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.