Just last week, I finished reading Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years for the second time. This is one of those remarkable books that makes me want to flip it over and start again after the final page. It’s insightful, challenging, humorous, and quite moving, both to the writing life and to the daily story of real life.
But this isn’t really about the book. This is about something in the book.
In the first paragraphs, Don talks about his friend Bob (Goff, who becomes a really prominent part of the story and has a book of his own out that I want to read). Bob’s life is one huge, colorful, world-changing tale, but in the very beginning, he tells us that Bob writes down every memory he has, just to remember.
“The saddest thing about life is you don’t remember half of it. You don’t even remember half of half of it. Not even a tiny percentage if you want to know the truth. I have this friend Bob who writes down everything he remembers. If he remembers dropping an ice cream cone on his lap when he was seven, he’ll write it down. The last time I talked to Bob, he had written more than five hundred pages of memories.”
That’s inspiring to me. No matter how important or mundane, joyful or sad, he writes it down. This and a later chapter on how our stories must have memorable scenes set me thinking about the things I remember, the unusual places in my story that become inside jokes, or sensory memories, or just a scene I couldn’t forget. It also made me wonder how many of these I’ve let go, and, if I remembered them all, would I never want for something to write about again? (and yep, it all selfishly comes back to writer’s block.)
Isn’t every story remarkable? I can at least hope so. I doubt I’ll hike the Inca Trail or bike across America or build a house in the woods and invite world leaders over for dinner anytime soon, but there are turns in my own life that live on, though maybe as ghostly-pale memories. Could they come back to life?
So, inspired by Bob, I opened up Scrivener and made a document called “Everything I Can Remember,” and started writing down one story from a few years ago, because those are easier then digging back into childhood. It was about meeting a friend for the first time, and as I tried to recall the scenes, the lines, and every detail about the characters, I remembered that vivid detail never was my strongest point as a writer. But it was a fun exercise that made me grateful to have the story in my life.
Then the next day, I saw a powderpuff plant growing on the corner of my neighbor’s yard and remembered my Grandma’s tiny old house, and her garden, her cooking, and the fenced corner yard that seemed huge when I was small. I wrote about that. I started with the chain-link fence, the plants, the summer grasshoppers. Slowly, everything about the place came back to life, and I ached to return, or at least go see her old house to prove to myself it’s real.
And so it will go, I hope. The funny thing about chasing memories is how you find things you didn’t even know you remembered. I don’t know how long it takes to accumulate 500 pages, but every single one feels like bringing something back to life. I told my mom about this crazy project I was doing, and how I was writing about Grandma’s house, and she said, “Oh! I have a memory about that place when your dad and I first met.”
We all have our stories, and not one of them is boring.
What would happen if you remembered as much as possible and wrote it down — for you, or for anyone who wanted to know the story of your life? You don’t have to be a “Writer.” (with a capital W.) It doesn’t even have to be for anyone but yourself. The purpose in such a project isn’t so much to create a memoir or something useful, but simply to remember, to say thank you. Because every memory, it seems, can become an altar of gratitude.