Tuesday, August 11, 2015

You Are Not Your Memoir

Sunday afternoon on Canal St. Martin, Paris, 2015

Here's the super tricky thing about memoir. Your readers, should you have any, are subject to the same problem that you are as the writer: they believe that you are your story. I am not talking about telling the truth here, or not in some explicit way. I am not saying that you can lie about how you lived, or mis-tell it deliberately, and scoff it off by saying that's just how you remember it. I am talking about something far more subtle - that the act of writing itself can convince us that this is it, the story for real, the final telling, and that it does not change at all and this is in fact the facts.

Natalie Goldberg addresses this in a passage from Writing Down the Bones. It's about poems, but you know it can be about anything, especially about memoir...
It is very painful to become frozen in your poems...the real life is in writing, not in reading the same ones over and over again for years..we don't exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don't identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.
-from We Are Not the Poem by Natalie Goldberg
It's a misunderstanding of memoir to think that how we write this/these story/stories is how it all went down. The truth. That we can finally find the truth. This is not only impossible, it is impractical. In fact, we could all write memoir about certain eras of our lives again and again, never quite getting the truth. Why? 

Because we changed then, and we change now, and hopefully, the writing itself changes us.

A great way to communicate feeling in writing is to describe one's physical experience. I encourage students who, for instance, spent a lot of their young lives numb to the sensations in their bodies (especially people who were sexually abused early on) to use sensations they have now and put them into their bodies then. Often they will say to me, "But I am not sure I felt that, then." To which I reply, "If you feel it now, likely you felt it then. You just weren't aware that you felt it then." Our lack of awareness of sensations early on in life does not mean that we weren't having sensations. It just means that in all the excitement or trauma they didn't register. And if you write your story as a story of numbness, with only the thought level on the page, then the writing will be flat and only communicate a telling of your story, not a showing.

What if you feel that is a contradiction? What if you aren't 100% sure that is the "truth"? If you want 100% sure, write fiction. Write a world you can fully control. Better yet, don't write at all - you can't even control a fictional world. Again, I am not supporting outright lying in explicitly non-fiction work. But especially when it comes to subtleties of expression, we have to allow for contradiction.
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
-from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman
In the end, we have to understand that even a finished, published, read and accepted version of our lives is not our actual lives. The map is not the territory. And it is possible - likely, in fact - that people will take this narrative as the tale of "who you are." This is just an extension of the natural way that humans stop at narrative and give it all our belief and worth. It's a fault, and a short cut. A beautiful downfall - because narrative would mean nothing if we didn't give it so much creedance. If writing memoir teaches you anything, let it teach you this: there is no one way to tell a story, no one truth. Even non-fiction. Maybe especially non-fiction.
All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
-from The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Adichie 
No matter how you write it, fiction or non-fiction, if you publish your work or share it with others, they will see it as you. They will decide you are the novel, the poem, the memoir. You cannot control that. But you can do your best to make sure your writing is subtle, has room for contradiction, does not allow for someone to come to these conclusions easily. And as you read, listen to, think of others' stories, you can relax around stereotypes and easily-won conclusions. Knowing it is all incomplete. Always. Can never be complete.

A story - even a non-fiction memoir story - is never a full representation of a life, or even a portion of a life. 

Never can be. 

That's the pitfall of narrative. 

But it has its own life. 
And that's its beauty.

No comments:

Post a Comment