by Heather Cairou, NAMW Member & NAMW Member-only Teleseminar Presenter for September
I had to write my way out. Out of my pain, out of the story I told about myself, out of my myths and misperceptions, and into my own truths.
I wrote on big yellow pads, the backs of old envelopes, and cocktail napkins. I wrote around the edges of magazine pages as I waited in line for the bus. I wrote in small notebooks that I carried with me everywhere, buying and beginning new ones when I’d forgotten to bring the old. I wrote in my head at the supermarket, and scribbled sentences on the backs of register slips. I left a pad and a pen by my bed because I wrote in my sleep. I piled the bits and pieces on my desk, typed them into the computer, printed out the days work. Next morning I’d sit with the hard copy, read it out loud, listened for the speed bumps and the phrases that rang false. I edited the pages with a pen, crossed out and rewrote, typed them back into the computer, and went on.
It took me twenty years. I wrote like crazy for periods of time, then would stop for several months because I had to leave the past and come back to live fully in the present. I had to digest my own experience. Sometimes I went to therapy to discuss what I had discovered through my writing. I went to as many writing workshops as I could. I made it a project to read every National Book Award nominated memoir each year that I was writing, so I could be assured I was reading – and learning – at a high level. I read every book on the craft of writing that was on the shelf. I researched the history of my home town, books on siblings, and University studies on siblings of disabled children. Then I wrote again.
Through the years, I went through several drafts: the pity party draft (where I felt oh so sorry for myself), the agenda draft (where I got back at everyone who’d ever hurt me), the faux literary draft (the one that was supposed to win the big award), and on and on. With each draft, I changed as a woman and developed as a writer, so that I found I needed yet another draft, convinced I could write the next one a higher level of both craft and insight. I drove my friends and supporters mad. There were many, many days when I would write a few sentences, lay down on the floor and wail for an hour, then get back up and continue to write. At first I was concerned what my family would think, how they would feel, but as I went on I wrote more and more for me and for the story, because it was necessary that I did so. I did not write for publication until the very last draft.
If you are worried about what others are going to think, you can’t write the story the way it needs to be written, and there’s no point in doing it. I wrote to find out what the story was, and to serve it. I wrote to heal myself, to make sense of the chaos I felt, to excavate the truth, not just as I thought I remembered it, but also as I discovered it to be in the process.
To write an effective memoir, you have to be willing to go deep into the well and damn the torpedos, if you’ll excuse the cliches. I had a quote by Virginia Woolf above my desk the whole time: “If you don’t tell the truth about yourself, you can’t tell it about anyone else.” My goal was to reach as much truth as I could within myself, peeling through the layers of what I had previously thought was truth, finding deeper truths I didn’t know existed. This effort alone is tremendously worthwhile as a human being and a writer, even if in the end you have a work that you feel you can’t publish while others are still living. You will have given yourself a Masters course on your life, and your writing. Perhaps if need be, you can then take the bones of the story and create fiction out of it that will have a shape and a depth it would not have had if you hadn’t done this work. This is exactly what I’m doing with my next book, a work of fiction that will be autobiographically based.
For a long time, I tried to tell my sister’s story. This was impossible. I finally learned I had to tell my own story, and that my sister’s story would be revealed in the process. This taught me to value my own story, and therefore myself. I found my own worth. I also learned that in memoir one must master both a narrative voice and a reflective voice. Reflection is a huge part of memoir, and it is in the process of reflection that truths bob to the surface. I took my husband’s advice and wrote everything, because an important factor in writing memoir is what you choose to put in, and what you choose to leave out of the final, crafted draft, and you can’t know that until you’ve written it. These decisions cannot come ahead of time.
There is no need to rush a memoir, in the writing, or towards publication. What you put out there will be out there forever, so you want to make very sure you’ve said what you wanted to say with the best craft and compassion possible. To write a successful memoir, you have to have found distance and perspective. Sometimes this comes through the writing itself. You must endeavour to write with love, forgiveness, and understanding, or at least write your way towards that. Consider that your memoir will have a gift in it for your readers, so that they can leave your story changed in some positive way. Although my life experience was painful, I wanted to make it a light for others, not just a dark confessional. Remember also that memoir is not autobiography. It is not the facts of an entire life, only a window into a life – it focuses on a specific place, time, or relationship, and as I said before, it requires reflection. It uses the elements of imagery and metaphor. It is a life not merely reported on, but distilled, like a good poem.
Writing a memoir – and standing in your truth – takes guts, patience, emotion and craft. It take discipline and resilience. Sometimes you will sit at your desk despairing, asking the empty room “Why would anyone else care about this?” The question, however, is why do YOU care? Have passionate thoughts about the consequences of your own life. Take responsibility for your own experience. Make peace with the facts, tell the story for the story’s sake, without a hidden plea for help or sympathy. Decide where the integrity – the honest heart of the story – rests, while at the same time giving respect to events as you remember them. Then write your ass off.