Then and Now

October 25, 2010

Many blogs ago I wrote about Derek Bickerton’s review of Guy Deutscher’s Through the Looking Glass, that book about differences in languages throughout the world.  And I thought about what Deutscher’s insights can teach us memoirists in terms of how we know what we write about.  Matses, an Amazonian language, for example, necessitates that the speaker indicates whether an event s/he is reporting was observed or heard about.

Deutscher also writes about how the structure of Matses makes it necessary for its speakers to indicate whether what’s being discussed is inference – the statement is deduced from what’s been seen or heard.  But it also requires its speakers to indicate whether the inference was made close to the events narrated or later.

Then and now.

I think it’s important for us memoirists to distinguish between how we interpreted an event as it happened, and how we view it now.

Why did we think we got involved with the people who turned out to be really bad influences on us when we were involved with them?  What did we think of them – and ourselves — then?  What did we think of them – and ourselves — as we were becoming disenchanted with them?  What did we think of them – and ourselves – when we disconnected from them?  And what do we think of them – and ourselves now?  How do we understand this experience now?  What do we make of its significance?  And how has our point of view towards that event in the past and ourselves shifted?

In other words, how do we now see our life’s story?

We can’t do this – at least I can’t – in the earliest stages of the work where simply getting down what happened is hard enough.  But I think we can – perhaps even should – do this in the later stages of our work, after we’ve spent some time reflecting upon the events we narrate.

This is how we arrive at narrating the significance of our lives – by plotting the shift in perspective, by indicating to our readers, the insights we’ve had into our lives.

As I’ve read scores of memoirs-in-process through the years (the early drafts of my own, included), I can tell you that introducing this level of meaning – reflection – doesn’t come easily.  Often, it’s not until the writer is told by an early reader that his level of meaning is missing that s/he gets dragged kicking and screaming into doing this work which is, after all, the work of the soul.  We seem to have no trouble “letting it all hang out,” revealing our most privileged secrets.  But telling the reader what we thought this all meant – that’s something else again.  Perhaps until we’ve started our memoirs, we haven’t even thought about our lives at this level.

What did it all mean?

A memoir friend of mine, a writing partner, co-editor, and brilliant teacher told me recently that she can’t read memoirs written without that layer of reflection.  Neither can I.  For the reader to care about our lives, we have to give them something besides what happened to us.  We have to give them something besides all those events in our lives that, to us, were deeply meaningful, but to the reader are just so many events unless we add that special part of ourselves, the reflective self, to the mix.

I’ll tell you why I think this is the case.  Our lives – every life – is just so much chaos, just so many seemingly random events until we start thinking about what the narrative of our life means.  The reader comes to our work expecting something – s/he expects us to give us insight, to give us a life rendered in a way that indicates the writer understands its patterns and its meanings.

A memoir that’s a healing memoir for the writer does this.  It takes the random events of our lives and organizes them into a pattern that indicates why things happened. We may not have known why things happened back then.  But we sure as hell need to reflect upon why we think they happened now – both for ourselves, and for our readers.

We are, after all, nothing but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  Change the significance of our stories and we change the significance of our lives. And the lives of our subjects.

I’m going through that process right now and it hasn’t been easy.  All summer I wrote what I thought was a crackerjack chapter about my father’s experience in the Navy before World War II.  I’d ton a ton of research, both when my father was alive in the form of interviews, and after his death in military archives.  It was a hell of a chapter to write – cramming all that information about what the Navy was doing in the 30s into those pages.

I’d hoped (like we all hoped) that this early draft (it wasn’t the first) would be the last.  But of course, no.

What was missing from the draft is how I interpreted the events – what I thought of them when I first heard of them and how I understand them now, after reflecting upon them.  This was enormously difficult to do – to make sense of all that material, and at first I rather hoped that just presented it at the level of what happened would be enough.  But it wasn’t.

