The Raw World of Memoir

I hear from a lot of people who were particularly touched by the chapter in my book called “MY FATHER’S BLUE DUESENBURG.” It makes me think of all the people grieving their lost parents, and to that end, I thought I’d post a small piece I wrote a month after my father’s death, seven years ago. It was never meant to be published, but it was never quite meant for my journal either. People ask me about memoir and how it differs from fiction. They wonder if it’s crafted or if it’s just heart language. I think it’s the intersection of both. Fiction finds that intersection too, but memoir is a special bird. It’s the mind’s way to find the heart’s course. It begs for steerage. It wants pure truth. To me, memoir comes from this place I share with you below. It’s no small surprise that it ends in a prayer. Maybe that’s what memoir is: a prayer.

Remember the Virgin Islands? On the catamaran, with Mom and Dad arriving as the sun was setting, dark and windy with flotsam around the dinghy and we were kids with kids and a crew, paid in full by the kids with kids with kids on the dinghy? Remember?

I was a new mother then. Everything was magic. My father could have died on a small island with chickens and wild dogs and naked children running around and I would have made it just fine I think. Back then. When life was light.

Dad, instead died a month ago. When I wasn’t in the Caribbean. When I was here in Montana, ten pounds heavier, with a skin condition, probably from years of heavy writing and heavy rejection and heavy mothering.

I know I need to practice light right now. To have a Caribbean mind. To be like the girl bartender on the island at the Soggy Dollar Bar with the piercings and the dun skin and more attention and power than anyone could ever hope to have. Remember the large black man – Bamba—at the Bamba Shack on Tortola who looked up at the way Venus was positioned near the crescent moon and said, “Something is going to happen soon.” And then terrorists flew planes into the World Trade towers and killed thousands and broke the world’s collective heart, and my father was still alive, so mine did not entirely break. I had my father. The something that I was waiting for to happen, did not happen, until a month ago.

I am a writer largely because of a lifetime of fearing this event. I said it at the funeral– “I have been fretting this moment my whole life. My father was nearly fifty when I was born. And I spent months and months of my life trying to pre-mourn his death in journals and novels and poems and songs and dreams and dark-nights-of-the-soul. And he was there for everything. He knew my children and my husband and my house and land and career and walked me down the aisle; he was there for more than I ever dreamed he would be. It was all a waste of time. You can’t prepare for grief.” I guess I used to think that I wouldn’t be anyone’s fool if I tried to. But the mind does not experience grief. Not nearly as much as the body does. That was a surprise. I have been preparing in my mind, and letting my body go cheap. Grief is visceral.

My father feared his death. He taught me everything I know about death. We were joined at the hip in our fear of death. And now he succeeded in taking that fear away for himself, and I am left alone with a choice. I choose not to fear death. And yet my mind does not comply. It seems to me that the mind is the true enemy.

The day before my mother called to tell me Dad had had a stroke and developed aspiration pneumonia, I was like Bamba. I said, “I feel like something huge is about to happen.”

I think we all have the power to be prophets. But are prophets like the messenger? Do we need to bear bad news? And what happens to us when we do? I heard there was a hurricane that took out the Bamba Shack. Or did I dream that?

If I am to be in my mind, let it be in a Caribbean state. Let me be with my love, collecting tiny sand dollars on a sand bar in the shimmering silver of sky and water and not knowing the difference between water and sky, and not needing to. Let me be fifteen. Let me be a green young thing tasting my first rum and coke and buzzing down the beach in the heat in my first bikini. And let me flirt with my first black man and consider drugs and not worry about my father dying or myself dying or my children dying because that buzz won’t let me and I have so much less to love. Then. It was all high. I won’t know then that I’ll be chasing that exact buzz for the next twenty years. God, let me be that girl. Let me be in my body and let it be green.

Make my mind Caribbean blue.
Make my heart agree to be so broken that it forgets to cling to the idea of broken and mended things.
Make me vulnerable past fences.
Make me new.
Make me.


Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, Motherhood, My Posts

47 Responses to The Raw World of Memoir

  1. This is so incredibly beautiful. Memoir as prayer. I adore that.

    • lauramunson

      It just came to me an hour ago as I re-read this piece. Memoir as prayer. It’s so important to find the answers IN the stuff we write. It’s all there. We just need to be open to receiving it. Last year at this time I was adding in back story for THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS and I was overwhelmed because I’d written the book in real time and didn’t want to go back through the pain of it, yet my wise amazing editor felt that people needed back story in order to connect with my husband and me and what we were facing in our marital crisis. So I read it over…and there it was. I needed to write about my father. I NEVER would have thought to write about him as I was writing my way through that crisis, and it’s many people’s favorite part of the book. Thanks for your kind words, Lindsey. yrs. Laura

  2. Jaime Stathis

    This is lovely!

    • lauramunson

      Thanks, Jaime! I never know what’s going to touch people. Almost didn’t push “publish” in my blog admin, but I think I’m glad I did. yrs. Laura

  3. I remember staring up at the night sky in awe of the air traffic on the night before 9-11. The next night there was not a plane in the sky.

    My father is still here, and I fear the day of his passing. He was just diagnosed with diabetes, like his father, who died at 68. My dad is 67. I have no sense of something awful, but I felt like a five year old girl, crying and hugging my dad good-bye when we moved to California. He is visiting next Monday. I can spend every moment with him for his 10-day visit, and this is all I plan to do.

    Thank you for sharing and being brave for those of us who have yet to experience the death of our fathers.

    • lauramunson

      Nikki, this has me in tears. I called my dad one night many years ago BAWLING! “What am I going to do without you???” He cried too. Sometimes we just need to cry. My dad had a guilty pleasure: The Slurpy at Wendy’s. I loathe fast food and make it a practice never to step foot in any of those establishments. My kids have never been to McDonalds, for instance, and we’re proud of it, but whenever he was out here visiting from Chicago, I DAILY went to Wendy’s with him. He was an old fashioned guy born in 1918 and wouldn’t think of going to the drive-thru. He treated his visits to Wendy’s like he was sitting at an old soda fountain in a five and dime, and we’d sit there and chat and slurp away an hour or so. You are wise to spend every minute with him you can. OK, I can’t be crying– I have a cold and it makes matters worse. Tissue please! yrs. Laura

      • Tissue on the way. I have been crying off and on today too. My Aunt Rosemary died of ovarian cancer one year ago today, and I have been thinking of my grandmother, Lillian who died 17 years ago this month. Listening to Pavarotti sing Ave Maria doesn’t help either.

        • lauramunson

          Death anniversaries are good days to cozy up with a good book or your journal and just let it spew. Thinking of you, Nikki. Sending you light and love. Laura

  4. This is amazing. I am editing a memoir right now and trying to see what is missing. There is definitely some back story that I need to dig into. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • lauramunson

      Oh good. Glad it helped, Emma. Trust that it’s all there– it’s just hiding. Good luck! I know EXACTLY how that process goes and it ain’t that easy… But once you widen that third eye and see…it flies. yrs. Laura

  5. Laura, this is just a remarkable piece of writing. I echo Lindsey on the beauty of the metaphor… but what struck me more was the beauty of the way the piece slips into prayer before you notice.

    • lauramunson

      Thanks, Keith. I didn’t even notice it slipped into prayer until just this morning when I was re-reading it and considering posting it on my blog. You just never know what’s going to touch people. Your note meant a lot to me as I am currently sitting here with a nasty cold doing something I abhor (try as I might to love the WHOLE process of the writing life): and that’s submitting to magazines and literary reviews. I am that writer who just wants to write, much like I am that horse fool who just wants to canter. Ask me how I seperated my shoulder last year and ended up in bed for 6 weeks…and the answer wouldn’t be pitching magazines personal essays, but it can be just as lethal! Thanks again.
      yrs. Laura

  6. Katie Andraski

    This is beautifully written. I too tried to grieve my parents’ death before they died. I spent hours crying in the woods, mourning my mother’s passing when I was a girl. My mom was a smoker, so that hung over my head. It’s almost as though I did some important grieving before they died. When their time came, my father died five months after my mother died. I too had an impending sense of doom as I climbed on a jet to take two Christian authors to Lynchburg Virginia. I received the news on a foggy day, after spending the morning Jerry Falwell’s church and lunch with Falwell and his wife. I knew when I got the messages that he was gone. The night before I was complaning about how terrified I was by the whole shebang, and he said I was having the time of my life. In a way he was right. He told me he was proud of me. Then he was gone.

