Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why Write Memoir?

I have just published my second memoir, and here's the thing: I never thought I would write a second memoir. My first memoir, Slow Motion, was published in 1998, and I thought I was quite done with the form. I was a novelist, after all. Most comfortable in the world of my imagination, most fully alive when following a trail of breadcrumbs through a forest of fiction. When I wrote Slow Motion, my impetus was clear. I had a story to tell, a story that seemed to be taking over my fiction, hijacking it. My parents had been in a devastating car crash when I was in my early twenties. My father, killed. My mother, physically and emotionally shattered. And I, at the age of twenty-three, had been making a mess of my own life (married boyfriend, drugs, booze, didn't see the point of finishing college) and had to rise to the profoundly painful occasion. I grew up fast. I saw that I had only one choice, which was to turn my life around. And so--in taking care of my mother, going back to college, quitting the married man, the drugs and booze, I turned, also, to the page. I wrote the first of my three novels--a highly-autobiographical, coming-of-age account. It was published while I was still in graduate school -- followed by two more novels, all perfectly decent, all showing some promise, but all--I can say this now--haunted by my lack of understanding of my own personal material. I wrote Slow Motion because my fiction was suffering. Each book contained a "crash" of some sort -- a devastating, sudden catastrophe. I was being led around by my story. I wanted to switch places, and be the one leading my story around, in control of it. And so I wrote Slow Motion.

It turned out that I was right. Slow Motion did put that story, the one most alive inside of me, to rest. I had taken control of it, told it as truthfully as I could. I had done something that felt redemptive: marshaled the facts of my own story and crafted them into something larger, something universal. I had made art (at least I hope I did) out of tragic loss. And really, what a spectacular thing to be able to do -- attempt to make art out of loss. Anyone who does this can only consider herself deeply fortunate. Everyone in the world suffers. Not everyone gets to push beyond the boundaries of that suffering.

I moved on. I found that I had grown, as a novelist. My next two novels were not haunted by the material of my earlier life. My themes deepened. But then, shortly after the publication of my last novel, Black & White, I was in the midst of my yoga practice one day when an idea for a new book arrived, as if written in neon. It came, as none of my other books had come to me, complete with a title: Devotion. I realized, while standing in tree pose, that I wanted to write a book about belief. What did I believe? Did I believe in anything at all? I had been raised in a deeply religious family, and had fled all that at the earliest opportunity. Now, I was the mother of a young son who had been asking me a lot of questions. Did I believe in God? What happens when we die? Is there a heaven? I realized, with a certain degree of horror, that I wanted to explore these questions and write about them.

Another memoir? Apparently so. Joan Didion once wrote that her material presents itself to her with a shimmer around the edges of it. This had that shimmer. There was no denying it, or mistaking it. And so I began. I began with trepidation, with resistance, with concern that writing about spiritual matters is perhaps the most intimate, most difficult thing to do well. But it didn't feel I had much choice. Our books choose us.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post.
    Your last sentence is the biggest truth ever said.

    Keep writing. : )