I’ve not written much about the process of writing Wish You Were Here, but this post by Dave Griffith at the Image blog prompted a thought or two.
Griffith’s post is about the continual and knotty problem of truth in the memoir. The issue comes up regularly, almost as regularly as memoirs – especially sensitive or controversial ones – are published.
I read a number of memoirs, some grief-related, others not – just some of the more popular recent entries into the genre like The Glass Castle , Chinaberry Sidewalks and Lit – before and during the time I wrote my book. A couple were suggested to me as examples I might want to follow, in a broad sense. Reading the memoirs was both helpful and not. Helpful in the sense that I could see that my experience and take on that experience was, indeed, somewhat different from say Joan Didion’s or Kathleen Norris’, so I wouldn’t just be reinventing the wheel. I could also see a legitimacy for my efforts, which I worried sometimes were self-indulgent. I was helped by reading other grief memoirs, so perhaps I could help someone else in doing my own.
Reading the memoirs was also helpful in a negative sense. I won’t get into specifics, but there were some memoirs that might as well have come with a big
red flag on the cover for the amount of suspicion they aroused in me. I have to say, especially with childhood memoirs that include detailed narratives of conversations and thoughts one had at the age of five. I find it hard – no, impossible to believe that anyone, even (let’s say) in the wake of trauma, could recount the exterior and interior details of a childhood experience forty years later. Okay – maybe one or two. But anything more, just based on memory alone, seems improbable.
Because I know that I would not have been able to write my book, which I started doing just six months after the primary events narrated, if I had not kept incredibly detailed journals both in the wake of Mike’s death and then during the trip to Sicily. The whole journey was so fraught and singular and I was so hyper-aware, and my response to that was to sit down every night for at least ninety minutes or so to recount, in great detail what had happened and what I had felt. Or even sooner, in some cases – there is a long scene near the end, an account of our last evening on the beach at Cava d’Aliga – which seemed so strange and beautiful to me that I wrote down immediately, since I had my journal with me down there on the beach. There is no way – no way – I could have done this without those journals.
In his post, David cites (in disagreement) the common arguments that “truth” is a big thing and there is such a thing as a “broader truth” and so on. I agree with David and say this is bogus when you are writing a memoir -which, yes, is different from “autobiography” and has within the term itself, embedded the ambiguities of “memory.” And it’s hard. That’s for sure. It’s hard to present the truth of what happened in an artful and interesting way.
I thought writing this book would be (except for the emotional part) easy because I would basically be pulling together blog posts and journal entries. But it wasn’t, of course. If all I had done was transcribe journal entries, what we would have had was an unpublished mass of self-referential stream of consciousness (which, come to think of it, was sort of what the first draft was….). It would have been “true,” but boring to anyone else, and, in the end, to me. The experiences and emotions needed to be recounted in a way that the truth of it is presented in an interesting, engaging and, yes, truthful way. In the end, what I found – through my editor’s help – what that meant for me was, at every point, going out of my head and describing what was around me, and getting quite specific about landscape and the movement through that landscape. Thank goodness I took a lot of photographs…
I want to get back to the matter of childhood memories.
Could you write a memoir of your childhood? I couldn’t. Quite simply, I don’t know where the real memories end and stories told by my parents, images from photographs and habits of remembering begin. I find myself unable to dig beyond the stash of memories at the front of my brain to anything deeper. So, for example, I think of the apartment we lived in in DeKalb, Illinois from 1964-67, when I would have been ages 4-7. I have five specific memories of those years that are unattached to photographs: eating Campbell’s chicken noodle soup when I was sick, and, a couple of days before Christmas, seeing a gift for me under the tree that was wrapped in white paper, and I could see by peaking, was contained in a white box. So, I decided, being, evidently, stupid, that if I unwrapped it, saw what was inside, and just left the box as is, no one would no the difference. Away from the apartment, one memory, traumatic: being dropped off for CCD at church on a weekend when it wasn’t scheduled, and being frightened, and then taken under someone’s wing until my parents were called and came back to get me. Finally, I remember the Danish Modern aesthetic of one of my parents’ friends’ homes – it was everywhere – in the furniture, most intriguingly to me in the tableware. We had nothing like that and those smooth, slightly curved, uncluttered lines made a huge impression on me. I remember nothing of my first grade classroom, but I do remember the enormous lilac bush in our play yard.
I remember those (I think I remember them..or do I remember remembering them? What layer is this? Because really..I do feel, when I am “remembering” those events, I am really just remembering, not an event, but an idea that lives only in my mind. Which it does now, of course) but little else. Go back to the Danish Modern house. My mother liked to recount the story of how once at a buffet dinner party there, the hostess said at one point, “Where did all the black olives go?” I – even at the age of five or six, an olive fiend – had claimed them all, and consumed them. I “remember” that..but really I don’t at all. I remember my mother telling the story and the images that were reconstructed in my mind of me at this house looking at a plate of olives on sleek Danish Modern buffet. But I really don’t remember it at all. I can say that I remember riding bikes with my friends in front of the apartment, but that “memory” is nothing more than what’s in a photograph of all of us gathered on the sidewalk.
But looking back to what I do think I remember…what are they about? Taste. Smell. Fear. A different kind of life.
Well, okay then. I can see it. Perhaps it is possible to recall detailed narratives from the deep past if, I suppose, those factors are present – which they often are.
Still. It’s a good thing we’re not supposed to live in the past. Not only is it a foreign country, it’s a pretty hard place to find, period.