If I had known how much of an impact it would have on me, I would have kept it.
Years ago, while on a motorcycle trip to the Big Bend region of Texas, I picked up a copy of the Big Bend Gazette, an independent publication that is part newspaper and part arts scene overview.
Sprinkled among the articles were short pieces that had a photo of a local resident and a paragraph or two about his or her life. One photo was of an elderly woman, her face etched with wrinkles and fine lines and exuding quiet dignity.
She said she was a life-long resident of the area and remembered most of all being in the band in seventh grade (or something like that) and getting to go all the way from Alpine to Mason on the school bus for a competition. That was 610 miles there and back, and she had never before or since been that far from home.
The poignancy of her comment—the one thing that came to mind when asked about her long life—stuck with me.
Did she yearn for other adventures but lack the means to execute them? Or did this one excursion make her appreciate the rhythm and certainty of her life back home so much that she never strayed? Or was it something else—or nothing?
Tristine Rainer, in the excellent Your Life as Story, advises memoirists to use the six most significant "moments" in their lives--whether important decisions, beliefs, interests, lessons learned, or even other people--as plot points around which their life story is structured.
Once those are in place, one usually will emerge as the most important, and the writer can begin to see how it molded and guided everything that came next. The task then becomes turning this diagram into a narrative.
That is great advice for getting to the core of one's story from many different angles, and I wish I could spend an hour with that woman to find out what other five moments she would include.