We know that writing a memoir shakes us up—it forces us to confront some of the stories we ”tried” to forget, the ones that won’t leave us alone. Writing pushes us to open doors that were closed forever, or so we thought, and open windows to let in fresh air. It rearranges the furniture in our minds, and makes us tramp through old gardens to find new shoots that are still alive and growing. Writing a memoir is full of surprises and dread and hope and anger. And sometimes it brings us to screaming as we walk around our house, scaring the cats. And other times the tears are welcome and refreshing, clearing our hearts of broken dreams to make room for new parts of ourselves.
Families huddle in the doorway, slyly hoping we will write about them but prepared to get angry if we do. They stare at the invisible line of “dirty laundry” that we’re not supposed to air in public, and wish they had different last names. Even if they do have different names, they are worried about what we are writing there in the back room, what ghosts we might summon they thought they’d banished. We are dangerous to know, and sometimes we are not welcome at Thanksgiving. Or if they let us in, they laugh too loud and try to avoid the stories because they know we have a tape recorder secretly running on our laps to get the dialogue just right and the stories are bigger than the turkey or the table and they start coming anyway, and after dinner out comes the photo box, you know the one that is broken down, with those little squares with white borders, wrinkled, some protected with white tissue paper, the faces from another era and another world staring back at us. They are supposed to be our relatives but now they are strangers and they are dead, but sometimes they were smiling and we can’t help but wonder what had just been said before the camera snapped and if they got into that Ford coupe under the bare trees and zoomed off together wearing their Sunday finery, and then what happened after that. But we will never know because there aren’t even any names on these scraps of photos and no stories. No one wrote them down.
Over apple pie, the family runs to the dictionary to look up words like “truth” and “lie” and start to argue about that summer when we were eight and Uncle Fred acted funny in the back room with the little girls whether grandma wore green or blue to the wedding, or if grandpa had a war wound or was it from a fall. But other times they bring the stories to us like bright ribbons of memory and a ticker tape parade of “do you remember,” and “I’ll never forget the Christmas that we…” and the colored ribbons furl upward toward the sun, and it all starts then, the rolling music of the stories and the cadences of memories told in sepia and rose, framed by Norman Rockwell. Because that’s how we’d rather remember it all, the myths and the good moments, the snapshots of laughter as we put the other stories behind, until we ask ourselves in the cold solitude of our writing studios later, “What really happened, and do I have to tell it that way? Can’t I just pretty it up and smooth it out, and then I’ll have better holidays, and no one will not look at me with the look that says, ‘watch out for him, he’s that memoir writer.'” Truth, the dance. Truth, the teacher. What is it?
As we write, we unearth the layers of time, dirt and all, the imperfections along with the bright smiles of hope that cross everyone’s face, even the suffering parents who hit us too often, thinking about the times they couldn’t believe their youth was over and it was all up to us now to make the world anew. There are the stories that are true and the stories we believe, and the way we want to remember everything, and who’s to say what’s true. It’s all true and it’s not true, and we have to do our best to find the threads that we can weave together and say, “This is my story. This is the way it is for me.”