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First Person: Bequeath Your Treasure

By Dorothy Bryant
Tuesday September 14, 2010 - 11:36:00 AM

During my years of teaching writing, and long afterward, writers would ask me for advice on or reaction to their work. What most of them were really asking for was publishing contacts, and, when I honestly said I couldn’t help, they didn’t believe me. Even those who were more concerned about the writing itself believed that the stamp of quality on their work must be, could only be, its appearance in print by a commercial publisher. They were deaf to my insistence that writing is art and publishing is business; that 99% of commercial publishing is like dropping a book over a cliff, lost and forgotten in record time; that they were aware only of the 1% that became best sellers and movies—never a reliable measure of the quality of the art. 

I usually ended my unheeded speech with an equally unheeded exhortation: you want a generation of readers who will treasure your writing? Who will pass it on, quote it, keep it in print? Then write your life for your children. No children? Then write for your cousins’ children or your neighbors’ grandchildren—for the next generation and the next, who will prize it even more. You want immortality? There it is. 

As I got warmed up, I would tell how often I wished I had listened to my grandmother’s stories of crossing the Atlantic with her ten-year-old son, both of them without a word of English, trying to find their way to Butte, Montana to join my grandfather, already coughing after a few years’ work in the copper mines. But, when I was ten, my grandmother’s stories were boring, old-country, un-American. And by the time I had grown up enough to value her stories, she was dead. I would conclude my harangue by urging my writing students to start—NOW—to put down memories of their daily lives, to question older living relatives or neighbors before it was too late, to get this precious literature down on paper. 

I am still nagging writers with this advice. Many now agree, and some have even joined writing groups for encouragement. But few write much, and those few spend too much time polishing up successive drafts. They may also be discouraged by a self-imposed requirement that they organize, outline, get their recollections in chronological order—a “proper” autobiography. But that’s not the way memories work. They fall on us like leaves from here and there, blown by sudden breezes, from one direction, then another, from something that happened last week, which evokes a sudden memory from when we were three years old. which leads to remembering some valuable advice given by the one high school classmate we detested. Does it matter if these memories don’t come in chronological order? 

So get a notebook and write them as they come. (Even your penmanship might be an interesting artifact to a descendent.) Record your first memory; your worst memory; the happiest incident; the most frightening; the most boring; the best lesson you ever learned; the best teacher; the worst; a stupid, shameful thing you did, a portrait of a close relative you hate. Something you saw and did that no one can do or see now. (It was unimportant? That might make it especially interesting to your grand-nephew.) One short memory written down in twenty minutes will nudge another one forward—and everyone can spare twenty minutes a day for posterity. 

As I typed that last sentence, Bob looked over my shoulder and said, “Right, even you. With all your years of writing, you’ve sneaked a few experiences into your fiction, but if they weren’t “usable” you didn’t write them down anywhere for the next or the next generation.” He’s right. So, I’ll set an example with a few unimportant experiences. 

I learned to swim in Fleishhacker Pool, an Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool, water pumped in from the ocean, next to the San Francisco Zoo. Long gone, of course, because, well, whose brilliant idea was it to build an outdoor pool near SF Ocean Beach, where the summer temperature might hit the high fifties on a REALLY warm day? I also took a life-saving class there from Charlie Sava, trainer of once-famous swimmer Ann Curtis, and learned how to get in and out of a life-saving canoe, in the water, an exercise that, as I remember, left me black and blue from head to foot. I also swam at the legendary Sutro Baths, the elegant, glassed-in palace of pools set halfway out into the Pacific on rocks at the northwest tip of San Francisco (you can still look down on what’s left of concrete pool rims). Sutro Baths was near to closing when I swam there, and the wooden walkways around the pools were rotting, moldy and smelly, but I wish the City had taken over what had become a white elephant and fixed it up—before a suspicious fire finally destroyed it. 

Like many people, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing—fretting over my divorce—when the assassination of John Kennedy came over the radio to remind me that there were more important things in the world than my own guilty misery. I also remember my 3rd grade teacher, even her name, Miss McLeod, one of those much-maligned old-maid schoolteachers, who happened to be a gifted puppeteer. The rear of our classroom was a marionette theater. We each made our own marionette to act the part we memorized and spoke as we manipulated the marionette; the high point of my life was creating and playing Snow White in our class production, attended by every class in the then-Le Conte School of the SF Mission District. We certainly learned the reading and math expected for our grade level, but I remember only the creative joy of our marionette theater. 

I remember growing up in a San Francisco of parades on all holidays, including Hallowe’en. One Hallowe’en night, our next-door neighbors insisted that both families pull out all our sheets, dress up as ghosts, and walk up (less than a mile) to Market Street to join the parade. (Mothers and children only; my father worked late, and the father next door was drunk, as usual.) We marched, ten abreast, a row of white-sheeted ghosts, in the huge mob of ordinary folks that stretched all along Market Street. No police in sight. No drunkenness, no brawling, no danger. All perfectly safe fun, marching down Market Street, then walking home in the dark. 

There are sadder memories, angry memories of hurt and betrayal, just like the ones everyone has. Don’t leave anything out; that’s the blessing of limited, selective publication. Yours may be a vital side of a picture your readers deserve to see whole. 

This is not just an old geezer’s game. If you’re sixty, you can remember the mudflat, scrap sculpture in the tidelands before the Eastshore Freeway was built. If you’re under fifty, you can drive out to the Albany Bulb and document the scrap sculpture left from industrial dump days there. (If you’re new to California, you have even richer comparisons of sights and customs to document.) Under forty? Describe what pre-internet schooldays were like. Under thirty?—your first time behind the wheel of a car, which car? Under twenty? your first great passion: sexual, artistic, sports, exploratory. Or your first great loss. 

Okay, now, let’s all get at it. Twenty minutes a day, a precious treasure for the next generation.