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Memoir Madness

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MEMOIR MADNESS

The good news is, today I wrote almost 1,300 words. I know that’s not much compared to the over-achieving masses who will participate in National Novel Writing Month in November, dashing off 1,667 words every day for 30 days in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel. But it’s pretty good for me. Yesterday was only 500 words, and it was crap.

The bad news is, only about 350 of today’s words have the slightest chance of contributing to my final word count because I went on a 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum (about which I will tell you), and because I got mired in shame.

The downside of searching for patterns and themes in your life is that when you find them — or they find you — they may not be the lovely themes and patterns you had imagined were the narrative of your life. Alarmingly, my redemptive spiritual coming-of-age story seems to be all about shame and secrecy. Mind you, neither “shame” nor “secrecy” appear anywhere in my chapter outlines (such as they are), yet every scene leads me there.

I knew that the alcoholic father/enabling mother business would produce a few sentences on shame, but when your alcoholic father is also an undercover CIA agent in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, the secrets can multiply quickly. Next thing you know, you’re writing about stealing your friend’s stuffed mouse, and your sister’s souvenir coin, and the shiny set of keys dangling from the door of the shiny new Dodge at the dealership, and you’re thinking, “This isn’t what my memoir is about.”

So then you take a break from your memoir and you draft a blog post about shame, which you start thinking is not half-bad, and so you begin revising and playing with words and researching outlets that might publish something like that, but while you are doing this, you remember that last spring you were working on a piece for the New York Time’s Modern Love column and so you find that and start revising it, and then you are googling your dead ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and so you stop.

At some point, I also searched “shame” in my blog archives and discovered that I’ve written 59 separate posts that at least mention it. This makes 60. I may soon have to acknowledge its existence.

Now about that 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum: As an ethical memoirist, if someone told you a story when you were a child and you have always believed it to be true but then you find out it’s not technically true, actually not even close, can you still use the story without fessing up that it’s not true after all? If everyone involved is long dead? I’m asking for a friend, of course.

And – BAM! Another 482 words, done.

 

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Memoir Misery

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I keep reminding myself, I did this on purpose. I am sequestered at my solitary little house in New Hampshire for a month; whole days pass with no human contact except an occasional text message that’s somehow made its way over the rivers and through the woods to my grandmother’s house.

I am here to write, or at least to think about writing. I also had dreams of repairing broken windowpanes and painting mildew-pocked walls, but once I got here I realized that a month isn’t that long after all. I do need to find a way to keep the chipmunks from bringing all their belongings through the broken attic window and settling in for the winter, but otherwise, writing is enough.

More than enough, it seems. I’ve been messing about with this memoir for years and have now promised myself that by the end of this month, I will either have found the themes, patterns, and connections that give my life meaning, or I will stop pretending that I’m writing a memoir. Grandiose, right? Perhaps I need to narrow my scope a bit. (I’ve always loved an existential crisis.)

The Grand Endeavor

I’ve been reading books about writing memoir and I’ve been reading memoirs and I’ve been reflecting on memories. I’m not certain what type of memoir this is trying to be, but it has elements of coming-of-age and of a spiritual journey — and it’s hard to ignore my struggle with addiction. All of which require mining the past for often-painful memories.

This is why I’ve been here five days and only yesterday put pen to paper.

As Sven Birkerts says in his brilliant book, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, “The memoirist writes, above all else, to redeem experience, to reawaken the past, and to find its pattern; better yet {s}he writes to discover behind bygone events a dramatic explanatory narrative.”

Think about that. It’s kind of overwhelming!

Especially when you consider Virginia Woolf’s theory that what makes certain memories stand out is that they have in some way shocked our systems. So when you write memoir, you are nudging long-buried “shocks” back to the fore. Woolf, though, saw great value in this. “The shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it . . . it is or will become a revelation of some order.”

Her philosophy, she says, is that behind everything “is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the world is a work of art.” (This is a fine example of the universality that writers seek: Woolf called herself an atheist, yet this Jesus follower completely tracks with her philosophy of life.)

The Challenge Ahead

So here I sit, swinging from Virginia Woolf’s soaring philosophy to the more practical considerations of “Chapter One.” In their user-friendly book, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers, authors Myers and Warner lay out a step-by-step process of building a memoir. The first step is to identify turning points in your life, important “moments of change” that provide the hooks for your story. They may seem clearly significant, or they may not. You start by brainstorming freely.

The first turning point that came to my mind? The day I discovered my tiny toad Sally’s pale legs sticking out of my big toad Fred’s mouth and I chose to extricate her despite my poor mother standing behind me shrieking, “Melanie don’t, Melanie don’t!”

So you see what I’m working with here.

(To learn Sally’s fate, you have to buy the book. It should be out in about a decade.)

Women on Fire

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I could spend the day watching the last flickers of decency and integrity vanish from the Congress, but I choose not to. I spent enough time doing that last week.

Now the GOP has decided their best strategy for stacking the Supreme Court with extremists is to mock victims of attempted rape and other sexual abuse and to rally their voting base by stoking more fear and anger: “Your son’s lives will be ruined by fiery feminists making up sexual abuse charges!! No male is safe!!”

I need to step away from the screen.

Instead of watching my country circling the drain, I will do the laundry, wash the dishes, and clean the bathtub. I’ll do what I can to clear away the dirt from my immediate surroundings because at this particular moment, I can do nothing about the filth that floods the Capitol and the White House.

I say “at this particular moment” because November 6th is coming. If you, like me, have been overwhelmed this week by friend’s stories of sexual attacks, or if you, like me, are a survivor yourself, the thought of election day is never far from your mind. Whether or not you generally pray, you are praying now. Praying that somehow the “angels of our better nature” can pull America out of this spiral. November 6th will tell.

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.”

Well, ladies, we are on fire.

I pray that the intense pain, anger, and grief burning in the hearts of so many American women will not be extinguished by despair, but instead will burst into flames of tireless community activism and political engagement at every level. 

The radical misogyny of the GOP couldn’t be any more clear, beginning with the admitted sexual predator in the White House. The politicians need to hear us loud and clear. Regardless of your party affiliation, it’s time to call your nearest Democratic headquarters. Ask how you can help. Don’t sit this one out. 

Photo Credit: APA/Getty Image, circa 1920

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