Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Three Stages of Mindful Memoir

One of the trickiest aspects of memoir is how to turn an aspect of your life into a story - something with a beginning, a middle, and an end; something with plot and conflict; something that will hook the reader and keep them invested. Without it, you are recounting, and that may work at dinner parties, but it won't work for memoir-length work.

Unless you are writing down memories for family (see my post on memoir versus memoirs), and not looking to publish at all, or share other than for the record, this kind of building, engaging, communicating, and directing requires outside help (tester readers, if not editor(s)).

It is in the mirror of other readers where we often run into the gap between what we experienced and what we express - all the way from, "But that's how it happened" to "I can't express it any other way." 

Memoir, by definition, uses the structures and teachings of fiction to shape fact into stories that will pull people along like fiction. We have to take anecdotes, stories we've told, beliefs we've had - subconscious and conscious - and shape them into a narrative, a flow with direction and feeling. We cannot simply lay out the facts and hope others will put two and two together.

This gap between experiencing and expressing is an issue for all humans, in all forms of communication, much less art. How do you take what you are feeling, thinking, what you have experienced, sensed, and turn it into something others can understand? 

There are three stages:

First, there's the issue of inner translation - putting your own inner experience or personal experience into some kind of expression. To simply dream of it, to think about it a lot, doesn't actually express it. This is often the first, and most painful-feeling, risk - to put words or images, paint or pen to what you know for yourself to be true. Unless you have a lot of experience with this first major gap (which Ann Patchett describes as a form of killing), this can be enough to keep you from expressing. It's the part of the practice of making we focus on the most in writing practice, contemplative writing, and other mindful arts that slow down our approach and help us to find a way through the perilous space between idea and actualization.

Then, there's being willing to - and able to - get a clear look at what you have made, in sketch or first draft form. This is also quite difficult, and a place where it's easy to convince yourself what you have expressed works because it is exactly what you experienced. But expression isn't experience - its trying to invoke that experience for someone else. This is where we need others to tell us their experience - kindly, hopefully, since this is still somewhat early on. This is where we get easily discouraged - after all, we did all the hard, scary work of expressing, and still, still it doesn't seem to work yet? Why bother? Why keep going?

Because, finally, if we can take in helpful feedback and turn around, this then becomes the next stage, which is where we can really grow. We can use the process of memoir not just to express, but also to enlarge our understanding, to actually bring what you experience now, in your life, with others input, to bear on what you experienced then. It's a bit of an endless stage - it may result in a finished book or not, it may result in definite completion or just exploration - but it's where the depth really lives.

For instance, in this post I talk about how in the process of writing memoir, my understanding of my mother has changed completely. And that was nearly three years ago - I can tell you it has changed even more since then. This is a good thing - and not just because previously I was caught in a younger version of single story blame - it is growth and a dynamic relationship to her (and myself), even after death and loss.

The fact is, whether you hope one day your grandchildren will read your story (memoirs) or you hope to be a NYT bestseller (memoir), there are no guarantees as to how your story will be received. The most important part is how you work with it, and allowing yourself to grow and change, find surprises and insights as you go along. Otherwise it is rote transcription, and will feel that flat on the page. That way, even if you never get famous (and so few of us will) or even published, you have gained the most important gift possible out of writing/creating: growth, insight, connection.

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