When I started thinking about how my father interpreted his experience back then, and how he interpreted it later in his life, when I started thinking about how I viewed what he was saying back then when I first heard these stories or read about them and now, as I was writing them, another layer to the narrative appeared.

Then and now.

That opened up a different father, a different pre-World War II Navy, a different me.  Put simply, I understood my father and his experiences and why he was the way he was far differently from the time I lived through hearing about his life in the Navy (which was something like, “Oh please, not another Navy story.”)  I began to understand his place in a huge historical narrative, began to see his young life molded by that experience, and the father I knew was formed by that life, and so was I.

Then and now.  The significance of events.  The meaning of our lives.

We owe ourselves, and our readers, to think this through.  We read that because of the instantaneous nature of communication now, that we are less inclined to reflection than we have been in the past.  So in some sense, being a memoirist requires us to think differently about our lives than most people in these tweet and twitter times when what seems to matter is the right now.

Reflection takes time.  Sometimes it hurts.  Understanding isn’t always easy.  But it changes us, changes our narratives.  Makes them into something splendid.




10 Responses to “Then and Now”

  1. Denise Palacios Says:

    I find that when I think of the reasons why my father was the angry and alcoholic way he was, I become overwhelmed with adolesent sadness. However, after reading this entry, I believe my process of seeing him as he is now, a lonely old man without a friend in the world except his bottle of vodka, assits me is separating the different qualities of sadness. Then, I was angry and resentful. I felt prisoner in our home, I hated this man that they called my father. I didn’t care about the abuse and traumas he had endured in his turbulent life. Now, I see an abused, uneducated but brilliant child, whose ambition brought him success, and madness. This is a “tough stuff” subject for me, but now I look forward to dissecting the emotions that come with the hereditary heartache of my paternal figure. Now I see him with different eyes, sympathetic eyes.

  2. Danielle Says:

    I’m struggling with this right now…somewhat.
    My issue is that there are certain things that I want to write about…wait let me rephrase that: have to write about. Something inside me is saying that it has get written. I’m not sure why but I feel it in my heart, although they are things I’m afraid to write about right now. But it’s like that something inside is saying “My story has to be told. People have to know.” I have no problem sharing my memoir work with close friends even strangers sometimes, but family is a different story. A lot of drama can happen, obviously, but with certain things that are hard for me to discuss is okay when read by someone else.

    Maybe it’s because writing about those things will force me to face them again and live through it all. I find it extremely difficult to write about anything good that has happened or is happening in my life. Every time I try and manage to get something out, it sounds cheesy and horrible to me, way too cliche.

    A big issue I’m having with my current piece is how to include my interpetation into the piece itself without actually telling readers what it is. Or would that be a good thing to do? The central idea of the piece is linked to several things that have occurred in my life (psychological and pysical). I dont’ know if I should tell the readers what I view it all as or how it’s all connected or let them figure it out on their own and form their own interpetations.

    • writingalife Says:

      First, I advise writers never to share their work with family or with anyone we’re writing about. That’s a recipe for disaster. For our writing. For our lives. We deal with family issues in our lives. We don’t use our writing to tell our families what we want them to know.

      Once a work is finished, then the moment comes when we do have to tell family — I’ve gone through that many times — but that’s after the work is done. We can’t write with family looking over our shoulders so to speak.

      In terms of reliving while we’re writing: I’ve posted on that. It’s essential to work on retelling, not reliving. If we find ourselves in a dangerous emotional place in our work, it’s important to stop, and talk to someone we trust — a counselor, a therapist. We can try to work on tough stuff no more than twenty minutes at a time.

      In terms of interpretation: I believe our responsibility to our readers is to think on the page about the significance of events. Some memoirists just tell the story of their lives without interpretation. But I’m the kind of reader who requires that level of meaning from the works I read. Otherwise, I’ll read a novel.

