An archeologist recently found a shoe that dates back to 5500 B.C. Reading about it in the NYTimes, I couldn’t help but smile at the journalist who had to wonder who wore this shoe, what kind of life did he or she lead, what was their culture like, why was this item carefully filled with grass and set within a burial cave? All these questions from a leather shoe with broken and repaired laces. Archeological references are apt when speaking of memoir. A flash of memory, an old photo, a conversation around the dinner table, or a Thanksgiving family gathering, and voila! memoir is being articulated.
Some of us, though, whose natural position is either pen in hand or fingers bent over a keyboard, take those nuggets, those snapshots of memory and imagination, and need to turn them into story. We need to take the anecdotes, the characters, the situations, the culture and the specifics of history and find a thread of meaning, a connection, an overriding narrative to weave through our lives so we can perceive more of the whole, so we can argue against theories of randomness and anarchy in our own history.
It all ties together. Processed through our filters, our language, our various talents, we create something new with memoir. Not quite a transcript of history, but an interpretation of history, an annotated version, if you will, of a life.
But, it comes at a price.
A friend of mine, a writer who has produced some beautiful pieces of her life in a West Virginia coal mining community, wrote in answer to my question on the price of memoir: The short answer is that writing memoir was harder than anything I've ever done as well as more fulfilling. I was totally unprepared for the emotional toll it exacted because, after all, I wrote mostly happy memories. Didn't matter. It like to have killed me - and I'm not over-dramatizing this. Well, maybe a little..
After a few essays of the memoir variety of mine were published something happened to me. I was nearly mute in writing. I struggled for words. I’d sit and try to write and so little would come, just notes and thoughts and threads that I couldn’t follow. I thought I’d try my hand at fiction, so I would have a different kind of freedom, a different set of rules of structure and form and creativity. Again, I stalled.
I think some part of me was shutting down, telling me that I had said too much, that I need to pull back, retreat. I became rather reclusive.
I closed down much of my life, my contacts with people. I pulled away, pulled in. Only recently, after three years, I am emerging from this retreat and stepping back into the world, finding my voice again.
When all is said and done, hopefully, memoir can be an exercise in forgiveness, in understanding, and in love.