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.