  3. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    Reflection hurts. For the longest time I only wrote about happy things and positive experiences. I thought that that was my life and I liked it that way. I was naive and young. By delving into the unpleasantries we allow the truth to come out. There is always a lesson to be learned or a reoccuring theme throughout one’s experiences. Only having the happy times to write about does not allow for depth. The unfortunate feelings and situations are painful when experienced and difficult to write about but they provide an intensity that brings the characters to life on a page. During an exercise in class I chose to write about something particularly painful but an experience I thought I had healed from. I discovered while writing the piece that I still hurt from the incident. Writing a reflection and not just musing about life has a healing aspect to it. It can also help you understand why or how that someone/something affected you the way it did. Yes, reflections are laborious but they often promote mending and allows for a sense of profoundness in the writing.

  4. Jason Perry Says:

    I think that interpreting another person’s life is extremely hard. I feel that life goes beyond words and actions. There is also a deep emotion in every word or action taken. For instance, when I think about on the stories about being in the US Marine Corps my grandfather told me, I feel that there are certain emotions that he left out. Like I knew he was scared at times and worried and afraid. But i think since I was so young he told me more stories of bravery, because he wanted me to be brave in life. So, now I have a mash up of interesting stories I would like to tell, but with little knowledge of even the Marine Corps, I have just the bits and pieces he showed me growing up. I just read the Marine Sniper which is a book that is promoted as a best read in the Marine Corps. I don’t think that can give me my grandfather’s insight. Do you have any suggestions on how I should go about tracing certain foot steps back into his time?

  5. oh Says:

    Rich stuff. So true. I find it takes pages of my writing to fall upon one of those defining “significant” statements. Ten pages, one hollering sentence that really looks at those ten pages.

    I love hearing about other cultures and their use and interpretation of language. egads, we’ve become such “skimmers” in this country, at first glance anyway. Hurried conversation, bits and bytes of news and gossip, on and on.
    Love this info about the tribe and was the story witnessed or active.

    Back to work.

  6. Nancy Carnevale Says:

    I have hesitated to reply to any one of your blogposts because each one is dead on–I would be writing you every week. Your blog is a boon to memoir writers.

    I am writing now because this one speaks to the overarching issue I am facing–my writing was going swimmingly until I felt I had written down everything I remembered or heard about certain events and people. Then I stopped writing altogether. After reading this, I see the problem–I don’t want to interpret these events and what they meant/mean to me. You’re right–this is the hard stuff. I will keep trying. Thank you.

    • writingalife Says:

      To me, what’s so fantastic about memoir, is that it provides us with an opportunity to think about the significance of the lives we’ve led or witnessed. It provides us with an arena where we can investigate patterns, where we can ponder change. It’s as if we’re using the so-called facts of the lives as an opportunity for deep, soulful meditation. Finding meaning, making sense. It’s a very profound enterprise. And to me, in this age of reactiveness rather than thoughtfulness, extraordinarily important for ourselves and for whomever might read our work. Think about it this way: showing the reader how we think about the events in our lives provides our readers with a model for how to think about what happened to them. And that’s a big piece of work. Important for us, and for our readers, to model thoughtfulness.

  7. ashley Leavitt Says:

    I think that with understanding comes forgiveness, or at least room for empathy. Much of my childhood was riddle by the effects of poor choices made by the adult caregivers in my life. Consequently, in that time and long after I felt a lot of anger mixed with confusion. Writing memoir has forced me to reexamine my past and the people in it in a way I probably would not have done otherwise. Primarily, though reflection, I have come to understand that whatever pain those people caused me they already felt themselves. I came to understand what is meant by the biblical expression, “we inherit the sins of the father.” This knowledge me gave the ability to better see patterns in my own life I had unwittingly manifest. With this budding awareness, I made the first step towards changing a legacy of pain into self-empowerment through writing. In an attempt to resolve and make sense of the chaos I needed to ask the tough question -so what now?- and then take one small step at a time, slowly discovering my voice through the narrative of memoir.

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