Much has been written about writing memoir but I believe Mary Karr got it right when she said, “The failures of other genres to provide an emotional connection with some of their characters and narratives gives memoir a toehold.”
Writing this genre requires a steady mind to dig out the dearest truth. It takes a type of objectivity, a stepping back. The most typical way to gain that is through distance. Let decades of life intervene. Let time itself produce a psychological buffer and a more mature world view from which to look back.
Other methods have to do with mindfulness or meditation practices and much has been written concerning their transformative power. However you achieve clarity and an expansive view, this mindset is the best ally in laying down a great story as if it were fiction. This same type of clarity unleashes a “noticing mind” that will pay deeper attention to what one might typically think insubstantial. Training yourself to give credence to every little memory can bring surprising results. “Coincidences” start to make new inroads into your psyche, dragging along a bounty of fresh information.
It may seem a conundrum to write about deeply affecting memories with an expansive view. I believe it’s writing from a mended place, acknowledging the past with great reverence and paying tribute to your own journey through it that truly matters. Remembering things vividly and with your whole being is not the same as reliving them but it’s the digging deep that creates memorable writing. If you can’t go to those places, how do you expect a reader to?
After spending a weekend doing just what I’m advocating, I walked away from my computer feeling awestruck, full of “survivor pride”. I also felt emotionally raw but very, very present.
In a recent discussion about writing about life’s more dastardly experiences, a well-meaning friend said she thought I must be “shut down”. This really surprised me and my retort was that there was no way my work could be strong and well-received if that were true. I believe I’m writing from that mended place, a place many have gotten to in life. Damaged yes, but stronger for it and gaining further strength through the ability to write about it.
W. Somerset Maugham’s words about Phillip Carey in Of Human Bondage ring true:
“And thinking over the long pilgrimage of his past he accepted it joyfully. He accepted the deformity which had made life so hard for him; he knew that it had warped his character, but now he saw also that by reason of it he had acquired that power of introspection which had given him so much delight. Without it he would never have had his keen appreciation of beauty, his passion for art and literature, and his interest in the varied spectacle of life.”
Fellow writers who are working with me on Everything I Needed to Know will understand the image above. That cracked and spilled container, unable to ever be put back together, could have been me.