Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Single Stories

Chicago Bean, March 2013
"So, you know what I am going to ask, right?" the reader to my right asks me.
"Sure," I answer.
"Why so much animosity towards your mother and so much affection for your father?"
"Honestly? I don't know."
This is this last Sunday, at a memoir critique group I run with some of my students.

I thought I had the answer. For a long time, throughout my teens, at least. After my mom died, I was so certain of my anger, of the solidity of my struggle with her, that I never questioned it until a month-long meditation retreat in my mid-twenties made me realize I actually missed her. Was sad about her death, not just angry.

When I began writing my memoir about childhood and sexuality, about family and relationships and intimacy (Bermuda Triangles), I found it as simple as describing her physically. Ditto my father. My editor at the time said "I am not buying it. She loves her dad but I don't see any reason why."
"But doesn't every little girl adore her dad?"
"Not all of them. And that's not reason enough. You have to show us why SHE does."
That lead to a lot of unpeeling, unveiling of all kinds of mixed feelings about my father, who died when I was 12, that I didn't even know I had.

Now I am there with my mother. Last week was her 72nd birthday, or would have been, were she still alive. Her best friend from elementary school posted on my wall that she misses my mom sometimes so much she could scream. I replied that I do, too. That's a big deal - wanting to see my mom, wishing she were still alive. The older I get, the more I feel I understand her, and the less I am sure that I really disliked her that much.

This all gets filed under "the danger of a single story" - the personal aspect of a wonderful TED talk that Chimamanda Adichie gave a couple of years ago. It's a fantastic talk, and one that is easily applied to memoir writing. I am not, of course, the only person in this situation - a few of my students are struggling with the same thing: Why is it that *your* mother doesn't appear at all in your memoir?  If you didn't in fact hate *your* father your whole childhood, then what? How *did* you get to be so independent at such a young age?

I dare say that most memoirs written, published, emphasis a single story. Isn't that, after all, what we are writing the memoir for? To tell a story? *A* story? Not many stories or paradoxical feelings or exploring something answerless. And yet, that's what our stories actually are. They aren't neatly tied up or answered. Writing memoir should make us more aware that the stories we've told, while they have been our truth for a long time and therefore do have *an* effect on us, are not the "only truth".

I am not even talking about objective truth here - what "really" happened - as if any of us can really find that out thirty years later. No, I am talking about the multiple truths of how we feel about things at different eras and ages. If I believed that I hated my mom for a fair span of my adolescence, then, whether or not I actually did, that story carries a lot of weight. That single story is true, in a sense, and yet, is not the whole truth. When I look back into journals and writings, the Family Circle cartoons she left me as a way of trying to communicate humor, I see moments of affection and connection between us. I even read, from time to time, "I love my mom." Even though I seemed to block out such complexity at the time, it did exist. And that is what I want to write.

So maybe the reason why I can't explain the utter animosity in my story towards my mom - not now, now I have compassion, but in the mind of the child I am depicting - the reason why I can't explain the total boundless affection towards my father - again, not now, now tempered by reality, but of the child then - has less to do with "forgetting something" and more to do with remembering things - and realizing that the single story I am prone to telling first isn't the actual story at all.

Maybe it would make a better sale if I were to set up that dichotomy: good cop, bad cop. Dualistic. Nice and clean. But it's completely unreal. And my inability to write it that way in a believable way does not mean I am doing a bad job. It means I am so bound to the truth that I cannot tell a single story, though I told it in my mind for decades. It's time to uncover the real stories. The ones I find writing that I never realized I knew all along.

Even if this memoir never gets published, it's been a hell of a process. Hard. Very hard. And also healing beyond belief: not because I am "finally telling" stories that need telling. No. Quite the opposite. Because I realize those stories I've been hiding aren't the real story. Maybe that's why I hid them for so long - if others read them I knew they'd say "I am not buying this," in the most loving way, just as my critique group is saying now.

1 comment:

  1. What really caught my interest here is the bit about writing one story instead of many when writing a memoir. I think this is the single biggest inhibitor of writing mine. I just have too many, and too many different ones, to really create a coherent piece of writing. That, and the fact that, other than you, I may not be brave enough to share them. Deep respect.