    The tour was three weeks long, so went home to the funeral and then went back on the road.I had to keep moving.

    At the end of the author tour, a benefactor of my Christian authors, offered to take my brother and I out on his boat, from southern Florida. It’s one of my regrets, that I didn’t take him up on this gift of sunlight and ocean air, and quiet, kind strangers. It might have healed my brother and I before we had a chance to break terribly apart over the stuff left over. (We’d barely healed from that when my brother too, died suddenly.)

    When the holidays come, people ask what are you doing? I say we’re being quiet. They say that’s good as though that is something to envy, but year after year, well, the holidays can be deeply lonely and grieving. We have moved to a small farm, surrounded by farmers who understand this kind of grief. This year they stopped by for dessert after Thanksgiving, and I hoping to cook for them one day around Christmas, so that I get a chance to feel a part of family. Neighbors can be like that, close like family, even if they aren’t quite.

    Well, Laura, you are an amazing writer, writing things I’ve thought and felt, and telling us how to live. I’m so glad your book iand this blog in the world and am looking forward to the new books coming.
    And that’s all I know for now, Katie

    • lauramunson

      Katie– so much loss. So…much…loss. It doesn’t surprise me that you find solace in cooking for farmers who too, know loss. I come from farm people on my father’s side. I hope this holiday season is full of quiet abundance. Like in that manger. Light and love to you. Laura

  7. Beautiful. To be light, again. wonderful writing. Thank u for sharing these personal thoughts with us. God bless

    • lauramunson

      Thanks, Uzma. I guess that personal thoughts are more powerful than we think. I’m all about vulnerability. Especially on the page. Thanks for reminding me how important that is. Sometimes it frightens me. yrs. Laura

  8. You leave me speechless yet again, Laura. “Blue Dusenburg” was also my favorite chapter, namely when you describe your father’s physical appearance. The shoes, the hat, his hands… I often think of my father’s hands. He died when I was 7. I don’t think I would ever have the mind to write a memoir, but your writing seems to explore my own psyche like I never thought possible. Please keep it up. I am hoping to meet you in Columbus, Ohio next year. Until then. -Jennifer

    • lauramunson

      Wow– what stunning praise. It’s an honor to be LET into someone’s psyche, Jennifer. Thank you. I’m sorry you lost your dad so young.

      I’ll look forward to meeting you in Columbus next April. Bring your friends! I’ll have my tour schedule listed on my blog. I haven’t been back since I graduated from Denison, and I’m really looking forward to it! yrs. Laura

  9. Laura,
    This is beautiful! I love this! In your book I love the way you describe all the details about your dad and the special bond between the two of you. My father passed away in 2008. When I received the call , I was on my way to Duke University to attend my son’s graduation. Needless to say, I wasn’t there for the graduation. When I was reading your book, your pain and grief resonated with me, and I felt the wound in my heart raw and open. One of the parts that I love is,”I can’t grab him for a walk and bounce around ideas,or rant about something,or brag about some accomplishment that I’d never dare brag about to anyone else. Nobody would give me his response. That kind of blind foolish adoration and praise.” How true!
    Laura, you touch me. I think that you have a beautiful heart.
    I hope that your cold gets better!

    • lauramunson

      Thanks, Ayala. I’m sorry you lost your dad, and not so long ago… I’m sure the holidays are still tough. Even after 7 years, I keep wanting to pick up the phone and say, “GUES WHAT!!!???” I keep crying answering these lovely comments today and the tissue box is already low given this nasty cold, so I’ll be brief. Your words meant a lot, just so you know. yrs. Laura

  10. This is beautiful, Laura. I can relate on two levels. The first is preparing for grief, but ultimately realizing you never can. I experienced this during the past year, with my Nana’s death. I have been writing about her, trying to capture her essence, for as long as I’ve been writing. I used to imagine every piece I wrote about her I might read at her eulogy. Every word felt like I was clinging to her, trying to ready myself for whenever she might go. I think that’s part of being a writer – a huge part. But you said it so perfectly here, that I feel like you reached into my own mind.

