I promised more blog posts this summer and fall about writing memoir — the one I’m finalizing, the genre and its demands, its curious place in literary conversations. These days there are many discussions about the merits of memoir, and yes, the “rules of memoir.” But I’ve never been much for rules. Not when it comes to creativity, anyway. Nor am I a big fan of “more of the same.” Since memoir tends to be personal, why not create your own form — build your own path?
As I’ve worked on my manuscript, and as anyone who has ever lived knows, one thing, repeatedly,has come to mind. Life is not orderly. Our logical minds “think” there is some kind of order. We believe it should be there somewhere (somehow). But in the end, it’s not to be found or experienced. Letting go of that expectation can greatly reduce our suffering — just ask a Zen master, a Buddhist monk, a spiritual leader.
Life is not orderly. No matter how we try to make life so,
right in the middle of it we die, lose a leg … drop a jar of applesauce.
– Natalie Goldberg
Goldberg was one of the first authors I read when researching memoir; I loved OLD FRIEND FROM FAR AWAY: The Practice of Writing Memoir. From page 146: “Memoir is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and be enlarged. This means when we write we give up ourselves.” Goldberg explains that she doesn’t want to imply that we write about things in a “grand manner.” Rather, “it means getting as close as we can to every detail.”
- Even this isn’t enough, according to the poet, teacher, and author of 12 books. The “center of feeling” … the “muscle underneath” must be found. Plus, narration–what are the links, where is the connection, how do the pieces come together–must be there, as well.
- Finally, she asks: “You lose everything in the act of writing. Are you willing?”
- And this is what got my full attention: “What is it you love and are willing to give to the page?” Isn’t that the core question?
Yes, I loved, and love, the son I’d lost, and was willing to give it to the page.
The memoir would be written, no matter the challenges.
Sleepless nights reworking sentences, thinking about titles,
digging into remote memories that were still important.
This definitely spoke to me: “It’s why we write, not to immortalize but to surrender ourselves. It is our one great act of generosity.” Unknowingly, Natalie helped me decide my story was worthy of the journey. I read her book on memoir during the summer of ’08, again in the fall of 2010. I have enormous gratitude for her work, for her quiet guidance when I didn’t even know what the questions were; her message spoke to me on a deeply profound level, and my heart said “yes” to the work of memoir. At times, the “yes” faded, was barely perceptible, and I questioned that heartfelt decision. Could I explore loss and grief in ways that might truly benefit others? Could I share my spiritual growth in ways that would be meaningful to readers? Or would the endless hours of work turn into mush right before my eyes?
Doubts, that’s what I’m writing about. The blank page can be extremely intimidating. The mind can grow weary with editing, revising, and the dark cloud of publishing and marketing always hovering overhead. Do readers really want to read yet another book about loss? Can I write it? Will it be any good? Will I stay true to the experience in the ways that are most important? Will I cave under the pressure?
Our job as writers is to listen, to come home to the four corners of the earth.
– Natalie Goldberg
But listening is something I knew how to do … I could listen to the silence within for guidance, following my intuition like a laser beam. Could hear the book’s heartbeat, and keep going. Now, some 7 years later, I feel the end result has a pretty strong heartbeat. We’ll see. When readers and critics and reviewers have a chance to weigh-in, we’ll see. Then again, maybe only an author can decide if a book is grounded and worthy — if heart and soul have been poured into the work at every step of the way. If this is the case, I already know the answer. ~ dh
⇒ HOW have you decided which projects to take on? What doubts have you experienced along the way?
Thank you all for being here. More in a few weeks — on Friday, June 12, I believe.
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