Memoir Writing 101 - Sara Allan

            Let’s start with the facts. Numbers are always good, right?

            I was born in a hospital directly across the street from our Boston apartment—forty-five steps measured in my mother’s paces as she wobbled on red, bulging feet sixty minutes into labor. Sixteen hours later, she returned home with a dreaming baby cradled in her arms. This time the distance across the street was only thirty-two steps.

            I stopped writing. Drumming the eraser of my chewed pencil against my desk as I thought, I looked around the classroom. The other students were hunched over their desks, frantically scribbling their essays. I was sure that most of them honestly believed that they could manage to record their entire life story in that one hour class period. I am still sure that a few actually did.

            “Shhh! Some of us trying to work here!” Billy Moore hissed from across the room.

            Freezing my pencil mid-beat, I whispered a quick apology and turned back to my paper.

            I grew up curious. At some point—even before I knew how to walk perhaps—I found a way to climb into my windowsill, a tiny white box that overlooked the Charles River. Mesmerized, I would sit there for hours, the tip of my nose squished against the glass pane as if it were held there by a magnet. But the river’s force on me was much stronger than any magnet I have ever seen. It was the best teacher too. The first thing I learned in life was the way my city danced. In the mornings, the shrunken businessmen strutted into the scene first, marching off to work while their swinging briefcases turned their arms into thrusting pendulums. Next the toy taxis criss-crossed the view, swerving around bikers and riled cars, horns blaring. My favorites were the timid crew boats that slipped by in the background, gliding over the water with oars like dragonflies’ pulsing wings. For years, I hid in that windowsill watching the street flood and drain with energy, until a day when two sets of firm hands clasped my waist and yanked me from my perch. They plopped me down in a white clapboard house, with white spongy carpet, white looming rooms, and infinite white walls. I always imagined that after years of wasting away in monochromatic agony, those walls had long awaited my arrival. Surely they were seconds away from dropping to their knees groveling, begging for me to satisfy their ravenous desire for color. I had to fight hard against my fingers that itched to morph those walls into Crayola canvases.

            I glanced at the clock; to my dismay, we were barely halfway through with the class period. After scanning what I had written, I crumbled my paper and walked up to the front of the classroom to throw it away.

            “Is something wrong?” my teacher, Mrs. Baker, asked apprehensively, as she watched me from her desk.

            “I don’t have anything to say,” I shrugged.

            She stared at the ball of paper in my hands, looking as if she were trying to decipher a convoluted code. After a moment of reflection, she asked, “Have you ever faced a challenge in your life? Obstacles are always something interesting to write about.”

            I smiled. “Have you seen this town? You fall an inch and land in pillows.”

            “Write about it.”

            With a reluctant smile but sigh for effect, I flattened out my paper and returned to my seat.

            I do not come from hardship or adventure. I was brought up in a neighborhood most would describe using words as “pleasant,” or “comfortable,” and far too often, “privileged.” Manicured lawns, fresh cut flowers in the bathrooms on Sundays--and any day that guests were coming over for bunch, and a lonely, oak tree with troublingly perfect symmetry planted in the side yard complete with a tire swing for classic childhood play—these few interactions were as far as the natural world extended into my life. And the honest human world? I hope this example serves sufficiently. When we were not attending private swim lessons in our private pools or rehearsing minuets in C-minor on the piano at night, all of the girls in my town played softball. In the championship game one summer, our team’s pitcher, Sarah-With-An-H, collided with a member of the other team while running the bases. Cherry juice blood spilled out of her nose, tangling with the tears cascading down her puffy cheeks. Mr. Cuffe—who in my humble opinion coached Little League Girls’ Softball with an unwarranted gravity—furrowed his brow. Considering that I had never pitched a game in my life, it was only logical that I volunteered to take her place. The umpire had to keep pausing the game to remind me that in softball, the pitches must be delivered underhand, and every time, I informed him that I preferred overhand. He was not amused; we lost terribly. But worry not—we each received a gleaming trophy for even trying in the first place. My parents displayed it in our living room and talked of the award as if I had set an Olympic record.

            Billy hushed me again. I had not realized that I had started to tap my feet. I thought that for my next in class essay I ought to investigate my inability to sit still. I looked back at Billy; his hand was flying across his third sheet of paper. I could not imagine that there had been anything in his life monumental enough to inspire such urgency, but who was I to judge?

            Once a week, I went to Sunday school at Our Lady Star of the Sea. I only had one friend there, Billy Moore, who stared at me every class. One day he asked me out for ice cream. I replied that I could do no such thing, as I was a married woman. He laughed, but I was not joking. In fact, my darling and I were approaching our five-year anniversary later that same month. Weeks before my kindergarten wedding I had begun collecting nickels and pennies in a ballerina-shaped bank until I had a dollar and ninety seven cents—not nearly enough to purchase the two strawberry Ring Pops I dropped onto the counter at the Little Red Store, but the old cashier called me sweetheart and accepted my change anyway. I fixed my future husband with a bowtie decorated with glitter glue and colored with a black crayon that I had stolen from my teachers desk (as earlier that week my mom had confiscated all of my personal drawing utensils in a nervous frenzy after I had merely mused in her presence that I thought our walls would look nice with some color.) I sported a modish white veil that I had crafted out of paper chains. Our teacher found us under the table sitting “criss-cross-applesauce” and exchanging vows. She snatched our rings and tossed them aside, which later perished in the corroded trash bin outside. “Boys and girls aren’t meant to be together,” she told us. I still wonder where she picked up that understanding of love; it has confused me ever since.

            “Time is up.”