Monday, December 17, 2012


Graffiti in a country highway tunnel, rural Vermont
 Processing our own "issues" is an invaluable part of writing memoir. It may not be true to fiction, though some would argue it is (see Alice Miller's The Body Never Lies) or non-fiction, but beyond a doubt, what we have not "worked on" will show itself in our writing in memoir.

In my blog post Confession Vs Expression, I began parsing out this distinction in published work. But published work has so many factors at play - more than I can parse out, though I plan to do so on this blog with published memoirists: editing process, the size of the press, etc.

So I want to now, and also in the future, use some very raw and fresh examples from my writing classes. Just last week, one popped up. It's a perfect piece to read and discuss, as we did in class, and as I will do here.
The student who wrote this piece (which has not been edited) is a long-term student. The peak of the piece, her description of turning to dust, is an incident she has not processed in therapy or even  thought about for years. But when a prompt on family came up, that dust image popped right up and its vividness told her she needed to write about it.

This student, who has processed a lot of her stuff over many decades of therapy, writing practice and meditation, has worked on the issues surrounding this memory: her mother's language with her and restricted ideas of who she should be; the shame around not knowing how to accept someone being angry with her, etc. It is that processing that made me believe, when she read the piece, that this memory had come up before - I said "Surely you've written about this memory before?"
"No. I haven't."
I smiled.
"But you've worked on these issues a lot."
"Yes. I have."

Without further ado, I offer the piece. I offer this not as a piece to be critiqued - this is very fresh for the student and she may not even edit it into "something" later. I offer it for you to witness what the mind of someone who has processed a lot of their own schlock (as my father would have called it), and yet, is fresh and open to experiences and has not tried to hunt it all down, looks like. Reads like. It's a beautiful piece of writing, but also, equally importantly, we can really see where surprise, even almost confession (the shame of that dust moment still stung her when she read it) balances out with a grounded understanding of what was really going on.


It seemed such an obvious distinction.  At home every moment of joy and laughter carried the expectation it would be followed by chaos, anger and violence and certainly criticism or judgment.  At my step-grandmother’s and grandfather’s in those summers in Wyoming there was no expectation of judgment or criticism.  Every word and action was as it was with no shadow behind it waiting to jump out.  A space was created in my mind.  A space to linger over a mountain pass, watching whatever chose to pass by.  An eagle, a mother moose and her young, a grouse.  No worry that something was other than what I saw and heard in front of me.

When grandma Ella asked what I wanted for breakfast she really wanted to know.  It wasn’t a test of my judgment about food choices.  When she said “Let’s go shopping for a new blouse,” I knew she wanted to actually shop for me.  It was not an event filled with the dread of fitting a chubby daughter in ready-made clothes. 

I got used to the feeling of not second-guessing words and actions.  I stopped editing my words and thoughts, stopped checking first to attune to grandma Ella’s mood before answering.
But one day I did or said something.  I think I was 11 or 12.  I don’t remember what I said or did.  But grandma Ella was upset with me and she said so to me and a neighbor who was at the house.  I had no experience with a person expressing displeasure and then moving on, forgiveness easily given after hearing a sincere apology. 

I heard a shadow grandma Ella I had never heard nor seen.  I ran out of the house, hid behind an unused cabin and dissembled.  I hated her, I hated me, I wanted to hit myself, die to hurt her for hurting me.  I wanted to cry but the anger in my head burned the air and caused a drought in my eyes and heart, cracking both as they turned to dust.

I was gone, gone to dust, fiery dust.

The shock of it, the letting my guard down, the letting myself believe she was perfect and could never hurt me.  If this could happen with her then no one was safe, no one was free of the willingness to strip me of my defenses and aim for the spot more likely to crumble.

How had I lived so long with the belief it was all one way or the other?  How did I keep it going?  I looked for it and saw it wherever I was.  It was a defining frame for who was who.  My mother would complain that when I liked someone I spoke of them as if they were perfect.  I oversold them.  “No one is perfect,” she would say.  Then why did I feel I had to be perfect, I would occasionally ask.  “It’s my job to make you better than you are,” she told me.  “Then why do I feel like I’m worse than the lowest being around you?” I eventually asked.  “It gives you incentive to be better,” she would say.

Grandma Ella never even had such thoughts.  She wouldn’t have understood them.  One of 13 children in the Depression, her father committed suicide and her mother took in two cousins to live with them. There was no time to see other than what was in front of her, to believe the laughter when it arose, the tears when they fell.  It was never because someone was bad or good but because they were human and memorized Irish poets and dirty songs and drank cheap beer and didn’t mind making a fool of themselves.

I couldn’t have understood all that then.  She was my mother’s step-mother, not my blood family.  Her family life was not mine and her sight of how humans worked was not passed on to me. 
I had judged her human act of being mad at an 11 year old with the eyes of my family, not hers.

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