“You should write a memoir.”
Various folks have said that to me over the years, and always I’ve had the same response: “I couldn’t possibly do that. I’ve made it a firm rule of my writing life never to write about people I know, and how could I write a memoir without invading the privacy of those who have shared my life?”
But then one day for reasons that had nothing to do with memoirs, I wrote a verse entitled “Remembering Peter.” It was about my son, his coming into the world and his leaving it, and once I’d gotten past having said some things “aloud” that I hadn’t spoken before, I had a realization. I could write a memoir this way, by dipping into my life then stepping back again, by revealing myself in small glimpses without exposing more than I chose to about anyone else.
And from that moment I began writing a memoir in verse, playing with the material granted me by my own life.
But about the time I had really settled into the work, I realized I had a problem. I had lots of individual verses, but no overall frame. All was tied together by being part of the substance of my life, but except for the fact that I could sort what I was writing into a vaguely chronological order, the pieces had no relation to one another, no purpose.
What is the point of my life, after all, except that it has happened/is happening? What’s the hook? Why should anyone, beyond the small handful of folks who know me well enough to care about my history, bother to read this odd piece?
Most days I know what I’m doing with my life. I’m loving. I’m learning. I’m keeping up with the day-by-day maintenance required to keep body and home and relationships together. I’m doing the good work that has been given to me, creating meaning out of words, out of story. But none of that justifies a memoir. Well, it may justify writing one, just because the writing serves me, but why should anyone read it?
The question I’m left with is both simple and extraordinarily difficult to answer: What do I mean?
So I’ve been reading memoirs and recalling those I’ve already read. Some like Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress take pain and turn it into humor. I admire such ability, but it’s not mine. Some use the substance of their lives to examine a much larger question, like Michele Norris (The Grace of Silence) uses her life—and her father’s—to consider racism. But what would my question be? And then there are memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love that manage to combine laughs with deep questions . . .
My reading has brought me no closer to finding the point of translating my own life into words. And maybe, finally, I will have to decide that there is no point. But before I do, I am here asking. Do you have a memoir to recommend, one that you love, one that might inform my vision? After all, writing, all writing, is as much about imitation as it is about innovation.
And I’m wide open.