The Song in My Heart: Reflecting back on my Memoir Writing Class

Well readers, as I briefly mentioned two weeks ago, I took a Memoir Writing class online this past Fall through the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. I heard about this organization back in 2016 from the Classifieds section of Poets and Writers Magazine. I don’t actually subscribe to this magazine, but it is available for free to the blind on NFB Newsline, a program run by the National Federation of the Blind that gives the blind access to many newspapers and magazines. At that time, in the thick of my depression and anxiety over my job, I dreamed of quitting my job and writing for a living, and hoped something in this magazine might give me inspiration.

The classified section had an announcement that the Creative Nonfiction Foundation had a quarterly magazine that welcomes new authors, and at that time were looking for essays about teaching. I am not a teacher, but had a brief stint of inspiration and started an essay about how as a blind person, you are a teacher whether you want to be or not, as I had to learn from an early age how to advocate for myself in a visually-oriented world. Unfortunately, given how burnt out my job left me most days, I could not finish this essay by the deadline, and without a specific reason to write it, I still haven’t finished it. If I do finish it, I will post it here.

But while exploring the organization’s website, I also noticed they offered online courses. I was intrigued by one course in particular called Thirty-Minute Memoir, a class that encourages writers to write 30 minutes a day, and at the end of the 10 weeks, they would have 10,000 words of the first draft of their memoir. After college graduation, I thought it would be fun to write a memoir, but didn’t know how to go about writing a book-length memoir because while I took many writing courses over the course of my school years, they all focused on essays and short stories. But I didn’t even look for memoir writing classes in my area out of fear I would be the only student under 70 in the class. So this idea never got off the ground. Family members have even suggested I could start a business ghost-writing memoirs for the elderly. I am not ruling out this business idea for the future, but right now, I don’t think I am ready to start such a business. Before starting such a venture, I would want to publish my own memoir for my self-confidence, and to share with perspective clients to give them confidence I know how to write a memoir, and so they can get a sense of my writing voice.

By 2016, I was desperate and would have been fine with being the only student under 70 in a memoir writing class, but I decided not to take this online course because I didn’t feel I would have the time or energy to take a course of any kind, and I didn’t want to spend $435 on a course until I could give it my all. But this September, I decided I was ready to give it my all, and I am so glad I did.

All of the courses offered by the Creative Nonfiction Foundation are taught by successful, published authors, many of whom are also English professors at traditional colleges where they live. Each week, the professor posted readings focused on a particular aspect of memoir writing such as finding your focus, developing characters and building tension for the reader. Monday through Thursday, the instructor would post an optional prompt related to that week’s lesson. Students could either submit 300 words responding to this prompt, or 300 words from their memoir for feedback from other students and the instructor. On the weekends, students could submit 1,000 words from their memoir for feedback.

It will be awhile yet before I announce the publication of my memoir, and I am not ruling out the idea of not publishing it at all, or at least only publishing select portions of it on this blog. The idea of publishing select portions to this blog appeals to me for two reasons. First, this memoir has a very spiritual focus, and when I have read other books about people’s spiritual experiences, I have wondered if their experiences are genuine, or if they dramatized things to sell books. I haven’t decided yet if it is right to make money off the sharing of such poignant experiences. Second, when I started the class, I was going to write about my weight loss, but quickly realized I couldn’t find the inspiration to write a memoir about this yet. But God gave me tons of inspiration to write about the depression and anxiety I had in the early years of my job, and how studying with my Jehovah’s Witness friends changed my whole outlook on life for the better. But if I published a book going into detail about such experiences, my coworkers would find out about it and want to read it, which could get awkward. So at the very least, I may wait to publish it if or when I am no longer with this employer.

But as the saying goes, it’s not the destination but the journey that counts, and taking this course was an incredibly educational and therapeutic journey. It was educational in that I learned a lot about the memoir writing craft, and received wonderful feedback from the instructor and other students that has made me a more intentional writer. It was therapeutic in that there were times when the comments read more like a support group session than a writing workshop. There were twelve students in the class, all of us women. I don’t know exactly how old anyone was. I get the sense most were retirees, but now I have matured and realize age doesn’t matter. In sharing our diverse experiences, I think we all not only developed as writers, but received empathy and insight that helped us come to terms with past experiences in our lives. I thought about taking a more advanced memoir writing class this semester but decided not to, primarily because I had to make a big purchase, a braille display to connect to my computer at work and didn’t want to spend $435 more. But it’s just as well because this gives me time to catch up on blogging here, and I also like the idea of making some revisions to my memoir so far over the winter, which may result in me getting more out of an advanced class when I do take it.

But I wanted to give you readers a sense of how my memoir might take shape, so what follows is the passage I submitted Friday of the second week in this class. That week, we read about and discussed ideas for how we could structure memoirs. At that time, I had just finished reading The Art of Racing in the Rain, a fantastic book that I would recommend by the way. Like A Dog’s Purpose, this book is written in the dog’s point of view. The dog Enzo’s owner, Denny, is a racecar driver. Between the life events that take place in this book are little passages explaining a technicality of racecar driving that serves as a metaphor for what happens next. In my memoir class, I learned this structure was called “metaphor as muse.” I decided this would be a compelling structure for my memoir as well. The first week when the lesson discussed finding your focus, I wasn’t sure what structure my memoir would take, but other students noticed a recurring phrase in my writing, “song in my heart”, and when I was struggling to come up with a title, one of them suggested this would make a perfect title for my memoir. So if my memoir is ever published, the title will be “The Song in my Heart,” or a very similar variation of this. That got me reflecting on my love of singing, and the many songs that have inspired me and shaped my life. These reflections almost instantly led to the inspiration to write vignettes about songs I love, which would then serve as metaphor for the chapters that followed, so that my memoir would read like a soundtrack for my life. I am publishing it here exactly as I submitted it for the course. In this passage, I write about John Denver’s song Wild Montana Skies, and the instructor indicated she was unclear about whether the song was about John Denver’s life, or someone else. I told her I didn’t think it was an autobiographical song about John Denver’s life, but I researched and couldn’t find any backstory about this song. One of my classmates whom I was excited to learn also loves this song, said she always suspected the song was about Bob Marshall, a forester, wilderness preservation pioneer and Wilderness Society Cofounder, in whose name the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex was designated in Montana. Classmates also thought I went into too much detail about the song, but all agreed that with a little tightening, it would work well in my memoir or as a stand-alone essay. If I do publish a memoir, you will have to buy it to read the polished version of this, but here is a taste of how my memoir might be structured. Enjoy!

