I never meant to write a memoir, but then I did. Until I started that project, I had written poetry almost exclusively, and by the time I finished grad school the urge to write overly confessional, personal stuff had been taught out of me by my professors, who asked us to read poets like Russell Edson and Tomaz Salamun, skipping Sharon Olds. Whereas I had once written poems about break-ups, sex, and my relationship with my mother, I wrote poems about flying dreams and time travel.
Not that subject matter is everything, but hopefully you see what I’m getting at.
Interestingly, in the last poetry workshop I took, I had a hint of what was to come. I had turned in a poem I’ve now lost. Something very structured, controlled. And the teacher said to me: “It’s too perfect.” In a conference I got a little more clarity around this dubious piece of criticism: I was trying too hard to make things neat, tidy, beautiful. I wasn’t digging deep enough. Poetry was about splitting yourself open, exposing everything. I understood this didn’t mean confession; but it did mean finding vulnerability, which was a tricky distinction. And the next week I wrote a poem that kind of figured out how to be vulnerable without being confessional. (You can find that poem at the end of this post.)
Fast forward to 2007. My now-husband and I had returned from a year’s worth of travels in South America and Europe, and I decided to write some travel essays, light pieces about the places we went. As I worked on what was to be the first essay in the book, full of colorful details and laughs, the urge to tell the truth crept in. And I found myself admitting, in that very first essay, that I had spent vast tracts of that trip crippled with worry. I had an anxiety problem; I was in love with a man who was fearless. And amazingly, we had decided to backpack through South America together. To say there were rough moments would be an understatement. And thus, a memoir was born. No: a tell-all exposé of my relationship with my husband.
The thing about memoir is you have all these choices to make. You decide how much truth to tell. And if you’re like me, compulsively honest and also a compulsive over-sharer, you end up telling a lot of truth. And the truth is never neat, tidy, or beautiful. The truth is never perfect. It’s been five years since I started that memoir, and I still don’t know how I feel about being so honest about my relationship, even though I think it’s a good story, one people will like and connect with.
Fast forward again: last Friday. The memoir was in the drawer; I needed a break from it. My writing group reads it next month. In the meantime, I decided to write an essay about giving birth to my son, a subject that has been nagging at me for two years. But the essay was coming slowly and painfully; it felt a bit like pulling out splinters. I got to a place where I was writing about trying to conceive and all of a sudden I started to weep. Who was I? What kind of monster writes about her sex life? I thought of Ruth Whippman’s post Why I Won’t Write About My Kids and felt a moment of shame that someday, my son would read this essay I was ostensibly writing about his birth. “Mom,” he’d say. “TMI.”
How do we navigate the personal in our writing? How do we explore what’s deepest without, well, embarrassing ourselves and the people we know? Without making our readers, not to mention our children, cringe?
An hour or two after that little breakdown, I had what I thought was a very good idea. I’d written an essay called “The Animal Kingdom.” It’s about the year my brother was born, when I started to wash my hands until they bled, when I was an utter failure at school, when I felt abandoned by my family. I didn’t want to publish this essay, I decided. I wanted to write a short story instead.
So I started converting the essay to fiction. At first it was slow-going; I couldn’t find the narrator. She was still me, a seven-year-old named Susie. The school was still mine. The brother was still mine. The mother was still my mother. The father was still my father.
And then the narrator told me her name: Rebecca. And then Rebecca did something I didn’t expect, and I realized I was now writing fiction. The territory felt safe, like doing something brave in a dream.
Rebecca’s mother is asleep and so is the new baby. Rebecca is told by her dad not to wake up her mom, because she has been at the hospital in the middle of the night with the sickly baby. But Rebecca defies her dad (something I’d never have done) and tiptoes upstairs. She peeks in on her sleeping baby sister.
“Hi, Clara,” she whispers. “Hi, Ratface.”
I’ve been scared to expose the underside of a leaf
and let a child run his skinny fingers over it, knowing
he might fall in love or he might rip the leaf
into triangular shreds and scatter them like seed.
I’m scared every time I open my mouth and something hops in.
I was at a big party. The child was there.
We stood blithe amid confetti and streamers,
ice cubes and cheese straws. We twirled our drink stirrers
around our tongues, wrapping them in awkward bows.
A bath overflowed, flowed down the stairs
and out the front door, across the fields
and onto the beach, where it joined with the sea and was carried out.
Loops of suds gathered in the stair beds so we couldn’t go down or up.
One day I’m a straight line. The next, star-shaped.
The next I’m the broken glass that cuts a cylinder
from another woman’s face and puts it on,
praying for the graft to take.