So That’s Why I’m Writing These Pages: An Aspiring Memoirist’s Response to Joy Harjo’s Wisdom

September 29, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Margaret Moore

“What will we know when this page is done? Who will we be?”

I sat in my living room as U. S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo recited these words during the virtual 2021 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference keynote address. I was engaged in the event, drinking up the magnificent art of Harjo’s lines as they mixed with melodies played by her band in Tulsa, Oklahoma. With the long work week catching up to me, my mind faded in its attention to detail, though, listening to the poetry as something relaxing.

“What will we know when this page is done? Who will we be?”

I jumped when Harjo posed these questions, sitting back up from the slightly reclined position I had been lounging in my motorized wheelchair.  

Harjo was describing the troubled state of the world. I’m sure her lines were intended to ponder the wisdom that will emerge from the pandemic and current societal tensions. I couldn’t help but take these words more literally, though, considering how they describe my writing process.

I have been writing my first memoir for thirteen or fourteen years.

I am 24 years old now.

Yes, I started writing my book as a fourth grader.

I still have some drafts from my early youth. With misspelled words like ‘delishus,’ lines like “Lois made me chocolate pudding and it was yummy,” and attempts to depict every detail of my school day, every friendship I had, and every story that my teachers told about the goofy stuff in their home lives—something I’m sure they would (not) appreciate—they make me laugh and inspire me on days when writing seems impossible.

I was pegged as a writer in second grade, when my teacher recognized my talents. Having almost lost my life at birth due to a prolapsed umbilical cord, I grew up as a physically disabled child with a wheelchair and communication device. My father died of cancer when I was a baby, and my brothers and I were raised by a single mother. Because of my mom’s initiatives to find the best school system and assistive technology, I have succeeded in academics and extracurricular activities. My teacher thought my story could inspire others and suggested that I write a memoir. I had loved writing since I composed my very first story in her class. Her vision became my dream.

Knowing my strengths and desire to pursue a writing career, my high school guidance counselor put me in a senior creative writing class as a freshman. I also took an advanced creative writing independent study as a senior, where my project was to draft my memoir.

“I know why this is important to you—I’ve seen you live it for three-going-on-four years,” my teacher said each time he reviewed a chapter. “But you need to show readers that don’t know you why it is. Why is it significant that you played soccer in your walker on a team and did Girl Scouts with your able-bodied friends? What is your ‘so what?’”

I didn’t know the answers to these questions. I was told that I was partaking in activities typically labeled ‘off-limits’ to people with disabilities and that I should share my experiences so others may find their way to similar endeavors. I wanted my book to help people. That’s all I knew.

Part of me wondered whether I would ever be able to adequately depict my intended ‘so what’ and that, if I was not able to, my memoir would merely seem like a collection of interesting anecdotes.

Now pursuing my MFA in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, I’m rewriting the scenes that remain major fixtures of my story—those that show me participating in activities alongside my abled-bodied peers.

One of the most influential gems I have gained from the program is that I need to provide vivid descriptions of what it physically and emotionally feels like when I move my tight muscles and use assistive equipment. I’ve learned to dissect the actions that my family, school staff, and I take to make activities accessible, giving readers an in-depth look at these accommodations.

I recently rewrote a scene in which I joined Girl Scouts at five years old. I describe how I did not have the muscle coordination to form the three-fingered Girl Scout sign and how, to compensate, my mother guided my hand into position and held it like that at every event. I intended for this scene simply to show my physical experience of scouting, but, after rereading it, the themes at the heart of my memoir leapt out. There were the concepts of inclusion that made all the difference in my life. There was my mother bridging the gap between my abilities and the requirements of able-bodied activities. I suddenly found my ‘so what’—that individuals coping with disabilities and adversity can overcome barriers to participate in life’s ordinary and extraordinary activities.

My scenes, I realized, needed to be just like this Girl Scout one, magnifying actions that my family, my school, and I have taken to ensure inclusion. They must have layers showing what it felt like to physically move while supported by others or assistive technology and how it felt emotionally to navigate obstacles.

My book is by no means a guide possessing all the answers for how inclusion must be implemented for every disabled person in the world, but I hope it can be a source of inspiration that offers ideas on overcoming challenges.

“What will we know when this page is done?” Joy Harjo asks. “Who will we be?”

If we delve deeply into details of our physical and emotional experiences, we will find ourselves discovering who we are as writers. At the end of the page, we will be warriors who have successfully weathered life’s most grueling terrain. We will be fierce advocates for inclusion, justice, and peace. We will be leaders guiding others to a more accessible and compassionate world.

_____

Margaret Moore is a 2020 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Fairfield University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing. She is currently an MFA candidate with a dual concentration in nonfiction and poetry in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She interns as an editor at Woodhall Press and works as an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications.

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§ 6 Responses to So That’s Why I’m Writing These Pages: An Aspiring Memoirist’s Response to Joy Harjo’s Wisdom

  • rachaelhanel says:

    I admire your persistence in writing! How wonderful that you got such an early start! I look forward to reading your book when it’s done.

  • kperrymn says:

    Good morning. Thanks so much for this terrific post. I find myself searching for the “so what” every so often, and I usually find it, as you suggest, in those details–the feelings, the sensations–that bring the reader into the moment with me. Thanks for your candor and your wisdom.I can’t wait to read your book!

  • Cassandra Hamilton says:

    It’s impressive this author began a memoir so young and that she continues to stick with the process of writing her book. Being disabled myself, I like the message of inclusion from another disabled writer. The description of her mother nightly folding the writer’s fingers to the Scout sign made me feel connected to that duo. It felt bigger to me than a story of inclusion. I read this as a scene about love which to me is a bigger than inclusion.

    A teacher advised me that if I considered my current life question while writing, my memoir would be very different. When I followed that advice, my writing blossomed. So, while I think the message of inclusion is in this writer’s work, I suspect she has something bigger in her heart and it’s the thing that has been bringing her to the page since childhood. I see hints of this already in her writing, like a friend whispering: I brought her to the page in fourth grade, through writing about school days, into advance writing classes and into degree writing programs. To me, these details are evidence of a strong love. And, I think love is always greater than medical conditions. Love breaks barriers. This writer has that kind of love in spades.

  • bethfinke says:

    Yes! You know what they say: show, don’t tell. Keep at it, Margaret. I’m eager to read your published memoir.

  • Susan Hughes says:

    Excellent essay. Thanks, Margaret! I’d be keen to follow you on social media, if you’d like to share a twitter address,etc.

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