Where the Hell Do You Start With Something as Vast as a Memoir?
iO Tillet Wright on How to Tell the Story of a Life
I’ve always dreamt of writing a memoir. It’s one of those things—you have a crazy life, you know how to string a coherent sentence together, people tell you that you should write a book—and yet, Darling Days wasn’t my idea. I had done a TED talk and I’d asked a friend’s fiancée to connect me to the speaker’s department at his agency. Turns out he was a literary agent and wanted to see if I had any chops. He had NO idea how crazy my life had been. “Sit down and start writing and see how it feels,” he said. Ok, I thought. What image comes to mind most vividly? My mother, in the bed she shared with her common-law husband, in the East Village in the 1980s, sleeping with a pistol under her pillow. She pulled that pistol on a junkie crawling through the window once, because she was afraid he’d steal her lipstick.
I wrote a half page. I tried not to stress that it wasn’t some long piece, and sent it to my friend’s future husband with internal fingers crossed. “Oh! You’re a writer!” he wrote back. “Keep going!”
Ok, well, where the hell do you start with something as vast as a memoir? At the beginning. So I started to write the story of my birth, as my parents had told it to me hundreds of times, then I just kept going.
I started by making a long list of every event I could think of that felt important enough to relay to a reader who had never met me, then made a peg board of index cards, a scene per card. I shuffled it around a ton, and pulled things off when they got the can. Over the course of a year, I wrote 53 vignettes, some of which were one page, some that were 18, describing instances I thought might be relevant. I didn’t write them in chronological order, though I knew I wanted them to end up that way.
I ended up with 140,000 words—a hulking goliath of a manuscript, the last third of which I wrote in one terrific final push, like the last shove of a woman in labor. I needed to get the thing out, and it just so happened that the darkest parts came last, so I had to shred my insides to relive those moments in the first-person present and I was eager to push through. Turns out the writing sucked. I sent it to my father, always my first-pass editor, and he pointed out how lazy and rushed it was. I didn’t want to hear it, but he was right. I went back and walked barefoot through the shards of traumatic memories, slowly this time, paying attention to the details. I pulled out old photographs and studied the things in each room I was in. I searched my own eyes for evidence of my anguish as a teenager, and it was all there. Adult me sat in my house and sobbed onto my keyboard as I rewrote scenes with heart and feeling. I came out of it a different version of myself, wounds that I didn’t even know I had carried freshly formed scabs.
One of the gnarliest pieces of writing in the book came during an awful period when I was 28, during which I was suffering from crippling bouts of anxiety and depression. I was in a meeting in LA and ran outside to sit alone in my car, plagued by a surging sense of panic and fear, the root of which I had no hint of. I whipped out my phone and furiously began typing into a note, describing how I felt. It became a chapter where I describe in more poetic terms, what it feels like to be inside my mind at its worst.
I also pulled an entry out of my Third Grade Year Book, which I discovered on a shelf in my Elementary School Library and copied it verbatim into the book.
Some night I might
Slip away in the moonlight.
Some night I might
But not tonight.
I went back to the family court building where I was taken when I was removed from my mother’s care, for the first time since it happened 19 years ago. I stood outside and looked at the architecture. I put my hands up on the glass, studying the lobby for details that I spoke into my recorder, and cried. My memory of the place from when I was 12 was perfect, photographic, as traumatic ones sometimes are.
Reliving the heaviest moments of my life and transcribing them to the page let me walk through things that I had long since buried. That might sound excruciating, and at times it was, but ultimately, it gave me a place to put it all, a shelf to organize it on, and a light switch to flick off in a dank room that had only been a pile of rubble before without a door that would stay closed.