Learning to Write Memoir
January 31, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Sherry Mendelson Davidowitz
I woke with a start, sweaty and frightened. It was the same anxious dream I’d had since retiring after thirty years as a psychiatrist. I was back in medical school unprepared for an exam when suddenly I remembered that I was already a physician and a psychiatrist. What was I doing taking an exam after having earned my degree? I was relieved to realize it was only a dream.
After I retired, I’d experienced waves of emptiness that remained with me for months. There were days when I wandered my house, overwatering plants, cleaning closets, and straightening my bookshelf. Finally, when I tired of putting off the inevitable, I considered my way forward.
Reflective by nature, I decided to join a memoir writing class. At first, I felt uncertain; was this a skill that could actually be taught or one that I could learn? I wondered if I was creative enough for the work or if I had anything to say.
One evening, I sat in writing class, listening to Farrah, a classmate, present her work. As she read I skimmed my own pages that Leslie, our teacher, had returned. In the margin, she’d written, “I can see that flag waving. You don’t need the next sentence.” I’d liked my analogy of the flag waving “like a beauty queen.” Probably too cute, I surmised. Overwritten. Where was my authentic self? Likely hiding beneath superfluous analogies and other yet to be discerned defenses.
As Farrah, who’d fled her homeland of Iran, shared her pages, my attention turned to her. Statuesque, with jet-black hair, dark eyes and olive skin, her voice quivered as she read about her escape from an abusive husband. She’d left her baby daughter in Iran with relatives. When she finished reading she said, “No one can know how hard it was to leave my child behind.”
I thought about my own background. My life stressors paled in comparison. Did I have a story worth telling? I’d chosen memoir because I wouldn’t have to make up a plot and characters. Yet, I had a hard time figuring out what to say and then how to say it.
When I began writing, the last thing I wanted to explore was anything related to my career in psychiatry. I’d understood from class that an important aspect of constructing a memoir is to ask a meaningful question and write the answer. Yet I wracked my brain for something unique to tell. All that “wracking” brought up an intriguing question for me. How did a girl like me, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, a girl who only wanted to become popular at a time when women were mostly stay at home moms or teachers; how did that girl choose to become a doctor, a profession dominated by men? The answer became the centerpiece of my personal story.
As I wrote I learned that, instead of merely reaching a goal, I had to observe specifics along the way—scene details, word choices, tone, voice, narrative arc, all in the service of the story, all new and complex skills to learn. Yet, I liked the peace that I felt when I wrote, so despite my apprehensions, I continued.
I received comments back from Leslie like “slow down,” “unpack this, “more scene work.” I’d never realized that my mind sped through life, glossing over its details to reach an imaginary finish. Scene work exposed my inner life, making me feel vulnerable, which was frightening at first. Then, I felt known, which hooked me.
I observed similarities between writing and psychiatry. In psychiatry, I worked with a patient, picking at emotional scabs to open up wounds for understanding and compassion between doctor and patient, beginning the healing process. With writing, there is the picking at emotional scabs by the writer herself, to expose and understand traumas, the purpose being to connect with others. Slightly different from medicine, yet similar.
So, writing, which had started as a break from my profession, had circled back to it with a new focus—explaining how I discovered my calling, revisiting my struggles, and bringing to light what the process taught me. It was ironic to me that doctoring was not that different from writing. That repetitive dream of being in the classroom after already earning my medical degree had come true in a new way—through the process of learning to write. When I discovered my story, I found my way.
Sherry Mendelson Davidowitz is a writer and psychiatrist living in the Los Angeles area with her family. She graduated UC Berkeley in 1973 with a major in the Department of Medical Physics. She earned her medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine in 1977 and completed a residency in psychiatry at the same institution in 1981. She has a private practice in psychiatry in the Southern California area. Her literary work has been published in The Jewish Journal, Antigonish Literary Review, Litro Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, and performed and published by The Braid Theater in Santa Monica California. She recently completed a memoir, REAL DOCTOR, the story of how she found her calling in medicine and psychiatry, professions dominated by men at the time.