So the rubber meets the road today as I submit a character sketch of my mother for a creative nonfiction class I am taking. This tiny 300-word essay is the first piece I have written for public consumption in a memoir of my life told through my parents’ accounts of their lives.
Just over a year ago I had a dream about my deceased parents and awoke knowing I needed to write their stories. Most of us probably have those narratives that important people in our lives told us when we were children – anecdotes that shaped their lives and were therefore meant to shape our lives. Until my parents’ deaths, I just thought of those old tales as their stories, but I am now ready to claim them as my stories too – and hopefully write this memoir so they can become my son’s stories as well.
But I am a little leery about putting my family out there. What if I don’t remember the stories right? Or more likely in my family, what if I do remember them right, but someone looks bad? Just in this first draft of a 300-word sketch I see that an important part of my family’s character is the need to look good in front of others. Unfortunately, like every family I’ve ever been close to, we don’t always look so great when the curtain is parted and our skeletons are revealed.
When I first had the dream I immediately called a friend of mine who has an MFA in memoir. “How do you have the guts to write this stuff?” I asked very seriously. She thought I meant how do I have the guts to face these good and bad memories of the past and try to put them into words that make even a modicum of sense to others. We had a long discussion of the painful reality that is writing memoir. It hurts. You cry. A lot. Three hundred words and I already know what she means.
But I was jumping way ahead of that. I meant how do you publish something that might hurt someone else? After we stopped laughing about the hubris of believing that among all the memoir writers in America right now that I’d be the one with New York Times Bestseller circulation or even a publisher at all, we got serious.
“Maybe you won’t publish it,” my friend somberly answered my question. “You don’t write to publish, you write because you have to write.” She said that perhaps after the memoir was finished, I’d never want anyone but my son to read it. After all, when I woke up from the dream, that’s who this book was for, long before I was asking friends about agents and publishers. Even if the memoir-style manuscript is never published, maybe it will lead to some fictionalized version of the events, or perhaps character background for a fantasy or young adult novel. “After all, few writers get rich,” she reminded me, “You’re not doing it for the money.”
And she’s right. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life makes it clear that writers write because they must. Otherwise, no one would have the stamina to get through the tedious, awful parts. Writers may start because they want money or fame, but they finish because what is inside must come out in squiggles and dots on the screen or paper. As I set my bottom in a chair and stare at the screen and the notepad, I am beginning to understand. Writing these stories is really for no one else but me: my healing, my catharsis, my wholeness in the face of joy and grief and misunderstanding. If my son enjoys it, that’s icing. Publishing – well, that’s a long way from a 300 word essay that I’m just putting out to my writing instructor.
Have you ever had a dream or experience that set you on an unexpected journey? What kinds of questions did you feel you needed to ask to have the courage to start out? Were the answers always what you were expecting? Is writing a part of your practical or spiritual experience? What kinds of activities, like writing, would help you with catharsis or healing or wholeness? Are our spiritual practices mostly about us or mostly about others? Is this actually a fake dichotomy and is there room for both?
If you are interested in a retreat, workshop, or individual consulting on spiritual autobiography and memoir or if you want some help uncovering your own spiritual practice, contact Openings: Let the Spirit In to plan now.