Moving Mountains with Teaspoons

Accessing memoir through fragments.

“So,” my sister asks me over the phone, “do you write, like, a chapter of your novel at a time?” When I tell her no, more like a scene or a page or maybe just a sentence, she sounds horrified, like I’d told her I was moving a mountain a teaspoon of dirt at a time. We talk of other things.

But it is true, writing often feels both as impossible and crucial as any fairy tale task. Real human things do.

When I write, nothing comes out in a straight line. I catch wisps. I twist them together. But my students write like they read, beginning at the beginning, ending at the end. They don’t like revising. They write like the sentences our thoughts make sense the first time we voice them.

I’m dating someone new, and there’s so much to fill him in on. I begin, jokingly, “I was born at Holy Cross Hospital in Salt Lake City. My mother dreamed she gave birth to a white kitten, and when I was born I had white-blond hair and I purred.” He’s entranced, enthusiastic. (Things are going well.) He tells me it’s like the beginning of a novel. He says it tells him important things about who I am, not the facts but the brain behind the sentences. I bask.

And then, I recycle. Next week, I use that mini-origin story as a jumping off place to explore memoir with my teen students. In class, I ask them to write a series of 1-2 sentence vignettes responding to a series of prompts.

The first: Write two sentences about your birth, one factual, the other whimsical, playful, poetic, or mythic. We read them aloud. A 16-year-old named Lucy Currier shares her birth date and time, then writes, “My dad says my birth was one of the best nights of his life, because his favorite football team got destroyed in a bowl game the same night, and I was his excuse not to watch.” Another student tells how the nurses gushed over her eyelashes, giving her the first compliment of her life. Already this is good stuff, specific yet connected to big threads about who our families are and what stories they tell about themselves and about us.

Then I have them pan out: Write two facts about the world when you were born. My example is “Ronald Reagan was president. The men had mustaches, and the women were getting perms.” My students sneak out their phones and tell me things about 2010 that I already know. Obama, the Haitian earthquake, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Instagram is as old as them, and iPads. The Burj Khalifa. Write it down, I say. Be a little weird and specific. I’m always telling them, Be weird. Have fun! I’m always working to make cracks where the juice can flow through. And they’re writing these precise, punchy fragments. It’s some of the most vivid writing we’ve had all fall. We keep stopping between each prompt to savor their answers. “It was the holiday season,” Lucy continues, “The first iPhone was recently launched. The West Virginia Mountaineers lost 13-9, much to my dad’s dismay.”

After looking at the world of their births, we zoom back in: Write a detail you know about yourself as a little kid. We are myth-building, but also myth-interrogating. We are reaching back perhaps before our own memories into what we’ve been told about ourselves, writing it down so we can look at it, see if it is even true. We are putting early hazy experiences into words. One student says her family pegged her as the creative one. Another writes that she was so stubborn her dad had to carry her across town like a sack of potatoes. Lucy writes, “I was very talkative. Less than 3 hours after my birth, I began to chatter, in assorted mewls and burbles. My parents tell me I could speak complete sentences by nine months old, and that I was reading by four.” Single events become identities, stories we carry around as if they mean what we’re told they mean. Writing them down, we claim them, or see them in their limitations.

In the next prompt, I have them go back even further in time: Write down something you know about your family before you were born. I share mine: “My parents may be the only straight couple to ever meet at Girl Scout Camp.” My students write about their parents meeting in Poland and in Apple stores. One writes that each of their grandparents grew up speaking a different language. Another, about her parents meeting in the U.S. after immigrating from the Czech Republic separately. Lucy writes, “My parents met while working at a Saturn dealership, a company that no longer exists. My mother was the eldest daughter, her mother was the eldest daughter, and my great-grandmother was also the eldest daughter.”

Now that we have a foundation, I ask some prompts I hope will complicate the narrative. The next two questions are a pair, there to allow more than one story in. What is an expectation, realized or unrealized, that your parents had about you? And What is one thing you know to be true about yourself? There is space there for conflict, but also for dreams and pride and absurdity, and my students’ work dips into all these things. Sometimes what they write is simple: “I was born almost a week later than my parents expected. They moved to Arizona before I was born, but I always wanted to live in the snow, even in the summer.”

I have so many prompts I want to ask them, but we’re getting to our max, in both attention spans and class time, so I end with one last one: What is something you don’t know, or a question you have about your birth and childhood and family? Lucy’s is wonderfully tangential, like a first draft that’s not being reigned in, and at the same time circles in on a big life question: “I would love to know what was going on in the mind of the person who first discovered animal milk. I don’t know if I’ll ever be seen as the person I hope to be.”

Then there they are with nine or more sentences about their origins. I tell them:

Now take these fragments as inspiration and write your origin story. You can use any or all of the fragments, in any order. You can change anything. You can add more details. You can add other thoughts. You can take one fragment and run with it. You can fill in anything you want to or just put things next to each other. You can do internet research. You can ask your families for more information. You can be as poetic or as factual as you like, but don’t make anything up. You don’t need to.

