June 30, 2011

What I Didn't Write (For Weeks and Weeks)

Like the book title says: I could tell you stories, man.  I could fill your head with my busy busy tales of  end-of-school class parties and field days, and planning a summer vacation and then going on said vacation.  How four weeks (already!) into summer break, we are lazy-lazy most mornings, the daughter and I both waking and reaching for our eyeglasses and books on respective night-stands, long legs in shortie pj's tangled in the sheets.  And also: swimming at the neighborhood pool, blueberry picking, a lemonade stand. Etc., etc. 

Excuses, excuses, all.  I have so many for not writing.  Remember a few months back, I very ambitiously announced a weekly post featuring a snippet of what I'd written that week? Yeah, that. 

Well, here is the truth of why I stopped writing. It has nothing, nothing to do with my busy busy days.  It has everything to do with a thought. One thought.  Or two.

First thought:  I pictured a family member reading my memoir.  No matter that my nascent memoir is literally years from ever reaching publication stage.  The family member wasn't my mom or sister (although that thought is scary, too).  No, it was the image of another family member reading my someday-memoir, their lips pressed tight into a thin white line of anger and disapproval, that scared me silent.

Second thought: the second thought was more of an issue than a lone thought -- but the issue is that I wrote far enough into one section, that I ran smack up against one of the "Big Events" that affected my childhood.  Big event, big repercussions for my and my family's life...and reader, I was sore afraid. 

So, in a word: Fear.  I became afraid to write any more, any further, any deeper into the story of my childhood and my family. Fear of family reaction, and my own fear of writing it all down, even for myself.   I'm working through it: I have my trusty The Artist's Way on hand, and I'm trying to stay grounded in the present, and not fill my head with (too many) dark imaginings.

I Could Tell You Stories, by Patricia Hampl, has been illuminating in ways both helpful and cautionary.   I think that Hampl is just terrific, one of the best memoirists around. A couple years back, I wrote about her book, The Florist's Daughter, here I Could Tell You Stories is a collection of essays about the memoir form, and I immediately connected with how she describes the compulsion toward memoir for the writer, as opposed to fiction:
"Memorists, unlike fiction writers, do not really want to "tell a story."  They want to tell it all -- the all of personal experience, of consciousness itself.  That includes a story, but also the whole expanding universe of sensation and thought that flows beyond the confines of narrative and proves every life to be not only an isolated story line but a bit of the cosmos, spinning and streaming into the great, ungraspable pattern of existence.  Memoirists wish to tell their mind, not their story."
Yes! Precisely! This was the illuminating part, putting words to why I feel the compulsion toward memoir right now: to tell it all, not just the story, the "this is what happened" part.  But then, in the last essay, "Other People's Secrets," Hampl writes of the people she has lost from her life over the years, because of her career devoted to "telling it all."  So here is the cautionary word about memoir: people will get angry. People will be hurt, surprised, betrayed even.  And usually, it is the people you least expect.  In a sort of plea to the jury, to those who have left her, Hampl writes:
"I never understood the fury my desire to commemorate brought down upon me. The sense of betrayal --- when I thought I was just saying what I saw, drawn into utterance, I truly believed, by the buoyancy of loving life, all its strange particles.  I didn't have a dark story of abuse to purvey or even a horde of delicious gossip.  I was just taking pictures, I thought.  But then, doesn't the "primitive" instinct know that the camera steals the soul?
And a few paragraphs later:
"I've lost quite a few people along the way.  And not to death.  I lose them to writing. The one who accused me of appropriating her life, the one who said he was appalled, the poet miffed by my description of his shoes, the dear elderly priest who said he thought I understood the meaning of private conversation, this one, that one. Gone, gone.  Their fading faces haven't faded at all, just receded, turned abruptly away from me, as is their right."
 Oh, crap. So yes: fear. For me, who shuns conflict and dreads confrontations, I have reached a rather thorny bridge. I'm determined to cross it, but perhaps I won't be displaying the process as publicly as I'd planned. No more "What I Wrote," with accompanying photos.  The kids have five more weeks left of their "summer break" (how I hate that they return to school on August 10th, right when the heat really starts to bear down the worst here) and I admit, I won't be working on any "real" memoir writing during these lazy weeks.  But by the end of August, I intend to get back on that horse and cross that thorny bridge and extend my awful metaphors for all they're worth.

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