Speculative Memoir Made Me Real
July 6, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Laraine Herring
The Velveteen Rabbit undid me. A stuffed Rabbit, a friendship with a living Boy, and the tale of how love and believing in what could not yet be seen turned fabric, stitches, and button eyes into fur, muscle, and whiskers.
Embracing my imagined worlds helped me become Real, too.
And as someone who is now Real, I am qualified to help define the terms of my arena. Here’s one:
Speculative memoir is an umbrella genre in which the questions of the memoirist’s book are addressed through speculative elements, which may include ghosts, metaphors, what-ifs, imaginative scenarios, and fantasies. It is memoir focused more on the possibilities of the internal world than the facts of the external world.
But it took me a long time to be able to claim that definition. To be able to stand in all of my skin. Vulnerability has never come easy. I teach for a reason. I’m a therapist for a reason. Let other people expose their hearts while I stay hidden, safe behind boundaries of steel.
Embrace your weird.
You’re too strange.
You have a unique perspective.
You’ve lost your direction.
These contradictions followed me from school to school, job to job, until colon cancer pushed me into a story that obliterated them, revealing the myth behind the message.
When I was a girl, I read The Velveteen Rabbit over and over. I loved the gentle bunny, the way he loved his Boy, and the way that love, over time, made him Real. But to me, he was Real before. From the minute Rabbit appeared on the page, he was Alive. This was true with my own stuffed animals—Zebra and Monkey and Dragon. As I got older, Carl the Coffee pot began to speak, as did Zoya, my red Toyota and faithful companion, and of course Eva, the air conditioner. Imaginings, sure. But also Real. Also impactful.
Walls in particular spoke to me, the imprints of the people and animals they’d held still shimmering on the faded paint. I saw my first ghost in my great-aunt Lena Mae’s house in North Carolina. I was walking up the stairs and she was coming down. I remember the pink feathered hat she wore. I remember the warmth of her when I had expected a chill.
Could I have made her up?
Who can prove a ghost?
But that’s the wrong question. We don’t have to prove that our imaginings are Real. We don’t have to quantify them for others. The better question—the question that connects to writing our stories—is How have these imaginings shaped our lives?
I never spoke of these relationships. I didn’t want to explain them, but I also didn’t want to share them. They were private. In the 5th grade, a particularly-bullied year, I made tiny yarn creatures and brought them to school in a baggie so I could talk to them when I had no one else to talk to. The Alpha Boy found them—they always do, the Alpha Boys—and began to toss my baggie of friends back and forth over the desks when the teacher left the room. I knew better than to try to catch them—my physical awkwardness already legendary. I could only wait until he grew tired of the game, or the teacher returned, and we all went back to our desks pretending that we were sweet and innocent, pretending that we didn’t already know how precious and sacred our personal visions were, pretending that we hadn’t already learned how to hide them away to keep them safe.
After cancer, all the reasons for pretending to be someone other than who I was vanished. All the fears about being seen, being made fun of, being hurt were overpowered by the awareness of death. The always-lurking question of what would I regret not doing should I die tomorrow reared up, and all the voices of all the ghosts and walls and stuffed animals returned, and there was no way to contain them anymore—no way to pretend they didn’t impact my life.
When I decided I wanted to share my story, I froze up again with the memory of those yarn creatures flung carelessly in the air.
People will not understand.
People will make me feel small.
I chose to write a speculative memoir because my inner life impacts my outer life. Because my imaginings have been my friends, my mentors, my hauntings, and my companions. Because to leave out the richness of that world would be to shift me back to 2-dimensional—back to the flat shape that they tried to force me into in middle school. Back to invisibility and conformity. Back to malleable and agreeable and utterly unremarkable, a word you want to see on your CT scans, but not a word you want to guide your life.
When the voice of Raven appeared, the magical form helped me explore my own story of complicated grief, I had found my guide and my friend again. I hadn’t turned my back so far that my imaginings couldn’t reach me. I hadn’t betrayed them, like I had betrayed my yarn creatures by not fighting for them when the outside world tried to take them away.
I was busy doing other things when cancer came, and my father, thirty years dead, returned to me as a Raven.
This is my story. I am Real. My imagined world has helped me make choices, resolve old wounds, forgive others and myself. My imaginings are worthy of a voice and audience, and this time around, I will not let the Alpha Boy take them. I will not let their vulnerability become a liability.
I will stand in power with them, all of us Alive.
Laraine Herring’s speculative memoir, A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens, will be released in October. She’s also the author of The Grief Forest: a book about what we don’t talk about, and a trilogy of writing books with Shambhala. She’s a professor of psychology and a book coach for women over 40. She’s also the founder of the online ‘zine Hags on Fire, a place for women’s stories about menopause and aging. Find out more at http://laraineherring.com/