The heart remembers everything it loved and gave away,
everything it lost and found again, and everyone
it loved, the heart cannot forget.
(“What the Heart Cannot Forget” by Joyce Sutphen, from Coming Back to the Body. © Holy Cow! Press, 2000.)
Several years ago, I attended a women’s memoir writing workshop in Texas as one of the featured presenters. My workshop was scheduled early in the day, which gave me opportunity to sit in on other workshops. I had been hoping to meet Nan Phifer, author of Memoirs of the Soul , one I’d used it as a resource in my memoir writing classes. As luck would have it, I was able to attend her afternoon workshop.
Nan began by addressing the question common to anyone who wants to begin writing a memoir. “How do I get started? Do I really have anything interesting to write about ?” I’ve always believed that everyone has many things to write about, even though occasional bouts of “I have nothing to write” are common to most writers from time to time. That belief has been validated constantly in my workshops. All inspiration needs is a little nudge, exactly the purpose of a writing prompt. Yet faced with aa blank page, whether a new or experienced writer, doubts can overtake us and confound the writing process. But what Nan Phifer offered that afternoon was one of the most fruitful and enduring of all the writing prompts, I’ve ever experienced or used—one I’ve continued to use with all my writing groups.
She introduced the exercise as a way of exploring what we hold in our hearts—the memories that are the raw material for writing. The first step was to take a blank page and draw the outline of a valentine-shaped heart, filling the page. Then the group was instructed to write inside the heart, filling it with the names of people, activities, things and places important to us in our lifetimes. Our pens moved rapidly, the hearts filling up with words from every category. Each word or name, she explained, was the entry to a specific memory, one that now could be written. People were surprised at how much “material” for writing they had actually generated. For the prospective memoir writer, those single names were the doors “in” to the larger life story. “Choose one,” Nan said, “and begin writing.”
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)—e,e, cummings
Perhaps it was simply the task of drawing a heart shape that brought a long-forgotten memory to the surface, because one in particular was one from my childhood—a memory that had to do with hearts: a first Valentines’ Day celebration and especially, my very first “best” friend.
I was five years old and in Mrs. Newton’s afternoon kindergarten class. I’d never experienced a Valentine’s Day party nor given a valentine to anyone before, just like most of my classmates. But as February 14th grew near, we all began to feel the excitement. Mrs. Newton guided our preparations. We sat at tables and carefully used our blunt-nosed scissors cut out heart shapes from red construction paper. These were pasted around the exterior of a large white hat box. Our teacher had already cut a wide slit in the top of the box, and it was transformed into our Valentines’ mailbox. The Room Mothers visited to talk with us about our party, giving us lists of the kind of refreshments needed to take home to our mothers along with the list of students’ names provided by our teacher so that everyone in the class would receive valentines from one another.
A day before the party, my mother and I went to our local dime store to buy a packet of valentine cards, one for each child in the class and one for our teacher. She placed the packet on a small table in the living room, ready to be addressed. That night, I could hardly contain my excitement and begged my mother to help me address my valentines, but it was getting late. She promised we’d have plenty of time to address them all in the morning, and I was sent to bed.
It’s hardly surprising that I awakened very early the next morning, well before my parents. Too excited to stay in bed, I tiptoed into the living room and went to work. I knew how to spell just one name, Sharon, which was also the name of my very first best friend. I found an ink pen, and in my very best printing, began addressing the cards, one another, all with “To Sharon H., Form Sharon B.” (the word “from” only slightly misspelled). By the time my mother was awake, she walked into the living room and discovered I’d single-handedly addressed over two-thirds of the packet, and every single card for my very best friend.
“Sharon Ann, what have you done?”. Only then did I realize I’d done something wrong. She sighed, “it’s too late to buy more valentines now,” took the remaining cards and addressed them to an equally few number of my classmates. But the embarrassment didn’t settle in until that afternoon, when she led me by the hand to apologize to my teacher that afternoon, which I did in a small voice with downcast eyes. Mrs. Newton was understanding, only nodding her head and gently taking me by the hand to my table before escorting my mother to the classroom door.
But my excitement was somewhat dampened by the knowledge I had no valentines for most of the rest of the class, and I sat very still, still feeling the flush of embarrassment as we gathered in a semi-circle around our teacher and waited for all the valentines to be distributed. I do remember that my best friend, Sharon H., was seated next to me. One by one, names were called and valentines distributed yet, what still makes me smile when I think of it is how, when another of the valentines I’d addressed was drawn from the box, Mrs. Newton would say, with mock surprise, “Why, here’s another valentine for Sharon H.; I wonder who it’s from…”, then smile knowingly at me.
I like to think that Mrs. Newton knew how important and special those first “best” friendships are that formed between children when they leave the familiarity of home and begin the school, how reassuring it was to have that one special friend there beside me each day that first year. I believe our friendship made the transition to kindergarten and my beginning of my “growing up” years all the more special.
The following year, Sharon H. was in a different class than mine, and we both made other “special” friends. We grew farther apart in high school as our life trajectories began to solidify, but our lockers were next to one another all four years, and daily, we exchanged smiles and greetings. She married soon after high school, but died just a few years later—perhaps from cancer, but that was before people “talked” about it. I learned of her death years after I’d left my hometown for university. But I cherish her memory, one I carry in my heart.
“The companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.” ― Mary Wollstonecraft
If You Want to Write:
Try the “heart” exercise to generate ideas for writing. This is a slightly modified version of Nan Phifer’s memoir writing exercise. Whether memoir, personal essay, turning life into fiction, or poetry, this exercise will help you discover that you have lots of material for writing. Here are the steps:
- You’ll need to a sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper. Draw the outline of a heart on the page (a large one, filling the page).
- For each category, people, events or place) use a timer, giving yourself no more than 3 minutes to write the names or title of 1) people you carry in your heart, then2) events, and 3) places.
- Once done, take another couple of minutes to study your heart and what names you’ve written on it.
- Choose just one, from any of the three categories; then set your timer for 15 minutes and begin writing, telling the story of what one thing you’ve chosen.
- When you’re finished, put it aside—re-read it later.
- After you’ve re-read, reflect on what you’ve written. What stands out? Ask yourself, why was that (person, event or place) so important to you?
- You may want to continue writing about it, fleshing out more detail in your narrative, turning it into a story, a poem, or even material for a much longer memoir.