There are lots of quiet moments and surprising experiences from my life that get under my skin. Maybe I’ll write about the event or conversation that very day, or perhaps it will take weeks before I pen it to paper. I will usually revisit and revise the piece over the course of several months, making sure that every detail is to my liking. But often, I’ll be unsatisfied with the result. Or I’ll send the piece out and it will get a flood of rejections from editors. So, over the course of the last few years, there have been a handful of personal essays in my file folder that are well-written and yet—something is missing.
Personal experience is a lily pad on top of the water. It may be pretty, but a pretty flower does not make for an interesting story. I have found that it’s about peering beneath the lily pad to find what the true story is. What is rooting this moment down in the muck of our minds? And so what? Why do we feel the need to tell this story, and why now?
Sometimes, we may not know why a particular experience has buried beneath our skin. It may not be until something else occurs in our life that the connection is revealed to us. This is what I’m beginning to understand about writing memoir: the way we experience our life changes over time. As we collect new experiences, we begin to have a different understanding of the past.
A good essay requires clarity from the writer in the moment and wisdom from the writer at the desk. The more time passes, the wiser we become about our past, and as a result, we bring those insights onto the page with us. Sometimes, all that is missing is one line—a tiny key that reveals the narrator’s true desire or fear, unmasking the heartbeat of the story.
Just because an experience moved us enough to write about it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is ready to be shared with the world. Memoir is about memory but it is also about discovery. If we continue to dig deeper into the muck each time, maybe we will find the gold nugget, the root of its significance. Or perhaps, we just need to be patient. Maybe the reason why this particular moment is important to us has not revealed itself yet, and an unrelated experience might shed light on the past in surprising ways. Either way, we cannot discount these under-the-skin moments. We must continue to revisit them and explore them on the page, mining them for truths that take us—and our readers—by surprise.