On Shoveling Snow During a Blizzard and Writing Memoir at 26

April 2, 2018 § 10 Comments


Katie HS Square (3 of 1) (1).jpgBy Katie Simon

“What kind of writing do you do?” It is snowing heavily outside, and I am at a party, ice flaking off my quilted boots and melting into puddles on the hardwood floor. I get asked this question frequently, not just by buzz-cut, twenty-something, plaid-wearing, men like the one in front of me, but by people of all hairstyles, ages, and clothing preferences. I know what this man expects me to say: short stories; poetry; hot takes on pop culture trends. I am 26 years old, and anything I write must be imaginary or ephemeral.

I squirm in my boots, stare out the window at the weather I just escaped. I hate this question. “Memoir,” I say.

“Huh.” He looks at me skeptically. Even without asking my age, he has a general idea. I look younger than I am. “Kind of funny for somebody your age, don’t you think?” I wonder about the walk home and if the sidewalks will be cleared if I just wait out this storm a little while longer, if I manage to make it through this conversation.

I don’t owe him an explanation, though I have one I know will effectively wipe away his doubt. I could tell him I’m finishing a book about the gap year I took during which I contracted the plague in Uzbekistan, was raped by a stranger in a Tel Aviv alleyway, and found myself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. Though mentioning this project appeases would-be skeptics, I don’t like sharing it. I don’t want to perpetuate the misconception that a young person needs to have had an unusual life to write a memoir. So, standing in my friend’s apartment, my fingers still thawing from the frozen weather outside, I shrug and change the topic.

During a blizzard, you start shoveling while the snow is still falling. It seems counter-intuitive. Why bundle up and bend against snowflake-filled wind when you could just wait for the snow and wind to stop? Those who’ve braved blizzards, New Englanders like me, know better.

My book is about a sequence of events that took place largely in my eighteenth year. When I started writing, it was less than a year later. I was nineteen years old and knew I probably hadn’t even lived the ending, but I wrote anyway, because I knew my story needed to be told. I took workshops with widely published authors who advised me to write my story as quickly as possible and get a book deal before graduating college. “Just write it really close up,” one professor told me. “You don’t need to have an older narrator’s wisdom if you present the facts to the reader without judgement.” While his advice may work for some, I didn’t take it.

You start shoveling during the blizzard so you have a pathway to work yourself out once the snow finally stops.

I didn’t write my book as quickly as possible. I stuck my unfinished manuscript in a drawer. I worked on other writing. I took a break from writing altogether. And when I finally returned to the book I had started six years before, I was unequivocally grateful to my teenage self for having the audacity to write her own story as it was unfolding. What I wrote in college, though mostly rewritten, overhauled, or simply cut, has been invaluable to the process of finishing the draft I have today.

You start shoveling during the blizzard so you can see the outline of the sidewalk when you dig later on, so you don’t scrape cars or break your shovel on fire hydrants.

Those early pieces gave me a blueprint. I got down the details of events and characters and settings I wouldn’t otherwise have remembered. I built up the eighteen-year-old’s persona with such intricate interiority that going back and reflecting, even just a few years down the line, proved much easier; the ways in which my perspective had changed were immediately noticeable. Without having my teenage point of view down on paper, the persona, so recently embodied, would have blurred with the narrator.

You start shoveling during the blizzard because if you don’t, by the time the last flake has fallen, the snow in front of you may be so deep and dense you can’t break through its icy surface, not even a dent.

I wrote memoir at nineteen because even though I hadn’t yet lived my book’s ending, I intuitively knew I had to get words down on the page. So that when, six years later, I faced the enormous, incomprehensible task of writing a book about my life, I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed that I waited, and waited, and waited, hoping it would make the task ahead magically easier.

Don’t wait. Write memoir when you’re young, even if haven’t yet lived your story’s ending. Shovel when the blizzard is still raging outside.

_____
Katie Simon is writing a memoir about the year she contracted the plague, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Health, Entropy, BUST, Women’s Health, and elsewhere.

 

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§ 10 Responses to On Shoveling Snow During a Blizzard and Writing Memoir at 26

  • […] via On Shoveling Snow During a Blizzard and Writing Memoir at 26 […]

  • That advice about writing it fast before you graduated? Those instructors assumed you would be telling a story, not sharing wisdom gained from experience of years and maturity. There is a market for such explosive stories. The sorry truth is that many memoirs written about an eventful youth, or midlife, or age, even from a distance, fail to offer wisdom.

    Right here you have wisdom about creating a track through your own life, shoveling that pathway back to your teenage self. Nice work.

  • Brilliant! Coming from the north in Canada and recently surviving a weather related incident that to others is extremely frightening as well as life threatening, I concur. I have written similar memoirs from as early as 12, never having been published. Now, in my retirement age of 65 I would begin the daunting task of linking them all together like a crown of thorns. Things that would have otherwise been left to the whims and piece-meal fickleness of memory can in this way be archived and retrieved.

  • I wrote some stuff in my teens that didn’t work. Over twenty years later, I turned it into my finest work. I’m not saying wait that long. I’m saying write it before it gets away. You can self-edit later, but you cannot edit a blank page.

    Regarding my memoir, which ends when I’m 21 years old, I’m not even the main character. Mom is. We’ve all got stories. If they move us enough to make us put in all that time and all that energy to write them, nobody can stop us. If they can, well, that’s probably for the best.

    Keep shoveling that snow!

  • equipsblog says:

    I love your metaphor of shoveling snow in a blizzard so you have a track of what you want to write. It makes so much since. Quite an eventful gap year that you had. Hope the memoir does well and accomplishes what you would like it to. I look forward to reading it someday.

  • herheadache says:

    Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
    I started writing my “autobiography,” on my heavy duty Perkins Brailler, when I was fourteen. No technology because I didn’t rely on computers then. I soon changed the name of what I was writing from “autobiography” to “memoir” because I felt like I didn’t need to keep defending what I was writing, as memoir is about memory and living. We’re all in the process of living and all of us have the right to write about it. I look younger than I am often too. I still obtain wisdom and intend to use it, to share it, but I still (deservedly or not) get out of shovelling snow, though I like how the writer of this piece uses it as example for real writing life and struggle.

  • herheadache says:

    Recently read your piece in Buzzfeed. Writing is traveling. Finding a pathway through all the snow. Well done.

  • Loved this. Although, I doubt this gifted young woman typifies what her generation is revealing during present times, as superficial is dominant from over use of texting to obsessive playing of video games. More young folks should be writing blogs as she is doing.

  • saryansha says:

    Calvin and Hobbies
    It was his turn to shovel the snow,
    But he made snow-men instead,
    And drew a memoir than,
    Go out instead!

    Prevention is always better than cure.
    That said, make a draft now and take it to the finals later! You can continue on the way.

    The question is…when are you going to start a blog. And, would you have your childhood diaries preserved to have them digitized for everyone to show and tell?

    Time will heal all wounds.

    Until then, I’d wait for spring to come.

  • I love the image/metaphor of shoveling in a blizzard. I write also to blaze a trail forward, and create a path.

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