A few days ago I wrote about how the seeds of my memoir lay in my journals, which I wrote for two contradictory reasons: to forget, and to remember. I’ve been working on writing a memoir for a long time. I thought I had a rough draft done ten years ago. Then I showed it to my good friend and all-around smart editor Maureen.
“You’re not ready to write this,” she said. “You’re still in the middle of the story.”
And so I waited for a couple years, and tried again.
That time Maureen said, “I don’t know what the story is you’re trying to tell. You’re a great story teller, and you’ve got lots of stories in here–too many. You’re shooting off in all directions. Pick a story, any story. And edit.”
I didn’t understand. Also I was irritated. I had worked darned hard telling all those stories–there were almost a thousand pages of them. They were the stories of my life. Shouldn’t a memoir be exactly that? I decided I couldn’t write, put the manuscript away and got out my paints instead. But by then it was too late; I was a word junkie. I found myself mulling over what Maureen might mean over cups of coffee, as I was making art, as I was skinning chicken for supper, first indignantly, then sadly, and at last, thoughtfully. And slowly, slowly, I began to understand.
My memoir needed to be more than just dumping my life on paper. I had to pick one part of my experience, and not just recount it, but examine it. I had show my audience not only what happened, but why it was important, how the event played into my development–or lack thereof–in a given area.
I had to be willing to dig deep, to be honest. I had to be willing to take a step back and take a hard look not only at my life, family, and circumstances, but at myself. What was it about me that made the events I was recounting significant–or even possible? Did I grow? Did I triumph, or did I take refuge in victimhood?
I realized then that Maureen was right the first time; I wasn’t ready to write a memoir yet. The events in question could still provoke anger. I wasn’t yet ready to let go of self-justification. I hadn’t gained the distance I needed to be objective about my life. I was still struggling.
I set the memoir aside again. I wrote a couple novels. I wrote several picture books. I hung a few art shows. I moved. I grew. And all the while, I reflected on what parts of my life seemed significant, interesting, and thought-provoking enough to warrant sharing. I stopped looking for the stories, and began looking for the patterns behind them. And I discovered that I needed to think in terms of writing not one, but several memoirs. And then I began to sort.
Stories that shed light on my spiritual development went in one file. Stories that dealt with the subject of work and how it shaped me went in another. Stories that traced the evolution of abuse in my family went into another. Stories about walking through my dad’s terminal cancer went into another. And stories about how I learned to be a mother, how mothering changed me, and how my views of what being a mother means have evolved went into yet another. And at last, having gathered everything together and then sorted it, I felt ready to begin examining my life.
And now, at long last, I am ready to write a memoir–about some parts of my life, not all. I’ve chosen a part of my life with which I’ve made peace–my growth as a young, single mother. This memoir draws from that immense stack of stories that I first thought of as my memoir. But this is more than just a collection of stories about doing stuff with my son–it is an examination of the forces that shaped me as a mother, the challenges I faced in making the transition from single woman living alone to single mother living alone with a baby. It marks the evolution in my character, and charts my growing appreciation for the diversity and richness not only of my experience mothering my son, but mothering others who come into my life needing. It traces a trajectory.
And in the end, if I do my job right, it will invite readers to trace their own paths through the jungle of motherhood, making note of flora, fauna, and pitfalls along the way–and honoring the strengths and scars the journey writes on our souls, marking our passage.