I have mentioned several times in the past months that I am working on a memoir in verse. I’ve even announced a title and then, when I returned to talking about the memoir again, found myself announcing a different one. So I’ll start these musings with an announcement of yet another title: When Even Grief Lives Far Away: a Memoir.
We’ll see whether this one holds.
The problem with writing a memoir is that I have to arrive at some kind of insight, some meaning gleaned from the substance of my life. Without that I have no hook to hang my words on, no door to invite my readers through. And while I hadn’t thought about having to find my life’s meaning as a problem—in fact I hadn’t even thought about having to do that at all when I began this project—the truth is that the search for meaning, trying to find my story’s hook, has turned out to be the hardest part.
My life is interesting to me simply because it’s the only life I’ve ever lived, but that is no reason for it to interest anyone else except, perhaps, my descendants and a few close friends. And even for them, interest is mild at best. In the small world of children’s literature some know my books and thus my name, but few know me. I am not a celebrity; no one is hungry to gobble up the minutia of my life … for which I am grateful beyond any telling of it.
And yet here I am, exploring the most intimate details of my days in writing! What is that about?
My answer is that I come to the memoir out of the same impulse I approach writing fiction, with a fervent desire to make art out of life … out of my life. And making art is making meaning. Always. However, for all my years of meaning-making through art, I stumbled into this project without realizing that’s what it was about.
What I have discovered is that meaning is much easier to make in a created story than in a life. When I devise a fictional story a small problem-filled moment captures my heart and sets me writing. It captures me precisely because that problem, that moment, has meaning for me. So all I have to do is follow the problem I’ve set up until I can play out its meaning. And of course, I am limited as to how much I can tell, so the very process of selection means I choose only those events that will bring us to meaning.
Memoir requires selection, too. Of course. I’m not writing, after all, about my trips to the bathroom. In fact, I’m not writing about great chunks of my life, my twenty-eight-year marriage, for one rather blatant example. I entered this work knowing I would not write in any penetrating way about anyone living who could feel invaded by my words, my once husband, my daughter, a former or current partner. But even after eliminating my bathroom habits or the urge to say intimate things about those who are still living and reading, I found myself with no inner guide, no single meaningful idea to decide which moments to select. Discovering the significance that can turn life into art is, apparently, something that must happen along the way. At least that’s true if I’m not to limit my exploration by imposing an artificial structure in order to calm myself.
Some writers work this same way when they are creating fiction. They start out, they tell me, with no idea where their story is going to go. I’ve never understood how anyone could begin a journey without a destination firmly in mind and have always assumed that the unconscious of such writers must know even if they do not. But I’ve never worked this way myself, so the assumption I’ve made about others is what I have to trust now, that somehow my unconscious knows the point of my existence, the point of this piece I’m writing.
For now I have a frame. The frame is my son, his life, his death. And thus the title. But Peter doesn’t form the substance of the memoir. Inevitably, his life and his death shaped me in profound ways, and in the memoir I will return to him from time to time. Verses specifically about his life and death will form the beginning and the end. It will be only when I come to sort the rest of what I have written, however, that I will know whether the frame I have set can hold it all, whether having arrived at a time “when even grief lives far away,” is, indeed, the point.
Often as I work I find myself longing for the limitation—and the protective scrim—of fiction. A fictional character is so much more transparent to me than I am to myself. Of course. I’ve created that character’s very substance! The life I present in a story is also severely limited, just a few events that point us to the place I want to go. And while the characters I create take the truth of their beings from this person I am, they also have the great virtue when they go out into the world of not being me. So whatever they reveal, they can’t embarrass me!
I hadn’t thought about any of this when I began writing the memoir. The truth is I waded into it with the innocence of a child dabbling at the edge of a great sea. And the deeper I wade, the more I discover … about myself, about this new kind of creation.
But then that is, after all, the point of art, all art, isn’t it? Discovery.