October 22, 2011

How I Happened to Write a Memoir

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At a demonstration at Daniel Smith’s Artist Materials, I watched the watercolorist finish a painting in a 45 min demo.   Some cretin in the audience asked the price of her painting.  She said she would ask her full price, something like $300.

“For a painting that took you 45 minutes?” he sneered.

She was more gracious than I would have been.  “Actually,” she said, “This painting took 63 years and 45 minutes to paint.”

Now that my book is about to be published (and for sale exclusively at Third Place Books, including mail order, domestic and international), I’ve been thinking about all the steps that got me to this point.   I had been a secret writer all my life because as a music student, I felt brutalized by some of my teachers.  I chose to protect my writing from the kind of criticism that had made learning to sing a source of as much anxiety as joy.

In a journal begun when I was 18, I experimented with writing.  I developed an ear for conversations and could do up a credible anecdote.  I explored metaphor, and indulged my sense of humor and turn of sarcastic phrase.  I reflected on the writing of others and noticed what appealed to me.

I learned to trust myself to write without editing. (“You can’t say that!”  “Why not?”)  I learned to sing when I stopped worrying about what sounds I was making and began making sounds simply because they were the sounds that came out.  In both singing and writing, the voice is richer when it sings all the different ways it wants to.

I wanted to write a grand story, but aside from small vignettes, I couldn’t think of a plot.  Then my mother and our torturous relationship died.  Her death ended a sentence, pun intended.  There was such a stark sense of something being finished that it made the concept of plot pop into focus.  My life was a plot.   It had begun, there was this awful middle period and now something had definitely ended.

A year after my mother died, I read a (badly written) memoir by someone who had a religious upbringing similar to mine.  When I came to the end, I closed the book and sat thinking.  “I could write a memoir,” I said out loud.  People who live alone talk aloud to themselves all the time –in case you didn’t know.

I went to the computer, pulled up the free word processing program I had because I was too cheap to buy Word, and wrote, “I was born to be middle-aged.” That is still the first line of my book.  The memories began to pour themselves out of me.  For two months I wrote for five hours a day.   I wrote past my (sacrosanct) bed-time night after night.  I wrote without editing, not stopping to consider whether anyone in the world needed to know how much I weighed when I was at my heaviest.

I had nearly 500 pages of material when I finally stopped.  I spent a year working with editors (principally the extraordinary Thomas Orton) and fussing over the book.  I played both characters in a New Yorker cartoon: a woman standing at the top of the stairs looks at her husband who sits in the basement at a table with a typewriter (remember those?) surrounded by piles of paper.

“Finish it?” the caption reads. “Why would I want to finish it?”

I did decide that no one needed to know how much I weighed when I was at my heaviest, but there were plenty of other exposures I chose to retain.  My mantra was:  If I don’t tell the truth, it’s not worth doing at all.  Even so, every time I let a friend read what I had written, I went through days of feeling a little sick, a little frightened.

There’s a conventional notion that it’s helpful to tell a person with depression to think about other people who are worse off.   When I was suffering from depression, anyone who said something that asinine to me was never invited to say it again.   While counting our blessings has its place, it’s a reductive idea that doesn’t begin to embrace the complexities of what it means to feel our own lives within us.

We all have stories to tell.  In the grand scheme, my story is a small one.  But our lives are big to us.  Whether we live alone or live with others, our lives are the only things that belong purely to us.  We all have the same terrifying and magnificent freedom to desire and to choose.

We all have stories to tell and our stories deserve to be heard.  I wrote a memoir because I happen to like to write and because maybe I got a little alarmed at how much I talk to myself.

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