Lisa Dale Norton

Lisa Dale Norton


Your Life as Story: Writing Narrative Non Fiction
Writers Write

Lisa Dale Norton

April 1, 2010

"Wanting to do it and doing it are two different things."

The thing about writing your life into story is that if you want to do it you have to follow the impulse to express yourself in words on paper, or on the virtual paper of the computer screen. Wanting to do it and doing it are two different things.

            Is your first impulse after experiencing something powerful or subtle to sit down and journal it out? Do you instantly pick up the phone, call a friend and then write down what the two of you have shared? Or do you run out the door for the racquetball court, a fast jog around the neighborhood, and lose that energy in exercise never to return to the page to capture it? Do you bury your impulses in work or drink or gambling? Do you pick up a sketch pad and pencil? Where do you go with the life story that must be expressed?

"Writers cleave to words, written words. Even under the most stunning difficulties."

Writers cleave to words, written words. Even under the most stunning difficulties.

When my mother died I sat at her bedside in stunned shock. Could it be possible? I’d tended to her day and night for weeks. She was still there. Even after she had what appeared to be a stroke, she still took my arm gently, raised her eyebrow in response to my questions, squeezed my hand. She was still there. When I went to bed at 4 a.m. and came back at 7 a.m. to give more medicine, day after day, week after week, she was still there. I would walk into her bedroom and announce: “I’m here Mom. You are not alone. I’m here.” I held her hand under the covers and recited mantras of I-love-yous and forgiveness and stories of past escapades fused into one long tale. She was still there, even as the options for interacting diminished. She was still there.

But this day, she was not there. She had slipped away between 4 a.m. when I fell to sleep in the next room the sound of her labored breathing in my ear, and 7 a.m. when I returned, no sounds beckoning. And so I sat stunned, incredulous really.

I knew she was dying; we both knew she was dying. This was the edge of the world we were voyaging toward in our shared ship of mercy and concern.

And when we arrived, when that lumbering vessel teetered off the edge of the earth and my heart hung in the space of letting go, what did I do?  I picked up my laptop and blazed out an obituary, a paean to her art and soul, to my love for her, long and windy and tortured—a supreme first draft. It was the only thing I could think to do, the only place to go with the pent up pain. And then I read it to her, to me, to the room, the curtains, the bed, the paintings and books, to the still soft rain of spring falling outside her open window, the early gray of a hard-won spring dawning on the Great Plains.

Macabre? Perhaps for some, but I knew her spirit lingered, and I wanted one last way to reach out and say I love you, through the story I crafted of her life.

"That is writers do. They write. Even on the edge of the earth, tethered by a thread, they write."

That is writers do. They write. Even on the edge of the earth, tethered by a thread, they write.

About Lisa Dale Norton Lisa Dale Norton's new book about memoir, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR (St. Martin's Press), is in bookstores now. Lisa is the author of the acclaimed memoir HAWK FLIES ABOVE: JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE SANDHILLS, a work combining memoir and nature writing. She teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program and speaks nationally on the process of memoir. She lives in Santa Fe.