Holding On, Letting Go

April 14, 2011

Last night I was talking with a group of writers about the challenges of finishing a book.  Later, I continued the conversation with a writer friend of mine.  She’d spoken about how she has two books – two memoirs – in progress.  But she said she hasn’t finished either of them though she’s published other books, none of them memoirs.  One of the memoirs-in-progress is about a friend of hers who died.  This is the book she wants to finish.  This is the book she hasn’t yet finished though she will, I know, in time.

Last night, she realized, in one of those blinding moments of insight, that she might be having trouble finishing the book because she doesn’t want her friend to die in the book.  As long as she keeps writing, as long as she keeps describing her friend alive, her friend isn’t dead to her, her friend is still alive.  “I can’t kill her; I haven’t killed her yet,” she told the group.   And what I thought to myself, but didn’t say, then, but said to her later, was “You didn’t kill her; she died; and writing about her won’t keep her alive.  But finishing the book will help you move on, though not entirely, because as Elizabeth McCracken said in An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, about her stillborn child, ‘Closure is bullshit.'”

I told her this because I’ve experienced this holding on, too, with the book I’m writing about my father during World War II.  This book has taken a long time to write, necessary time, I know.  Yet I recognize a “holding on” quality to my work on this book that I want to move beyond, that I’m working hard to change.  It goes like this.  I’m writing a chapter; I have everything in place for the chapter; I stop and read yet another book about the time period.  It’s a book I know my father read.  A book, though, that isn’t necessary for the narrative.  As I read, I feel very close to my father’s experience, I feel very close to him, and I know that this is why the book’s taking me so long to finish.  As a writer friend of mine told me about her experience writing a memoir of her father, “It was the first time I had him all to myself, and I didn’t want that time to pass.”

But World War II took my father away.  No matter how hard I work, no matter how much I write, I can’t bring him back into my life as a real person who hasn’t left me either back then or now.  When he left for the war, I was a toddler, I couldn’t talk, couldn’t write, couldn’t communicate with him while he was away, couldn’t really understand what was happening.  As much as I wish I could change my past, as much as I sometimes imagine that in writing I’ll change my past, I can’t change it.  I can only understand it in a different way.

Holding on to the work is like trying to hold on to my father.  It’s like hoping that the past will happen differently even as I’m writing the past as I’ve learned about it.  But holding on to the work won’t change my experience with my father leaving for the war nor will it change what my mother was like after my father left, the woman who had difficulty, of course, when he was gone.  Holding on the work can’t change the fact of that war.  Holding on to the work can’t, as a good writer friend informed me, stop the war.  (When I told her about all the research I was doing, research way beyond the parameters of my project, she said, astutely, “What you’re trying to do is stop that war from happening.”)

It’s magical thinking that might be making me hold on to this book.  Magical thinking that assumes at some deep pre-verbal level that holding on to the book will change things.  But it won’t.  As long as it takes to write the book, even if it takes years, writing the book won’t change my very painful history, though it might change how I look at my very painful history, how I understand what happened.  But that shift in perspective can only happen if I finish the book.

These are very primitive, pre-verbal feelings, this hanging on to the book.  Pre-verbal feelings I’ve learned are stored in implicit memory, not explicit memory.  An infant experiences sensations and feelings.  Infants pick up the emotional context of what’s happening around them.  But they can’t put words to feelings.  As an adult, putting language, or, rather, finding language to express pre-verbal feelings helps in dealing with loss and separation.  Finding language to express losses in adulthood helps too.  But we must remember that writing doesn’t necessarily help us get over anything.  The loss is still there.  But as Audre Lorde said, we hold it in a different way.

So our challenge is to let the work go instead of holding on to the work.  We can only use language to clarify what we experienced.  When we finish the work, when we let it go, we won’t lose our parents, our friend, our subject.  They are still there for us in memory.  By finishing the book, by letting it go, we acknowledge our loss.  We allow ourselves to move into an adult recognition that what’s past is past, and that, through language, we can understand the past, though we can’t change it.

Hanging on to a book, I think now, seems to be like believing at some very deep level that continuing to write will change what came before.  That continuing to write can in some way render innocuous and painless what was harmful and hurtful.  That continuing to write will change the fact of separation and loss.  That continuing to write will change the way our parents were and change what happened to them.  But it won’t.

This is a very difficult admission to make.  But we have to finish our books.  Because only by finishing them can we move into the process of understanding that our work can render the past, but that it can’t change the past.  Still, finding the language to explain the past, to make sense of it, is enough of a triumph.

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10 Responses to “Holding On, Letting Go”

  1. Rashena Says:

    Louise, this is beautiful and exactly what I needed to hear this morning. When I emailed you, I mentioned that I was working on an essay about MY friend dying and I had the first half or so of it workshopped in class, and since then I have kind of stopped thinking about it; I mean, I’ll look at it and then think about what else I should write, but then I put it back into the folder. LOL Next month it will be a year since he passed and I know I have to finish it for several important reasons and so I will work on it some more today.

    I also picked up Half a Life by Darrin Strauss like you suggested! 🙂

    THANK YOU!

  2. Julie Raynor Says:

    Boy oh boy, Louise, this one brings tears to my eyes. I have recently begun to see and understand this truth. Perhaps because I am getting so close to finally finishing my first book, a fictionalized version of what happened in my family. But also because I am learning that we can only let go of the people we love. Intellectually we know it is not possible to change the past, nor the feelings of others toward it, or us. But on a primal emotional level, as you say, writing is a complicated process, especially if what we are working on is about something profound from our own past. We are making art of our vision to explore fully our own experience, but also hoping that if others see what we see, they can share it. This is the bond between writers and readers, who thrill to discover that in that world of language and shared perception they are not alone.

