Memoir Writing: The Muse and the Music

Guest Post by Ann C. Walker

I had known since spring of this year that the 100th anniversary of the founding of my high school band was coming up. Information and registration forms were sent months in advance, from Wisconsin, USA,  to my home in Santiago, Chile, asking me, as a former band member, to share my experiences. The problem was, I really didn’t feel I had any memories to contribute. It seemed that throughout the years I had remembered more about singing in the choir and performing in musicals than learning how to play the flute.

Fast forward to August 27, my wedding anniversary. Since I was leaving the school where I teach Middle School English at midday, I made an impulsive call from work to John, my husband, to meet for lunch. We chose a restaurant in our neighbourhood, one we had always wanted to try. We sat in a sunlit room, at a table for two, and just started talking . . . steins of cold beer in hand.

As we waited for our meal, I suddenly found myself reminiscing about playing in the band. I have written in some form or another all my life, and had participated in a series of memoir-writing workshops earlier this year—so, like any dedicated writer, I asked the waiter for a pen and a paper on which I could write some random notes. I visualized and described all the medals I had earned over the years as I’d seen them, pinned to a piece of burlap that draped over my piano at home. I could hear the sound of music stands being tipped over during small group rehearsals. I felt the piercing cold of Wisconsin fall evenings as I played the piccolo in the marching band. I reminisced about marching down the main street of my hometown, an event captured on my father’s 8-mm camera. I could still feel the anxiety and nervousness as I waited for my turn to play a flute solo in competition, my mother pacing outside the concert hall. I remembered new friends I had made and the “crazy” times we had practising together.

As I thought of these moments, I wrote as fast as I spoke, and phrases were soon plastered every which way on that small piece of paper. The muse had struck! I was completely energized by sharing with my husband what I did remember.

I went home with a specific mission: to transform the key words and phrases on that paper into sentences, and the sentences into paragraphs. As with all my pieces, I wrote fast and furiously, hardly able to breathe. It is an intense driving force that compels me to write nonstop in one sitting, so that the ideas do not disappear into mid-air. I have to write until the piece is finished.

Voilà! The first draft of my short memoir was finished. What made this piece of writing special was that I had slightly changed my focus. Instead of being simply memories of my time in band, the story evolved to include newer memories, created in the different places I had lived since high school, because of the flute-playing skills learned so many years before. I wove together the few memories I had from high school with significant moments playing the flute right here in Santiago. I was happy to share these memories of learning how to play because they also included important life moments NOW—at home, in my teaching, and in community outreach.

I wanted the piece to be as inclusive as possible, so I wrote my siblings asking them to send their memories to add to my story, but received none. I wrote a classmate and fellow band member with the same request, but she didn’t have any either. So the story remained as it was: my memories alone.

The hardest part was editing. I read and reread the piece, sometimes out loud, and cut and reorganized at the rate of about one paragraph a day for the next three weeks.

Finally, the time came when I felt that any more revision would change the piece too much from what had originated in my personal memory search. I wanted it to retain the same passion I had felt when I first penned the words. So I stopped editing, and sent it on.

The beauty of having written of these high school memories, when I had thought I had none to share, comes in many shapes. What was intended to be only “historical documentation,” in response to the anniversary organizer’s invitation to send memories, expanded from there.

The local band director in my hometown learned about my memoir and asked for permission to read my piece to his student musicians as inspiration, as they prepared for the anniversary. My friend who’d said she didn’t remember high school band said that after reading my story, some of her own memories returned. The memories I’d written about also flew via the Internet to my niece’s school in Tennessee, as inspiration for those now beginning to study an instrument.

Then, I was delighted to learn that my memoir would be published as a feature in my hometown newspaper.

Most important, in the process I recognized I did have a story to tell. By sharing my thoughts aloud with my husband, I had birthed a memoir. A luncheon date and time taken to tune in to my memories was all I needed to rediscover them.

Incredibly, my story will now reach friends, family, high school alumni, hometown acquaintances, readers throughout the state of Wisconsin, high school musicians in other states, and more.

The writing that resulted has provided an avenue for me not only to remember some special experiences from my past, but also to link these to my present life, say thanks to those who helped me in the journey, honour my school, and perhaps, in some small way, inspire some struggling, beginning musicians to continue practising.

Ann C.Walker, a descendant of German and Norwegian immigrants to the North American Midwest, has lived most of her adult life outside the United States. As a teacher she has found the perfect combination of her love of reading, writing, music, and nature. She has always enjoyed writing, especially capturing the essence of life in a small town, and moments with her family. She makes her home in Santiago, Chile, with her husband, John, and adult children, Joshua and Julia.

Ann C. Walker (seated, centre) at Santuario de la Naturaleza del Arrayan nature preserve in Santiago, Chile, following Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat, February 2010. Top, l to r: Pamela Yorston, Ellen Hawkins, Taeko Kushiro; bottom, l to r: Susan Siddeley, ACW, Suzanne Adam

Comments

  1. Ellen Hawkins says:

    Congratulations, Ann. An inspiring story, well told. Beso, Ellen

  2. Mary says:

    Ann,
    You remind me that often I feel I don’t have a story to tell. But like you, given time for ideas to percolate, writers can’t resist telling stories. What you did took on a life of its own and gave back to your school and community more than you likely imagined it would. Writers are a generous bunch.

    And to think boards of education all over North America are cutting back on music programs.

  3. Cristina says:

    Ann,
    Thank you for sharing this with me, and for sharing your writing (which is a window into your soul) so generously with many of us who share with you daily.

    Congratulations for what you have done and achieved through your writing, too!
    Love from sunny and warm Rapel,
    Cristi

  4. isabella says:

    What a pleasure to read ! I know Ann and so often she shares moments in a busy, often frazzled, day.Thank you for these enlightening introspective moments – makes the world a bit less frazzled!

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