Saturday, November 12, 2011


Note: Last week, while I was on vacation, I wrote an essay about my father, whom I never got a chance to know. His absence in my life left a missing piece in the puzzle of my identity. Also, this essay was the last piece to place in a collection of family memoirs I’ve been writing for the magazine Black Lamb. I’m not going to post my new essay here, because it’s too long, and because I’m saving it for the magazine. However, there’s an elated feeling about finishing the manuscript of a book, which I call “Before I Forget,” even though the book probably will never be published. (I plan to print up a few copies for my family.)

Instead of posting my new essay, I am posting the prologue to the collection, which is also an essay about the importance and sometimes irrelevance of memory in the genre of memoir.

The Prologue to “Before I Forget”

My earliest memory is of a green and white checkerboard pattern of linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor in Minneapolis, where I lived until I was two years old. I have remembered that design so often throughout my life that I’m sure it is entirely false.
Every time we remember something, we change it. Memories are photocopies of photocopies of photocopies, all the way back to the first sighting, which we would no longer recognize if we came across it in a magazine.
This flaw of memory is especially acute for us writers, who constantly edit and rewrite, and who at heart believe that a good imagination is far more important than an accurate memory.
So what you’re about to read are the personal and family memories and in some cases fanciful imaginings of a fiction writer. For those of you who were there when any of this happened, please do not feel compelled to correct my memories. I already know they’re inaccurate—just as yours are.
As for historical accuracy, who cares? Nobody’s going to take my word for all this. I just made sure of that. And who cares what the floor in the Minneapolis kitchen looked like?

While I’m at it, here is the Epilogue to “Before I Forget,” and this Epilogue is a dead-accurate, spot-on memory of a scene that never really happened. I made this memory up.

August 1992
My wife and I drove up to Mendocino this weekend to celebrate the first birthday of our first grandchild, Hannah Daniel. It is a warm Sunday morning in August, in this quaint little village that looks more like Maine than like Northern California. In fact, picturesque charm has been Mendocino’s undoing: the town crawls with tourists, as if it were some branch office of Disneyland, and Sunday mornings they all spend their E Tickets on Birdland and Brunchtown.
         But I have found a place to be alone in Mendocino this Sunday morning. While the tourists swarm the bluffs with cameras and binoculars or pour raspberry syrup on yogurt blintzes, and while the locals, including my son and his wife and daughter, go to church, and while my wife sleeps (she and I don’t do church or birds or blintzes), I have hauled the clothes of my clan to the town’s one laundromat. I’m the only one here.
         Hannah’s parents, Morgan and Vivian, don’t yet have their first washing machine. Susan and I bought them a year’s worth of diaper service when Hannah arrived, but they still bring their clothes to the laundromat. It’s been a while since I’ve used a laundromat, and it feels good to be back, with four full washers chugging away. I sit on a salmon-colored molded plastic chair with a borrowed camcorder on my lap, reading a booklet of instructions. Like every modern cornball fifty-year-old grandpa, I plan to have a movie of my granddaughter eating her first birthday cake, with chocolate all over her face.
         I wish I could make a movie of all the family stories that haunt me. Stories of the Hannahs in my life (my cousin, my sister, my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and now my granddaughter); of the Neils (my brother, my uncle, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great-grandfather, and (if you count middle names) dozens more, especially my son Morgan. The Mallons of my mother’s side, the Daniels of my father’s side, including my sons Ben and Morgan, and now this newest of the Daniels, Hannah.
         Meanwhile, I read the instructions and prepare to practice.
         My first movie, my maiden film, is a self-portrait. I sit on a salmon-colored molded plastic laundromat chair, my face hidden by a camcorder and framed by the round white window of a drier door which reflects me, and the camcorder lens reflects the reflection. The camcorder instruction manual lies open on an overturned plastic laundry basket before me, and behind me washing machines are lined up like the Rockettes. All around and through my face and head, against a background of black and white speckles, fly the clothes of my family like a dream: my wife’s traveling shorts and tee shirt, my son’s work pants, my daughter-in-law’s long dress, little Hannah’s pink ducky suit, and flights of angels I can’t identify as they whirl through my head: undershirts and undershorts, bikini briefs and bras, handkerchiefs and socks, and towels, towels, towels; and swimming in there with them are a crowd of Hannahs and Neils, Mallons and Daniels, fast-moving pictures of family long gone, far away, and present forever.


Although the official publication date won’t be till next Sunday, November 20, I already have received a box of my new novel, Behind the Redwood Door. It looks great, and I’m thrilled to hold it in my hands.

Announcement: I will be signing books this coming Thursday, November 18, at Northtown Books in Arcata, starting 7 p.m. Those of you within driving distance of Northtown Books already know how to find it. I hope to see you there!

For the rest of you, I invite you to check out my new book’s page on my website:


  1. Congratulations, John, and good luck with the new book.

    Pat Browning

  2. Beautifully written, John. I look forward to reading Behind the Redwood Door. (My first memory is of crawling in green grass and my mother calling my name.)

  3. Like you I have some recurring memories from mychildhood that I'm certain are untrue, but I also cherish them for the feelings they evoke in me. I look forward to reading your book. It's a great feeling to hold it in your hand, isn't it?

  4. Writing "Before I Forget" is an absolutely wonderful idea. As always, the sections you included here were beautifully written.
    We tend to take our memories for granted until someone in our lives begins to loose theirs, which I think is the saddest thing of all.
    On a happier note, congratulations on your novel! I actually thought it was out already and wondered why I couldn't find it on Amazon. Now I know!

  5. What a charming post. Good luck at your book signing. I do love your bookcover.

    I'm having trouble with blogspot, so you'll see me as anonymous.
    Jackie King

  6. Thanks to all of you for these kind comments. I feel strongly that we should record our memories, either accurately or embellished, so that others may know about what we've learned of life and love.

  7. I concur, John. Memories are like that. You've captured this one beautifully. Congratulations on the new book.

  8. Wonderful blog post and congratulations on the new book. I'm very much looking forward to reading it. Cheers, Beth

  9. Loved the blog, I'm trying to get the stories of my 95 year old Grammie's, before we lose her. I also hear that the stories, I remember are wrong too, but they are my memories. Congrats on the new book, looking forward to reading it too.

  10. One good thing about memories is that you can alter them with imagination and make them better.
    Best wishes for great success with BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR, and I hope you're good at folding clothes.

  11. Many thanks to all of you! And yes, Earl, I'm a whiz at folding clothes. Few things give me more pleasure than a load of clothes, hot and dry right out of the dryer.

  12. It seems like it took a long time to get this book into print, but then I remember we first talked about it at Bcon SF. I'm glad to be a part of Redwood Door and grateful our paths crossed in Santa Barbara so many years ago!

    And, look at you, blogging! How far you've come.

  13. Thanks for that piece of history! I can't wait to read the new book. Love, Morgan Neil Daniel.

  14. John we are so inspiring, thank you for this nugget of thankfulness. Great fortune on Behind the RedWood Door...augie (by the way, I love the smell of fresh clothes washing)

  15. Congratulations John,on Behind the Redwood Door. Sunny informed me that you were with Oak Tree Press now. I remember when we (Sunny, JoAnne, and I) pitched Valley Fever to you in Santa Barbara. Small world. Best of Success, Cora Ramos

  16. I do enjoy your writing, John. Some of my earliest memories keep me close to my mother, who has been gone quite a few years now. I think I'll keep them as true. Congrats on your book!