    The other piece to which I can relate is the prophecy piece. When my Papa died, I was ten. My Dad came to pick me up from Summer camp because it was August. I don’t remember many specific details from when I was ten but I do remember this: the first thing I told my Dad was “I had a feeling this was going to happen right now.” Why did I say that? Why did I feel that? As a ten year old, how did I know? I was oblivious to the fact that his cancer had come back. Anything I knew was overheard or spoken in murmurs. I feel like this is just another part of being a writer. This sense and feeling that something huge is occasionally on the horizon, and that we must be there for it.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    • lauramunson

      Alyssa– your note was so beautiful. I’ve never thought about it quite like this before– that writers intuit something from future, or prepare for it so that we live into what comes. I’ll have to think about this. Thank you for the inspiration. yrs. Laura

  11. Kathy

    Laura what a beautifully written piece!!! You are much like a sculptor with a lump of clay or a painter with a blank canvas. When your fingers touch the keys on the keyboard your thoughts and emotions come to life in such a brilliant andvibrant way that the reader cannot be touched by their shear beauty and pureness.

    As you know the loss of a parent, or any loved one, is such a difficult experience. With the loss a huge part of our history, our story, our being is gone forever. I have lived this through my Mother. She lost her Mother when she was eight years old and she lost her Dad when I was six years old. So by the time Mom turned thirty four she had lost both of her parents. I saw how these losses defined my Mom and how it affected her self worth. It is ironic that my three sisters and I all dreaded our eighth year of life……..each of us feared that history would repeat itself and Mom would pass. The funny thing is that this was something that we never discussed or shared until we were adults.

    Loss leaves a hole in your heart and an aching in your soul. In the early stages it is more like a crater!! However, I do believe that our loved ones are always with us. If you look and listen close enough the signs are there. I would suspect that your Dad has shared every step of this journey with you. He has given you hugs, held your hand and sent you strength and courage when you most needed it……and has been your biggest cheerleader along the way.

    Thank you so much for sharing this piece.

    • lauramunson

      Kathy– thank you. I have felt him in me, in the way I grunt when I stand up, in the way I sing the first line of a song and hum the rest, in the way I throw my shoulders back when I’m about to go on stage, in the way I feel strange afterward, like I’ve done something wrong. I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington yesterday and cried my way through it. My dad was sooooooooooooo Jimmy Stewart. I’ve been smiling this year imagining him as having a piece in all this sudden “success.” yrs. Laura

      • Kathy

        Laura, he is with you in all the instances that you have described. Your success may seem “sudden,’ but Dad has always helped you cultivate your dreams while he was walking beside you on this earth and while he walks along with you in your heart……..All the best, Kathy

  12. wendy

    Thank you again for putting yourself out there. Creating this special place for us (the reader) to feel, hope, breathe, and be.

    • lauramunson

      If that’s what this blog does, Wendy, then I couldn’t be more thrilled. We need safe places to share. Thanks for letting me know. Means a LOT! yrs. Laura

  13. Ellie

    Boy can I relate to grief. My mother died before I was even born. There is a whole another group out there grieving over the parent(s) they never got to know. Likewise, the holidays, special occasions and milestones without them is difficult.

    • lauramunson

      Ellie, that must be a special kind of grief. Makes me want to write a novel about it, actually. Grieving that which you never knew. Yet, if she was your biological mother, you did know her for nine months. I don’t think that goes away. And if she was an adoptive mother, then you know how much she wanted you and worked to find you. Either way, it’s a deep loss and not one around which the mind can easily wrap. I wish you special warmth this holiday season. yrs. Laura

      • Ellie

        I didn’t experience the loss of my mother until I was in my late twenties and recently married. Growing up, I valued what I had, a loving, involved father. Thinking of the mother, I wanted to be triggered the grieving process. It tore my life apart, in to pieces and now I am piecing together what I can. My marriage was not one of them. I loved in your book you said that when you realized your husband was depressed, you knew to stay clear of his path. I needed my space to grieve the loss that hit me like a tow truck but my husband didn’t understand that and he left.

