-war movement started and I felt I had found my tribe, those who believed as I did in peace and love.
This is different than the memoir of living in Israel for three years which begins with getting off the ferry boat and ends with leaving on an airplane, a cut and dried beginning and ending.
Where does you story begin, with the moment that changed your life? Which moment? The one that set in motion the search for answers, the one that broke your heart and set you up to long for love, the one that was a dream of something you would hope for the rest of your life, the choices made out of disappointment, the choices made out of strength?