I have also been thinking about the issue of writing about subtle things in memoir.
Usually *what* has happened in a person's life is what sells - and compels - memoir.
It's about a particular theme, about a specific event.
Generally, it is understood that the more "literary" a memoir is, the less "drama-seeking" it is. For instance, memoir based on dramatic lives, by people like James Frey or Augusten Burroughs - is often juxtaposed against the more "writing for writing's sake" memoir of Paul Auster or Vladamir Nabakov.
Regardless of whether or not a memoir is big on events or more on the language or psychology, we still need subtlety. This means small memories and details, minor scenes, focusing on the mundane, even within a dramatic moment of revelation. It also means making those parts so exciting that instead of making us tap our feet while waiting for the next big scene, we are juicily captured into every moment, regardless of dramatic weight.
Often students struggle with writing the big, hard stuff. The things they have never told anyone - the process of writing around it, again and again until they can write it, then write it clean. It's a powerful, spinning and struggling process, and one I have watched again and again. But then what? You get that nugget polished and it covers just a few pages. What you thought your story was - to be frank - is barely anything. Not enough for a memoir.
Here are two student writings that do a wonderful job of talking about something incredibly subtle and mundane, while totally universal: sleep.
They have different writing styles, and yet both strike important chords - details, minutiae, a feeling of being in their bodies with their small struggles and joys. Both also completely followed their minds - letting the free-association of a dream-like state carry them through the non-story story they were telling. Both also show us strong senses of place - sleepscapes and mindscapes that really carry us into their experience.
If either were writing longer memoirs, these hidden messages from beyond would make for wonderful writing that could layer the subtleties and build to whatever larger climaxes the "plot" of their stories contain. Resistance and control are also huge themes that arose in everyone's writings on sleep last week. Powerful threads to fit into any main plot in memoir.
This kind of writing - about the almost-nothing of sleep - is totally crucial for any good memoir.
Both writings are relatively unedited - excerpted "fresh and hot" from the page right after they wrote them, upon my insistence. Enjoy.
Counting the hours between turning out the light and falling asleep. Counting the different ways I can solve the problem of restless legs or restless nerve endings, or hyper-alert nerves. Counting the different kinds of pills in the dresser drawer that might solve the problem on this particular night. Most were prescribed for something else – a pharmacist’s nightmare: my own little pharmacy in my bedroom.
Some of those pills have been around for years. But each time the problem arises, it feels a little different, so I might choose half of this or half of that. Usually only half, and I will take it with a mug of herb tea in the possibly mistaken belief that the hot liquid will make the pill dissolve faster and enter my bloodstream sooner. What do I know about the bloodstream?
There was a stream at the end of the lane on the farm where I grew up. It was across the road. The spring was on our side, next to the lane, but the water drained into a culvert under the dirt road and began its meandering journey on the other side. We called it a crick. There were three- or four-foot banks on either side, and right there where the culvert opened up, the water made a little pool where we would sometimes crouch or hunker (little kids can hunker) and dig around in the water with sticks or whatever was at hand. We might look for aquatic life, but I don’t think we found much. As the stream wandered along beside the road, at the edge of a cow pasture, it got thinner and thicker, the banks in some places grassy and lush. As it curved away from the road further down, it gradually dried up. Walking along the stream bank, we had to watch out for cow pies, but we were good at that.
I don’t think my bloodstream is anything like that stream back home. For one thing, if I’m not mistaken, my bloodstream somehow makes a complete loop – away from my heart and toward my heart, pumping at an even pace, through every part of my body, all the way around the horn and back again. It doesn’t lead away from the spring, only to dry up at some distant place, say at the tip of my big toe.
Sleep. My best medicine. I have never had much control over sleep when it comes - it moves into me, the slow heavy tide of sleepiness, and I need to lie down, soon. In some ways this has been a loss - I remember the heartbreak of waking up on the 5th of July when I was 9 years old, only to realize I’d missed the fireworks. “But you promised to wake me!” I wailed to my mother - who replied gently, “I tried, sweetie.” Or the first time a boyfriend introduced me to his friends - a bunch of late night punks, rolling in for a potluck that didn’t start at 8, or 9, or even 10 p.m....they chatted with each other while the chips grew soft, the salads congealed, and I fell asleep on the couch.
But there is s part of me which resists sleep too, growing anxious when evening ripens, uncertain of how to cross the threshold from day to night. Suddenly I have a second wind; it is time to think about the future; certainly, now, I must accomplish and plan.
The resistance is one I recognize: it appears in similar fashion before I sit and practice; before I take a bath; before I make any direct request of myself to slow down, check in, arrive in my body. Like a small child raging against a nap, I war, some, with my own need for this somatic stillness. I fight to stay in the more comfortable remove of my mind, where no surrender is necessary; where I am still at the helm of my life, plotting its course in linear, mental fashion.
But other times it is just the opposite. My mind is a beast on speed, a voracious jet plane, an all-consuming, all-destroying, very busy, hellish land where there is no shade and no place to rest. And I find myself longing for the open ocean, that salty sea of sleep or almost sleep, where I drift, relax, surrender. It is there that I know things.
There that the currents make a pattern I can live in, one I could never create, but which finds and carries me. The fresh air soothes me. I know I will die and it’s ok. It’s ok to waste half my life in sleep, to do nothing, to be more interested in the messages of my dreams than those on the answering machine.
- kika panaitescu