Burning moments and magical thinking in our memoirs

It turned out that I led the memoir workshop: Telling Healing Stories How to Write A Compelling Memoir on my own at the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference last Friday. Thankfully I had the material prepared, so when my workshop mate didn’t show up, I just waded right in. I discussed the four aspects of all good literature: plot, theme, structure, and voice and gave the group a list of universal themes (which I’ll discuss in a future post).

magicalI also explained how the plot is made up of a series of events or as they have been called burning moments. For example, the disposition of clothes and possessions of a loved one who has died is a huge burning moment. In one of my favorite memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes in meticulous detail the items in the plastic bag she brings home from the hospital after her husband died. She says,

¦I remember combining the cash that had been in his pocket with the cash in my own bag, smoothing the bills, taking special care to interleaf twenties with twenties, tens with tens, fives and ones with fives and ones. I remember thinking as I did this that he would see that I was handling things.

(An example of her magical thinking that he would come back to see.)

In my book I describe my first step in the disposition of my son’s clothes four months after he died. This burning moment in my story showed that I was beginning to heal.

I read both those passages at the workshop and then asked the folks to write about one burning moment in their lives that could go into their memoirs. Afterward they had the opportunity to share their writing with all of us. I felt so gratified that almost all of the people in the room (a total of eighteen) were willing to read their work.

During the question and answer period at the end a time that I like the most because everything said is off the cuff one person asked the meaning of the title of my book. It  relates to Didion’s book as well it’s an example of my magical thinking.

What does the title Leaving the Hall Light On mean?

At first I believed my magical thinking that if I left the hall light on, if we didn’t move away from our house, if we didn’t change

Original cover

Original cover

our telephone number, Paul would know how to make his way back. Paul would know we were still here waiting for him. For a long time I waited for that familiar sound of his Volvo coming into the garage, the sound of the door from the garage slamming as he entered the house and went down the hall to his room, the sound of him walking around the house at night, the sound of the door opening and closing as he went in and out of the house. In fact, for a while I thought I heard those sounds. I also left most of the things in his room and closet alone for fear of removing his presence there. For a long time I refused to give away his things in case he would need them when he came back.

Once those sounds in my imagination and my magical thinking fell away, my need to keep the hall light on became another one of the things that helped me get through my grief. We left the hall light on for him when he was home. I just couldn’t break that routine.

And while that was all going on my husband Bob and I had a push-me, pull-you interaction about it. Bob had a habit of turning off all the lights before he went to bed. Since he usually went to bed after me, I would wait until he got into bed. Then I’d get up and turn on the hall light again. Sometimes we’d go back and forth on this several times in one night. If he forgot his glass of water he’d get up and turn the light off again. If he needed a certain vitamin from the kitchen cabinet, he’d get up, go into the kitchen to get what he needed, and then go down and turn the light off again on his way back to bed. And, if I fell asleep before him, I’d wake in the middle of the night and go back down to turn the light on once more.

Once in a while I’d ask him to leave it on. If he asked why, I’d give him the lame excuse that I needed a light on to guide me through the house when I left to go to the gym in the dark of the early morning. Sometimes he’d buy that. Most of the time he’d forget and turn off the light.

Gradually though, say in the last three, four years, leaving the hall light on has become less and less important. That I can leave it off night after night means I am continuing to heal and that I am over the magical thinking stage of my grieving process.


  1. Thanks for sharing this post. I am glad that you are continuing to heal. I felt your heartbreak while reading your memoir. I hope that my memoir on mental illness can be in the same league as yours : D and help people also.

    I’ll have to pick up The Year of Magical Thinking and give it a read.

    • Madeline Sharples says:

      Thanks for being here, Sebastian. I look forward to reading your memoir – your blog writing is great. All best,

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