I confess. I’m in love with the blank page.
It’s a metaphor for how one comes in to the world. The moment you announce yourself with a whimper or scream your blank page begins to fill with memories. Throughout childhood – when you are most vulnerable – memories are often written for you. Not all of them happy.
Time brings more confusion as facts and details become threadbare, leaving only the visceral emotion you felt at the moment of impact. That’s where the demons live, directing your life from their secret lair. You might need to bring them out into the light, to see if they can survive scrutiny.
Negative memories can hold dominion over you. But if you vet them properly, you might find they don’t form the truth north of your past.
There are a lot of reasons to question memory.
In today’s judicial system, eyewitness testimony, once the gold-standard in courtroom cases, is now suspect. The Innocence Project has exonerated hundreds of innocent people incarcerated based on eyewitness testimony. The advent of DNA-based evidence has helped overturn rulings against felons whose convictions rested on inaccurate memories of eyewitnesses.
Science tells us that when something traumatic happens, our minds work overtime to interpret that specific activity, to the exclusion of peripheral events. Gone is social context, environment and details that fill out the character and substance of the story. What’s left are the strong visceral feelings that rode in on a sea of data you can no longer recall.
It might be wise to ask ourselves some questions.
Nearly six years ago, after the death of my partner of 35 years, I developed a fascination with memoir.
I was concerned I might forget too much, lose my grip on the details of a relationship that wove itself into more than three decades of events, intimacies and shared experiences.
I found comfort in Joan Didion’s masterwork memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. Ms. Didion recalls with painstaking, nearly freeze-framed recollection the moments before her husband keeled over at the dinner table, the arrival of paramedics, the ambulance ride to the hospital and the moment when doctors told her what she already knew: that her husband was gone. Her memoir is not a recitation of events, though, it’s an examination of nuance and learnings from the experience.
Nearly six years after the death of my spouse, I have not yet had the fortitude to dive into that particular drowning pool. I have, however, walked into the shallower end with a close look at my childhood memories.
In the process, I unearthed facts that put into perspective the tenuous relationship with my mother. Frequent, intense migraines throughout adulthood colored dark her very existence. In a memoir piece entitled No Light, No Noise, I examine one of the roughest moments between us. After carefully dissecting my memory of this specific event, I concluded that my behavior toward her was justified. Some of the residual guilt from this episode has now receded.
In Smothered, Fathered and Sistered, I found a way to take back my childhood from a sister whose errant behavior claimed sole family focus, creating a no-attention zone around siblings in need of parenting. In resurrecting the long scourge of my sister’s temperament, I brought back to life with great clarity the resilience I exhibited then. Apparently, I wasn’t the pushover I’d falsely remembered.
I describe the moment an older cousin took me seriously enough to gift me with a typewriter. Opening the Vein serves as homage to the person who encouraged me to begin placing my own thoughts and memories onto blank sheets of paper. Working on this story was a re-gifting of one of the cherished moments of my childhood.
If you’re prone to skepticism, you might be thinking none of this can change the past.
You’d be correct. But it does change how you experience those incidents in the present moment when you can view them from the lens of life’s great gift: adulthood.
Maturity is a great leveler.
In thinking about memoir writing, select a memory that looms large in your consciousness. Be kind to yourself. This need not be traumatic. And it’s for your eyes only.
Set a blank piece of paper or laptop in front of you and begin to jot down specific facts, not just feelings. Recall what you were doing before the incident took place, who was involved and what power or influence they might have had over you. How did you handle yourself going through the experience? What challenge, threat or remnant of disrespect did it leave in its wake and how did you feel immediately afterwards?
Write as much as you can. The length isn’t important if you cover the critical elements.
Give it some breathing space – perhaps until the next day – then reread your work.
Does writing a memoir sound appealing to you? Has the exercise revised or clarified your memory? Was it cathartic? What are the learnings from it? Can you begin to reorganize your thoughts about the episode? If it feels right, try another. You might be on to something. Please share in the comments.