Are We There Yet?
August 16, 2018 § 14 Comments
Here’s what I remember about high school: General name-calling, a particular pejorative yelled and hissed, shoving, spitting, dating a lot of too-much-older guys. I finished (minus a week or two), but I didn’t graduate—I’d skipped too many classes, due to what I now know was clinical depression.
Here’s what I wrote about high school: An award-winning, profitable one-woman show; a recently-completed novel; several published essays.
I wouldn’t trade back.
If my conception of the Almighty Being came to me in a burst of light and said, “You can go back in time, and you will be popular and liked and have a fantastic high school experience,” I’d say, “No thanks.”
If the Almighty Being came to 13-year-old me and said, “You know how middle school really sucks right now? Well, you can either have a terrific high school experience or you can wait 10 years and perform a show audience members love and send emails about, and wait 10 more years to finish a book you’re very proud of,” I’m pretty sure 13-year-old me would say, “I’ll take the work. Bring on ninth grade, mofo.”
I tell this to another writer at the conference we’re at, adding, “If you’re OK with where you are, you have to be OK with how you got there.”
She nods. She tells me, maybe if you’re not OK with your past, you’re still on the journey. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace or closure that makes the past OK.
Another writer chimes in. One of her students just emailed. The student was finally able to finish the memoir that seemed unfinishable in last year’s class, because the closing event was something in her life this year. Her story literally hadn’t finished. The end was unwriteable because the ending hadn’t happened yet.
Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by the people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memoirists stick to the truth, and if the truth isn’t done yet, we’re still stuck with it. But the truth is a gold mine of details and happenings that we’ve survived, and that survival is itself the story.
My first memoir was unsellable, largely because I hadn’t finished living the story I was trying to tell. I couldn’t wrap up a plot about depression while I was still depressed. I wasn’t at the destination; I hadn’t reached closure.
Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing on the page, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down what happened, checking facts, realizing, That happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior. And sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we can embrace what happened.
Am I still hurt by the actions of kids around me? Yeah, a little. But mostly, my past is a rich trove of information. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Every terrible detail I tease out to make a novel deeper, every time I use a bad experience as a good essay, puts me in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m OK with what it took for me to get here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.
Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past helps you recognize and own it. Maybe you’re still living your memoir with no end in sight. Flip back through your pages. Can you tell book-you: Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and processing and release still to come.
Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be presenting Writing the Memoir Proposal and Twenty-Five Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life at Hippocamp in Lancaster, PA, August 24-26.