Friday, March 15, 2013

How Can We Write Memoir With No Self?

Without Self, Chicago, February 2013

I can't believe I haven't asked this question before.

I mean, really. I've been writing non-fiction, predominantly memoir for years now and not once has that ever entered my mind. I have thought and written about related topics: how to write stories that open us instead of solidfying us (a great blog post by Susan Piver here on that topic, that leads to others' thoughts on it on their blogs). I've certainly contemplated Natalie Goldberg's maxim "You are not the writing," and visited upon my own identifying with/investing in my writing.

But late one night about a week ago, on the toilet (hey, that's where it happens sometimes) it hit me. I had been studying a lot of Buddhist teachings in preparation for AD training (an assistant director for Shambhala Training), a further meditation instructor authorization. Lots of teachings on emptiness (which is actually fullness) and no-self (which is actually to say that we are all connected/the same, ultimately). 

And it hit me like a truck - how can I write about myself if my self doesn't exist?

The answer is multi-fold, and a crux point for this blog all around. I am a Buddhist teacher who also teaches writing, so the answers, as I hope to keep exploring them, are going to be Buddhist-bent. For me, that also means good, clear, strong writing. I certainly don't think you have to be a Buddhist to be a good writer. However, the teachings of Buddhism certainly have a lot to offer to help keep writing fresh, clear and strong.

As we write our stories, I will simply say for now, we can notice whether or not we are using them to pin us down ("THIS is who I am,") or to explore/open/lean into the groundlessness of what it means to be a person - constantly changing, never secure, never sure. Writing memoir from the POV of "all-knowing future self" is not only annoying and unskillful, it is also not truthful.
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem 

I'd say more than that - if we can really experience/direct compassion towards those "former selves" then we can truly be here in the life we are living now.

When I was younger, I sure loved looking back on my journals. I'd be like, "Oh yeah. I have matured so much since then!" Until I realized, some time in my twenties, that I'd always be able to say later that I "figured that all out," which means I never have it all figured out. I became mortified, instead, of my journals, as signs reminding me how very human I am.

Now, I try to be grateful as often as I can for that very same information. I want raw humans writing in my classes, and I want to be one myself. I want to read them.

So let's work together with this seeming paradox: 

writing the stories of the self that does not exist. 

Like an Aesop's fable. Only this one isn't fixed - it's always in progress.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Dignity of True Self-Expression

"OP N" Chicago February 2013
I am studying to become a meditation instructor - I am one already, but one that maintains longer-term relationships with meditation students. I have a program this weekend, so I have been cramming on dharma in preparation for "exams" and other assessment tools coming up.

This morning, I read this passage in Chogyam Trungpa's guide for Shamatha instructors. While this is a limited text, this passage does not impart anything secretive, so I believe I can share it. It connects in really well with the ongoing conversation here regarding the role of "confession" in memoir:
A lot of people fall into the trap of confessionalism. You begin to tell people how bad you were, how terrible the trauma was that you have gone through..You feel the students will think you are an honest guy, and you have vomited everything you have to vomit. Somehow this seems to be very deceptive in some sense; it builds you up, showing how honest a person you are.. (This is not very dignified).. You are comparing notes between two people in jail, and somehow that doesn't seem to be the point..Obviously there should be first-hand experience exchanged, but at the same time one shouldn't indulge that particular style of winning someone's confidence. That's a double twist of some kind -- that purity and at the same time a lot of personality trips are involved.
-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Manual for Shamatha Instructors
I like that - "the trap of confessionalism" and "you have vomited everything you have to vomit." I have spoken here before about the importance of not hiding important details - how the readers know when the writer has not shared important information, can feel the lack or the lie. And yet, if we have some idea that by sharing it all we have fulfilled a role for the reader, we have sorely missed out on nuance and respect.