The Grudge: On the Journey of Writing Memoir
July 29, 2014 § 47 Comments
By Allison K Williams
I am still married. My friend is still my friend. My lover is still my lover, and then he is not. Scroll up, and we are paying bills, or shopping, or sneaking around. Scroll down, we are fighting, or consoling each other on unhappy affairs, or breaking up over another woman. Zoom out, past the glow of the screen and my fingers on the keyboard, and all of it’s gone. I am in another life.
Now, I sort out themes and carefully choose incidents for a better sense of tension—tension! My God, there was tension!—my temporal continuity notes in all-caps, places to fill in more details highlighted yellow, the color of cowardice. I stall on a section for days, I don’t want to go there. I write forward instead, discover what should be in the past, what is missing from the path, and put it there. Cut-and-paste, so much easier than living it, so much scarier to revisit in words that route that thrilled me when I didn’t know what lay ahead.
Memoir is a rare country. Making the map of personal experience, writing the guide that says, This was five stars and everyone should do it. Don’t waste your time on that, is not unlike rappelling. The more control you have, the less compelling it becomes. The straight guidebook, detached, evaluative, arranged by area or chronology, is a dry thing (I snorted once, “‘Enjoy Chowpatty’s sights but don’t eat the vendors’ food?’ What is this, Fodor’s Travel For Scared Old White People?”). And yet the writer must never lose the rope entirely—the ramblings of a diary are indecipherable, plotless, sans perspective. Only your little sister wants to break the lock and see.
The middle trail is perilous. Step here, where you cannot see the path. Let go of the safety tether. Pack thoroughly, by all means, but remember that the beginning of the Appalachian Trail is scattered with cast-iron frying pans, winter-weight parkas, packets of extra food. Too heavy. Unneeded on the journey—until crisis, when the memory of your preparations must buoy you through the tangle of knowing not just how you felt, but what happened.
You must grudge to write memoir. If things had turned out exactly right, as your due, there would be no story to tell. You must know that you grudge, and that here, unlike your diary, you are probably not a hero (If you are a hero, let someone else write you). You earn the right to write the pettiness, the silliness, the nasty selfishness of others, as you write your own.
My ex-lover calls, out of the blue. I do not want to talk to him. But as the end of the draft approaches, I know, I have to say what was good about you.
Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor. She tweets @GuerillaMemoir.