        Yes, coping with the loss of a parent to a mental illness is a special kind of grief. Mine is a unique story, having a mother with schizophrenia but one I am glad most can’t relate to. Sadly, I’ve never been able to get a sense of her personality before she became ill. To me she is just a shell…VERY SAD!

        • lauramunson

          Ellie, that is indeed very sad. I feel like when we take our vows, we agree to hold the space for our partners in their hardest times. There is a limit to how much we can take, but it sounds like you were deprived of that holding and only given space. I am sorry for that. I guess ultimately we have to hold the space for ourselves, and I truly belive in the freedom there, but when we’re in pain such as the pain brought on by grief…it seems like that’s the time for our loved ones to be there for us. So often that’s not the case, and I personally cannot understand it. Except that maybe in our pain, we hold up a mirror to an unbearable truth. And to some, that truth is too much. I really am sorry for your losses, and I believe that pain really can be our guide. yrs. Laura

  14. Laura,
    This is beautiful. My Dad was in his fifties when I was born. I shared those very same worries and made the mistake of thinking you can prepare for loss. You can not.
    Thank you again-for sharing a part of yourself with us.

  15. Patty Viers

    Your words are transcendent and beautiful – I really could feel the warmth of the Caribbean sun! I love “make me green and “make me vulnerable past fences”. And the responses from you readers have left me not just crying, but the kind of crying-out-loud that I only let myself do when I am alone – it was cathartic and so I must have needed it. Thank you : )

    • lauramunson

      Thanks, Patty. I spent much of yesterday in tears because of the flood of sharing and vulnerability here. Glad you had a good cry. Stay in touch. yrs. Laura

  16. Laura,
    “Grief is visceral.” You say so much, so well, in this essay. But, that one line is the crux of it all. Thank you for sharing here.

    • lauramunson

      Hi, Christi. I think we have to have known grief to know that it is so physical. I’m sorry, then, for whatever loss you’ve had. yrs. Laura

  17. Laura, this is so very raw and beautiful and real. And what a gift for you to have these words for yourself, to read seven years later.

    I’ve been reading Staring at the Sun, by Irvin Yalom, which is about our existential fear of death (it was recommended in a webinar I watched recently on existential depression, by this author: ). Your thoughts on how we can’t rid ourselves of the fear of death made me think you might want to take a look at the book some time, if you aren’t already familiar with it.

    I love your writing. Hugs to you.
    ~ Lisa

  18. Pingback: Words Worth Sharing [Laura Munson]

  19. A beautiful piece, deeply candid. I lost my mother, sister and father, in that order and all three after long torturous illnesses. If I may link you to a chapter of my memoir that I have posted on my blog, Laura, I am hoping you might find a commonality with me in this piece about my father–mixed with the craziness of Internet dating: my father as love shadow. If you are inclined, please go here:
    The blog is now a book, hard won, but still … Memoir, indeed is a special bird.
    We must stay in touch. I am in DC. Why will you be in Columbus in April?

    • lauramunson

      I am going there now, thanks for letting me know, Mary. I hope to come to DC for the paperback promo. I’ll be in the midwest for the first week of April for the initial launch, as I haven’t covered that market, and I went to college outside of Columbus. Then I’m going to LA and San Diego, and probably back to the east coast. My events will be on my website under News and Events: Yes, please stay in touch. Over to your blog I go. yrs. Laura

      • Laura,

        Go back to my blog to see what I wrote in response to you. We must stay in touch. We are kindred souls. Off to buy your book! I’m hoping I find e-mail on your site here so that I can write you, but mine is on my website: I want to come to whatever you do in D.C.–and we’ll find a way to meet. My deep thanks to Daisy Hickman for pointing me your way.
        Fondly and in deep appreciation,

  20. Wow! Such raw emotions expressed so well. I so relate to your grief; but from another twist…My father left me when I was 4 months old. Another man, my step-father, arrived on the scene when I was 18 months old. He made a great dad – until he left my mom when I was 15 years old. After years of therapy and prayer, I now call them both “dad”. And, I still have moments of profound grief from not having the relationship you describe you had with your dad…

    • lauramunson

      I’m sorry, Stephanie. Abandonment is not an easy thing to heal. Sounds like you have done that work and I applaud you. Profound grief is a reminder that we’re alive. Thanks for sharing. yrs. Laura

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