Paradigm Shifts: The “Turn” in Understanding Our Work
November 11, 2010
Last night, in my memoir class, we talked about what we’ve learned about our works-in-progress that we haven’t known before. The writers I’m working with are now in the “deepening” stage of the work. They’ve worked through the “beginning” stage, the “working” stage. Now they’re digging down into their works’ meaning, learning even more about what they’re writing about as they revise their work for perhaps the fifth or sixth time.
Many writers only let themselves go through the “working” stage. They get the story of their lives down; they get a good-enough draft and leave it at that. They’ve written about what’s happened. But they haven’t yet probed the significance of what they’ve written. They haven’t gotten at the story behind the story – the pattern behind events, the deeper meaning of their lives.
Pushing our work past the boundary of what we know into the territory of what we don’t know we know is hard emotional work. No wonder many writers write a good-enough memoir piece and leave it at that. Pushing into the unknown, admitting that we don’t really understand the narrative under our pen takes a great deal of courage. It’s hard work; it doesn’t come easily. In doing this work we encounter resistance to our story’s deeper meaning. We want to know what underlies appearances. But we don’t, also. Shifting the meaning of our lives is unsettling. It requires that we mourn the narrative we lose in order to substitute a new, more fully realized, more mature grasp of events.
Last night, we talked about what we’d each learned about our work just recently. I talked about how there’s a real misconception about how to write memoir – that you “know” what your life is about, and that you write what you know. The writers I work with know this isn’t the case. They know, as I do, that you only learn what your life is about as you write about it. And it’s hard. You have to “hang out” with being confused for a real long time. You have to push past the resistance to a shift in your narrative and in how you view your life.
In fact, often, just before a tremendous shift in the work, many writers – I’m one of them – get irritable, annoyed, anxious, even weepy. The work doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. As much as we thought we knew about what to write, in the writing, we’ve gotten muddled about the heart and soul of the story. What was clear is now confusing. What we thought we knew, we know we don’t quite understand.
And then, bang, an insight, just like that. Well, not really, just like that. It comes after having worked a long time. It comes after working hard. It comes on the fifth, sixth, seventh draft. And not before. Which is why many writers never get to this thrilling, though unsettling moment. After this moment, we, as writers, change. Our narratives change. You can almost see it – in fact you can see it – in the way a writer holds her body, in the timbre of her voice, in the way he walks.
I’ve been writing a scene about how my father came home from the war. He came with two gifts for me – the silk from a parachute (all parachutes during WWII were made of silk – imagine!), and a shell bracelet. When my father gives me the silk from the parachute, my mother turns away, and says, “Oh, Lou.” I can’t understand why she’s turning away. The man’s just come home after more than two years. I’ve written this chunk, and rewritten it, and only now understand why she turned away. The only way he could have gotten that silk was from the parachute of a man whose parachute hadn’t opened. He was bringing the war home; he was bringing death into our home. No wonder my mother turned away. Of course I didn’t know this as a child, didn’t know it in the writing of it through a bunch of drafts, only learned it recently.
This is thrilling, when the meaning of the work turns, when there’s a paradigm shift in how you see your work. But it’s hard too. For what I now have to do is integrate this new insight into the work. How do I let the reader know what I now know but didn’t know then, what I didn’t know for a long time? And how do I integrate into my sense of my father a man who – consciously or unconsciously – brought death home with him? That takes as much emotional work, as integrating this detail into my narrative takes in terms of craft.
There’s no way to get at these important, even seismic shifts, but to keep at the work, to keep at it and at it until its meaning begins to reveal itself.
Among the kinds of shifts the writers working with me described are the ones I outline below. Stick with the work long enough, and these are the kinds of shifts you can count on.
You’ve been writing at what you think are two separate “stories.” You keep at it, but you don’t know why. Suddenly, you realize the two stories are related, are, in fact, one story.
You’ve been writing at an event. Suddenly you realize why what happened happened. You didn’t have a clue before this. You understand the “backstory” that made this “front story” happen. You now understand the cause and effect in your narrative. You know you have to write the “backstory.”
You’ve been writing at a “character” in your narrative. A mother, say. You’ve written at her character again and again. Suddenly you understand that you’ve been idealizing her or demonizing her. Suddenly you understand there was more to her character than you’ve written so far.
You’ve been writing about yourself, about your father. Suddenly you see that there’s a pattern in your behavior that’s equivalent to that of your father’s, that there’s an unspoken set of rules in the way your family behaves that you’ve never understood before.
These are some, not all, of the significant shifts that we talked about last night. The writers I work with have earned the deepening of their narratives. But we talked, too, about the kind of pain that can come with insight. It isn’t that we don’t want to know what we learn as we work. But we have to make space in the process of doing the work to integrate what we learn into the meaning of our life’s story. Many of the writers I write with do this in their process journals. It’s in the journal that they puzzle out the impact of these shifts in meaning.
It’s important work, the deepening of our insights into our lives. Thrilling, both for the story on the page, and for our sense of what our life’s story means.