They come back with reflections of many kinds. One tells the story of her great-grandfather’s immigration. Another speaks of being a baby during the 2008 financial crash, unaware of the suffering in the world, which, he says, is why he doesn’t like babies. Others put together poetic and funny stories of who they are, in their families and in the world.

By starting with meaty fragments and not worrying about the connective tissue until later, we can see where the strength was right away. We have real things to work with. I find this exercise also gives students enough specific, weird detail that their stories of themselves aren’t just a list of labels and favorites, activities and media, abstractions and cliches, unlike when I ask students to write about themselves in other ways. However, some of that sneaks back in as they flesh out their fragments.

I am less excited about the full origin stories than about the fragments, though that might not be a fair thing to even mention because I was electrified by the fragments. Electrification is a very high standard to hold exploratory student writing. Thinking about it more, I realize that in my own writing, there’s another piece to the process. I start with fragments and piece them together into something cohesive but then have to go back and make it weird and fresh again.

So I add a third step with my students where we revise our full stories to get weirder and more punchy again, to trim off any extra connective material and let thoughts stand on their own more. I have the students read over their work, underlining the parts that feel good to them, and drawing squiggles by the parts that feel clunky or cringy. These parts, I want them to revise.

Lucy’s final draft reads:

I was born in December __, 2007, at 12:48 AM.

My dad says my birth was a major highlight of his life, because his favorite football team lost the same night, and I was his excuse not to watch. My mother didn’t say much, as she had just spent 12 hours in labor. (Is sarcasm hereditary?)

My parents met while employed at a Saturn dealership on the brink of the millennia. The sarcastic grunge-lover married the well-read eldest daughter of an eldest daughter of an eldest daughter and had me—a bibliophilic first-born who loves music and a well-timed joke.

Much happened the year I was born. The first iPhone was released, Vladimir Putin was named Person of the Year, and the West Virginia Mountaineers lost 13-9 in a crucial bowl game, much to my father’s dismay.

As time has traveled, so have I. I was born in the desert, I left the desert, and I returned to the desert all in a short 16 years. This dry land continues to pull me back home, no matter how I constantly crave the snow, the rain, and the sea.

Yet I am not unhappy.

I am still amazed by music, how it creates a world worthy of passion and how being the one to create it renews that passion within me.

I am still a small girl with a large mind, hungry for words and parched with longing for all that I already have.

I am still that girl who was born one warm December midnight.

There are the nuggets of specificity, filled out into something whole. She’s teased out the humor more, panned out into some reflection. It feels less electrically raw to me, but more thoughtful, more cohesive, while still detailed and alive. I’m proud of her.

This exercise mimics my own writing process more than any other lesson I’ve been able to invent or steal. It feels true to how memory works. It honors the fragmentary nature of experience and the ability humans have to find meaning in juxtaposed but unconnected things. It also touches into teens’ developmental (and human) obsession with identity and articulation of self.

Writing their origin story is a powerful exercise for young people, as it lets them dig into what they have been told about who they are, as well as their own inner sense of themselves. But by writing from fragments, there is another layer, that of juxtaposition, image, and meaning-making. These silly fragments, not necessarily that personally revealing, still make a story with a bigger meaning about who students are. It’s one of those times when things don’t have to always be spoken about directly. Images and fragments can be enough.

This may all be like teaching students the best angle to scrape the mountain with their teaspoons. It certainly isn’t the most efficient way to fill a page. And yes, it is only with the help of a million ants or an old woman by a well or a magic handkerchief that the fairy tale task will be done, but I think that by helping students sit in juxtapositions and write from the weird fragments, we are also teaching them how to befriend the mythic helpers of their own minds.

These parts of us are not rational, orderly, or heroic. They don’t have nice teeth. They are strange and old and wild. They are utterly necessary. Responding to kindness and respect, they come to our aid when we face the impossible. And being human is so full of the impossible.

I want my students to learn about writing not because writing in and of itself matters. Humans were pretty OK without it for a very long time and in very many places. But it’s a medium for something that matters deeply: the upwelling of humanness. I want my students to articulate the truth as they see it, the universal wonder and pain and beauty and ridiculousness of being their exact human selves. I want to introduce them to the strange old women at the well, or at least to send them off into the forest with some crust of bread they can share when they find her. Because she’s there, and they need her.

Featured photo by Karolina Kaboompics.

Becca Rose Hall

Becca Rose Hall is the founder and director of Frog Hollow School, a children's writing program in Seattle. She graduated with honors in English from Stanford and holds a Master's in Environmental Writing from the University of Montana. She is a 2024 Jack Straw Writers Fellow and 2019 Writers' Lighthouse Emerging Fiction Fellow and has been supported by Community of Writers, Art Omi, and Zvona i Nari. She has been published widely, including in Third Coast, Pacifica Literary Review, and Orion (where her essay made their Best of 2020), as well as in Teachers & Writers Magazine. She recently finished writing a novel and is also at work on an early reader series. She lives in her hometown of Seattle.