    I realize now that I have been writing to the siblings from whom I was separated as a child in the hope that if they knew what happened to me they would understand, and that somehow our breach would be bridged. That if my rendering of the story dazzled with enough brilliance, imagination, and love we would be reunited in a more glorious version. After all, anything is possible in fiction.

    But nothing can ever change what happened, or the difference in our experience. There is only living our own lives, doing the work, to make sense of it; and the sense it makes is only our own, too. As you say, therein is the triumph. That we gave ourselves voice.

  3. Danielle Says:

    I’ve noticed this happen to me a few times. I think to myself, okay, I want to tell this story. I think that writing will help heal the pain, which it does, but I always end up hitting a wall that I’m afraid to knock down. Even though it already happened, writing will make it happen again if I’m too emotionally involved in it. Then I’ll be reliving it, not simply writing about it. I’ve also noticed that when I go to write about something difficult that has happened to me, it’s like I forget how to speak English (or write for that matter). I feel like all that comes out is gibberish. I suppose even after all these years I’m still not ready to write about certain events.

  4. Rashena Says:

    Same here, Danielle. I put the piece aside for weeks, and I realized that I haven’t cried about my friend in weeks, a record, because I haven’t been thinking or writing about it. But Louise here just gave me a kick in the ass, so back in I go. LOL Good luck with your writing, both of you! I’m also going to keep my copy of Writing as a Way of Healing at the ready to keep my head down and go through it, honoring my feelings.

  5. ashley Leavitt Says:

    Perhaps strangely, I sometimes find that I can not write about things I am not ready to let go of. As if by writing them, I will lose them forever rather than keep them. As if the words on the page become the thing itself and I no longer have ownership over it. I fear I can never “take it back” or change it. That by writing it, makes it the “official,” unchangeable version of what was, and from there pivots all that “is” in the now. Psychologically, this can be terrifying and paralyzing. I have been avoiding working on the real grit of my current memoir piece for a week or more because I don’t want to confront some aspects of my relationship with my mother –whom I talk to often. It is as if I feel that putting parts of our experiences on paper devalues them somehow, makes them less real, less creative. I will fear I will always refer back to the “print” version of what was, and stop reinventing our memories together. This makes me too sad and scared. Then I do not dare write.

  6. Shayla D. Cook Says:

    I was taken aback when you quoted Elizabeth McCracken in order to underline the complexity of letting go. To understand and grasp how powerful memoir writing is, how can one not find closure? Now when I hear the term ‘memoir,’ the phrase ‘writing as a way of healing’ instantly pops into my mind. I am hoping for healing to take place as I write. Rewriting the past is impossible, but to relive the past while writing is probable. When writing memoir, the writer tends to battle with self. We battle with the truth and the past. In the past, truth exist. To rewrite the truth and past is impossible. To recognize the truth can be tuff to deal with at times. Supressed memories are making me struggle with writing my fifteen page memoir. I find myself holding on to the past because I am focused on trying to remember what really happened.Letting go is more complex than usual.

    Thank You Louise.

  7. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    I haven’t experienced this yet but this post is sound advice. I can see how writers can get caught up in the writing. It is tough to write about a major event in one’s life and even more difficult to confront it. However, this can start the healing process in dealing with difficult memories. What Elizabeth McCracken says about closure can be true but when you let go of an experience in order to write about it or finish a project; that can have a healing affect. Whether it give some comfort or complete closure, at least there is some growth.

  8. ajuele Says:

    This post helped so much with my current work. I’ve been writing about my family’s immigration from the Philippines, and how I have very few memories that I can call my own. Most things I know of my homeland I have learned from hearsay or from photographs. Writing the memoir, I discovered that I was terrified of “painting over” my real memories with those of other family members, and even the memories that I had conjured while writing. I was holding on to those memories. Each time I wanted to finish the piece, I thought that if I were to finish, then the memories would somehow be altered through my writing, that my grandmother, who was as dominant character in the piece, would be gone for good.

    But I had to learn that I could hold on to my old memories without erasing them with new ones, and that letting go of the piece when I was finished would be the only way to do so. It wasn’t easy, and I found that holding on to something that I thought was so idyllic – my memory of the Philippines – was much easier than letting go of them to construct the actual past, the events that propelled our family to immigrate. But it was the fusion of holding on, and letting go that let me do this, to push forward, and will help me finish the task at hand.


  9. I find this post interesting mostly because in my first major memoir, in which I wrote about my mother, I wanted to get away from it as quickly as possible.

    This may be because my mother is still here, but there were no parts that I wanted to dwell on. In fact, I hardly wanted to write about her in the first place in fear of hurting her, yet the words just came and came and came. I wonder now, reading your post about how hard it is for us to let some of these things we write go, the difference between your hardship in letting go and my ease in letting the piece live on in oblivion. Perhaps it’s my unwillingness to live with her while writing this piece that I knew she wouldn’t understand. Even now, it lives on my computer, locked away where she won’t find it. I’ve been told it’s a lovely tribute to her, and yet I know it would break her heart. Perhaps that is the reason that I cannot hold onto it.

  10. Peter Orozco Says:

    This is a very interesting post about holding on and letting go of a memory. I understand everyone’s struggle to hold on to a memory and refuse to let that go, but I’ve come across a different reaction with my writing. I wrote for the purpose of letting go. I have type 1 diabetes, and when I bring it up, people usually tell me to write about it. I was tired of getting this request because my life isn’t just about juvenile diabetes, but I also realized that I was afraid to write about it. I was afraid to discover something about myself that I have kept hidden from reality. After writing a short piece about my diabetes, I felt so relieved to have been done with it and let it go. I felt I could finally move on.


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