Thursday, January 8, 2015

Dreaming and Memoir

Recently, I had a version of a dream about my parents. In the dream my parents were alive. 
I have had many dreams over the years in which my parents (now deceased for decades) are alive. 
What was unusual in this dream is that we were having a conversation about the fact that neither of them died. It was all a misunderstanding. In the dream I was, like I am in real life now, working on a memoir. I was, as I am, writing about their deaths. 
However, there they were, alive in front of me. That's a bit of a problem, plot-wise.
My mother explained that my father never actually died. She said that rigor mortis is actually not that unusual a thing, even when someone is still alive. 
Happens all the time, she said, looks like death, when in fact they are still alive
I asked, So how is it possible that I - we both - thought he was dead even when he was alive? 
My subconscious didn't seem to have an answer for this. None was forthcoming from either my mother or father. But from what I recall, the basic jist is that somehow my father was put away somewhere. 
This was a common fantasy I had at 13 or 14 years old, in the immediate years after my father's death. During that time my mother was struggling with very serious depression, social anxiety, and alcoholism. She rarely left the house. It was a traumatic time: for me and for her. He was dead

Or was he? 
Here he was sitting in front of me. My mother said he was just gone for a little bit. He had to be in a special rehabilitation center or something like that and now he was back.  
How long have you been back? I asked.
And they both laughed.
Like it was the simplest thing in the world. Or like my subconscious didn't really have an answer to this very complicated question:
How are my parents suddenly alive when they have been dead for so long?

I spent a lot of the dream overwhelmed about how I was going to re-write my memoir, explaining that for so long I had thought my father was dead, when in fact he never died.
Yes, I, too, find this ironic.
And yet the fact that I believed that he had died had a huge effect on me, which matters in the memoir. This is a really significant issue in memoir: what happened versus what we believe/d happened. In my experience, what we believed at the time is just as significant as "the truth" (aka what "actually" happened) since our beliefs and the stories we tell are so powerful.

Here's the real-life thing overwhelms me in my memoir: my mother keeps changing as I write. 
When I first started writing this memoir many years ago my mother was the evildoer. She was always the perpetrator. As I presented my early versions to my first editor, she said: I see that the author is expressing that she loves her father but I don't actually feel the father. 

But it wasn't until I brought later revision to a group of my own students and started to work through with them that my mother started to really appear. Why? 
Because my students weren't buying it. 
My good students who have lots of training with me and also so much intelligence of their own  figured out that my mother was being treated as a one-dimensional character. They wanted more. So they demanded more. Where/when did this small child come up with a conclusion that her mother was bad and her father was good? When did I start to tell the story of my mother? When did it take on this characteristic? 

Because when I look at my journals from my teens, I see a much more complex understanding of my mother. And my journals were pretty honest. Was it after she died that my tune changed? What are all the stories I have told about her? When did I decide things were her fault?
The time with my mother immediately after my father's death was traumatic. However, in my mid-teens, Mom found her sanity. By then, I couldn't sense it, because I was still acting - reacting - from earlier trauma.

This is what I've been working with in my waking life.

So for my mother to approach me in a dream to tell me that my father never actually died starts to show me that all stories that I have told for a long time are up for question.

I struggled with chronic lying after my father died. It got so bad that my best friend at the time asked me: "Now that you've told me all of these things are actually lies, what I want to know is, did your father actually die?"

She didn't want to have to ask that question, but it was extremely powerful and fair. Next to all of the other things I had made up of the other mini and major traumas, it looked possible that my father's death was made up.

This dream in which my mother tells me that what I understood to be the truth at the time was not true, brings be back to that poignant point.

Writing memoir, despite with the reviews will tell you about James Frey, is much more complex than truth and lies. There's a huge amount of nuance. We have to spend time working for on our lives, so that we can understand when stories came about.

A story in our minds starts with the spark of something that happened: the story of my father's death started when he died. It started with something real.

This dream was a dream that helped me to ask what stories are the stories that need to be told?
How can I tell the complex story? How can I tell the story that is the real truth at least from this moment? What is the truth of this moment? And how can I find the story that embraces the space for all the truths that I've had in the 25 years since my father died? I can't just tell one story. That's impossible. However, I do have to write one book. So I need to find ways to make it possible for all of these truths, even though some of them were fictions at the time: things I told myself in order to survive.

In rereading Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Greeley, with my students recently, there's a question someone asked Lucy at a reading of her memoir.
"How did you remember all of that dialogue? How are you sure that it was right? Weren't you afraid of making a mistake?"
Lucy Greeley answered with great cheekiness: "I didn't remember it. I made it up. I'm a writer."

That's one extreme. To the other extreme is to try to be 100% absolutely faithful, like Frigyes Karinthy.

I aim for somewhere in the middle.*

What I am looking for is emotional truth.  I use various forms of dialogue and manners of fiction like many memoir writers now use, in order to try to depict that truth. My energy is best used looking to understand the truth as clearly and complexly as possible and then expressing that in a way that gets across.

This does not mean making my father die at a different age than he did, or making him not die at all. What it does mean is it some dialogue may not be exactly as it happened. In fact, I can guarantee it won't. However, to the best of my ability, it will have the feeling of that time and not just a feeling of whatever I remember now. Part of this comes from memory. Part if it comes from researching my own life, looking through journals I've written over the years.
In fact, I can see that I've been working on this memoir, especially the part about my father's death, since my father's death. In poems, in my mind, in journals and stories and essays and letters and emails. 

When people ask me, when I am done, "How long did it take you?" 
I will say: "It took me my whole life. I am still writing it."

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