The summer after my first grade year, upon hearing that John Denver was killed in a plane crash, my mom ordered a special collection of his music. When the CDs arrived and Mom put the first one in our big stereo in the living room, I was hooked. From his beautiful ballads like Annie’s Song that are perfect for just closing your eyes and letting the music wash over you like a summer breeze, to Country Boy that inspire you to get up and dance, you really cannot go wrong with any of John Denver’s songs. But my absolute favorite John Denver song that captivated me at age seven, and still captivates me today is Wild Montana Skies.

The song begins with a snappy guitar rif that has a joyful, free-spirited connotation. In the song, a child is born in the spring in Montana, and his mother, sensing that she would die soon, held him to her breast and sang a prayer to Montana, which I think was meant to be a metaphor for God. I have never been to Montana, but I have heard it referred to as Big Sky Country, a place where people feel close to God. At first her prayer is for practical things, a home, the love of a good family, a life partner. But then there is a crescendo as the mother, in what I imagine is a voice of passion, maybe even desperation, prays, “give him a fire in his heart, give him a light in his eyes. Give him the wild wind for a brother, and the wild Montana skies.” I always got the sense from this song that the mother viewed these prayers for a fire in his heart and a light in his eyes, as even more important than her practical prayers. This prayer is the refrain through the entire song.

His mother dies that summer, and he never knows his father. But he is raised by his uncle who teaches him to farm and nurtures in him a love for the land. When he turns 21, he strikes out on his own and tries to live in the city. We don’t know what transpired during his time in the city, but at age 30, he comes back home to make a new start, only saying “there was something in the city that he said he couldn’t breathe. There was something in the country that he said he couldn’t leave.”

The song then skips ahead to his death, leaving the rest of his life shrouded in mystery and open to the imagination of each listener. I like to think that he did at least find the fire in his heart, the light in his eyes, the wild wind for a brother, as the last verse says, “some say he was crazy. Some are glad he’s gone. Some of us will miss him and try to carry on, giving a voice to the forest, giving a voice to the dawn, giving a voice to the wilderness and the land that he lived on.”

Perhaps this song was in my subconsciousness one summer day when I was eight years old. It was one of those long late summer afternoons when “I’m bored,” becomes the universal whining comment of kids everywhere. I had echoed this refrain many times myself. But that day, it wasn’t that I was just bored in the superficial sense. It wasn’t that I wanted to go to the park and no one would take me. It wasn’t that I wanted to play a game and no one else wanted to play. For some reason that day, I found myself thinking beyond my years. There had to be more to life than the endless school years of pointless worksheets, followed by summers of passing the time with silly craft projects, children’s books and trips to the park. I wanted to do something real, something exciting, something meaningful. I didn’t know how to articulate this verbally, so I whined to my sister who was babysitting, “I want to do something I have never done before.”

“Then do something you’ve never done before,” my sister said in a tone that clearly indicated she was tired and annoyed by her little sister. I don’t remember how I ended up passing the time that day, but while I let the subject drop, unable to articulate my feelings, the feeling never quite left me.

I knew I didn’t literally desire to live in the wilderness, especially in summer. Mosquitoes love me, and I have always been very sensitive to heat and humidity. But even at eight years old, I understood that this song was meant as a metaphor. The city represented conformity, discontent, a place where practicality took priority over dreams. In the city lived Mom and Dad, who came home from their full-time jobs exhausted and discouraged each day. In the city lived a few teachers whose constant crankiness implied they wanted to say, “they don’t pay me enough to put up with you.” The country and the wild wind represented a beautiful refusal to conform to the expectations of others, a decision to do what brings you joy, even if others viewed you as impractical, even crazy. In the country lived teachers and other adults I observed who I could tell were living the lives God created them for, and were genuinely happy. I already knew where I wanted to live, and was determined to make it happen.

The feeling manifested itself in varying ways over the years. At first, it manifest itself in phases of fascination with people who led lives that looked completely different from my own. In third grade, I briefly dreamed of a career as an Iditarod sled dog racer because it just seemed so eccentric, fun and unique. In fourth grade, the combined impact of an amazing family vacation to a cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin, and reading about pioneers like Laura Ingalls Wilder sparked a fascination with the idea of a simpler life in the country, and I told everyone who would listen about how when I grew up, I wanted to live in the country, off the grid with a bunch of kids and no television, and learn to play the fiddle. In fifth grade, my favorite book was My Side of the Mountain, which I knew was fiction, but still the idea of a city boy running away to live on his own in the woods thrilled me. When I was in middle school, a teacher saw my passion for singing, and encouraged me to join a community choir that offered incredible opportunities. The first time I sang with a full professional orchestra, it occurred to me that I had a fire in my heart, and my mom saw a light in my eyes. I didn’t view concerts as an obligation. Singing onstage felt more like floating on a cloud, a taste of heaven. I was doing what I was created to do. This led to a phase when I tried unsuccessfully to convince my parents that I didn’t need to go to college, that I would find a way to make choir a career.

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