The eruption of Mount St. Helens

Volcanic ash and steam rises from Mount St. Helens, Wash., as it erupted, May 18, 1980. (AP Photo)

My morning NPR ritual recently brought back two major landmarks in my journalism career this past week. May 18 was both the 41st anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the 40th anniversary of the first newspaper story about the mysterious killer that would later be known as HIV/AIDS. I mentioned this in a quick Facebook post, noting that while some people remember concerts as the signposts of their life journeys, I remember news events. Based on the thumbs and hearts I got in response, that’s not uncommon for those in our tribe.

I started to write about memories sparked by those two events — a car lost to volcanic ash, a smuggled ride into the mountain’s red zone, hollow-faced mountain men slumped in a line at a FEMA center, skeletal young men slumped in a waiting room at a hospital clinic, letters from readers repulsed by those skeletal young men, anguished nights at the keyboard trying to do justice with words. But the details became too many for one piece. Each memory sparked another memory, then another.

That made me think of a practice a writer friend told me about recently. He chose a time frame from his life and free wrote a list of memories from that time. No details — just a sketch outline of moments and people and feelings. It might become a series of prompts for essays, or maybe the spine of a memoir.

I can imagine using that technique in a writing workshop to help people identify high points in a story they want to write, or even to call up descriptive details. It could even help a reporter find the best scenes for an immersive narrative.

In my case, without even making a list about Mount St. Helens or AIDS, I was called back to the lessons I learned from those assignments, and how they served me again and again in other stories. So now I’m making that lessons list, with a quick note about the stories that birthed them, and how aspects of stories then show up in stories now. That may be nothing more than a fun stroll down memory lane for me. But it also could lead to essays,  workshop exercises or that journalism book I’m probably never going to write.

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