Of Memoir and (Self) Forgiveness
December 21, 2018 § 4 Comments
By Nancy Chadwick-Burke
I believed the Q and A part of my book launch event would be downhill, an easy travel once an onset of nerves subsided from the reading. The unscripted moments would give others a glimpse into the author behind the book. I pointed fearlessly to a raised hand.
“What did you learn about yourself from writing this book?” a woman asked.
Neither a pause nor humor preceded my answer. My response was automatic, a slip of the tongue that surprised and horrified me. It was an out-of-body experience; as if someone other than me was talking.
I answered, “to forgive myself.”
My cheeks flushed with heat. Was this revealing admittance part of the memoir-making deal? I thought it sufficient to disclose choice experiences and what I learned from them and not have to reveal what I learned of me from writing the book. But a memoir writer does make a deal with herself— if she details her life experiences, then she must dig below the surface to find meanings of those experiences and with her.
In her book Old Friend From Far Away, Natalie Goldberg says “And because life is not linear, you want to approach writing memoir sideways, using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers: you want reflection to discover what the real connections are.”
But what did I do that I needed to forgive? Did I do something bad that begged for forgiveness?
In my memoir, Under the Birch Tree: A Memoir of Discovering Connections and Finding Home, I describe the time spent as a young girl in my parent’s bedroom:
The open cover of Mom’s vanity invited me to touch a few of her many telltale items. Peeking at her lipstick tubes, I discovered her favorite colors, how she made her nails indeed shine, like the bottle said, like cotton candy, and the wide-toothed comb that explained how she kept her permed hair in its round shape. Dad’s vanity tray atop his dresser was simply displayed with just enough space for his watch, bracelet and billfold. There was nothing more; it was just as unrevealing as he was. This was a covert way to connect to Mom and Dad through their personal space.
Though I wished for a different story, one where my only connection to them wasn’t dependent upon holding a bottle of nail polish or a piece of jewelry, I forgave myself for wanting my father to be anything other than the unconnected man he was and wanting my mother to be more connected to her children in ways only moms know. I forgave myself for wishing for different outcomes in jobs and for relationships to have been in my favor, and for wanting everything to be perfect in my personal and professional life.
The French memoirist Francois de La Rochefoucauld said, “One forgives to the degree that one loves.” We may have a tendency to be more critical of ourselves than with others, a reflection of the lack of self-love and a trusting relationship with ourselves. Learning to be generous to myself, to love, and trust . . . me was perhaps a deeper answer to the question posed. And learning this was my ultimate act of grace.
Many times memoirists want to change history, their history. They repeat, “if only, and “I wish” as if a mantra could lead to change, granting wishes and delivering desires. The truth is history can’t be rewritten and a memoir writer’s history is no exception. But it is the history, our personal history that enables us to write the very story we are writing. Through my forgiveness, I was called to let go of an unwritten narration that had remained embedded in my thoughts and in my heart to see the Nancy as a product of the actual history that was made.
As much as angst was expressed in words on my memoir pages with a desire for my past to be different, my experiences survived with different outcomes. My desires weren’t going to change a moment of time past no matter how much I wished.
“Be submissive to everything, open, listening,” says author Jack Kerouac. Forgiveness can go a long way in our lives. Forgiveness was a way to discover my own connections to self-discovery. In my admitting that I forgave myself, not only did the audience see the author behind the book, but also did I see a glimpse into my deeper self.
Nancy Chadwick’s first job was at Leo Burnett advertising in Chicago. After twenty years in advertising and corporate banking, she quit and started to write in search of her place to be. She recently released her debut memoir, Under the Birch Tree: A Memoir of Discovering Connections and Finding Home. Her work can also be read in The Magic of Memoir, inspiration for the writing journey. She resides in Chicago with her husband. Find more of her at nancychadwickauthor.com
Thank you for this. As I am finishing my thesis/memoir, I worry all the time about so many things I write about my parents, my children, and my husband that I sometimes overlook what I am revealing about me. I have been told that in some parts I am very hard on myself. After reading this I will go back and see where some self-forgiveness might be helpful – to the book and to my life. Thanks again.
Love your paragraph of the dresser tops of your parents. Beautifully written. I took down the LaRochefouchaud quote.
Your comments on forgiveness spoke to me.
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Nancy, you have written a wonderful book, but most importantly you’ve showed us how life’s roadway is far and beyond the destination.