Last night I let the dogs out for the last time and, while they did their business, looked up to see a slight slice of moon above the hundred year old oak. I locked all the doors, skipped the all-important (important, so they say, the elusive they) face washing and lotions and teeth brushing, and headed to my bed. The shutdown.
But I had no book. Or, worse, I had many books, a virtual tipping stack of books, but it just so happens I’m bored to tears by every single one of them. On my way up the stairs and without a thought, I nabbed this Joan Didion essay collection. Plucked it right from the center of the shelf. Like magic.
Here’s what I read before I went to sleep:
The cracked crab that I recall having for lunch the day my father came home from Detroit in 1945 must certainly be embroidery, worked into the day’s pattern to lend verisimilitude; I was ten years old and would not now remember the cracked crab. The day’s events did not turn on cracked crab. And yet it is precisely that fictitious crab that makes me see the afternoon all over again, a home movie run all too often, the father bearing gifts, the child weeping, an exercise in family love and guilt.
Hmmm. During the day I’d been working on a scene in which I, too, am ten years old. I’m with a friend, a black friend, an unwelcome black friend, at the county courthouse and something horrible happens. I remember the day in fine slices of detail ….. the elevator, the air-conditioning, the fear, the way we never spoke of it. The story I’m telling turns on this event. But did it even happen?
At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.
Sometimes I read my narrative in my memoir, my perspective, my take, the “me” in the book, and I’m not sure I recognize her. In fact, it’s when she starts to look familiar that I find myself cringing, that I start to wonder who that person is, whether it is the real me that is or was, or some creation of a me based on the role I’m playing in the scene. This is what occurs to me when people tell me they want to write a memoir. Are you ready to see all of your selves? What if you don’t recognize you?
Bedtime. Sleep-time. When my eyes dried out and dropped heavy, when it came time, finally, to send the dogs to their own bed, to settle down and curl up on my side and pull up the heavy winter covers, I placed the paperback facedown on my nightstand, without a bookmark, without an ink mark, without any need to remember where I was. Or who I was. Am.
What happened this week, when you took your book to bed?
I’m reading Blue Nights right now. Didion is a genius.
She is, Jen. She is. I love my Joan.
this is good. all of it. what you’re digging. what you’re writing here. (joan got you good.)
i’m so exhausted by the time the end of the day i don’t make it to bed with a book as i keep falling asleep on the couch. and it’s freezing here. cold weather makes me feel like crawling in a cave.
I agree. This just kept ringing, like a gong. Nicely done.
As you know well, Josephine, all this digging is exhausting. You’re digging, too. I know you are.
mostly i’ve been avoiding.
I fall asleep when my books go to bed with me…never used to be like that before.
But, I feel you on the rest. After writing out so many encounters with my mom I came to realize that most of what I grew up thinking were her impossible expectations, were really my own all along. I inferred many things based on things my mom said and did, but the problem is that her decisions were adult decisions with specific intentions. As a child I could neither see those intentions nor understand them if I had. It gets strange when you start learning things that have been a part of you along but you didn’t know it.
It’s interesting to look at your mother’s decisions and see them from her then-adult perspective vs. what you thought it was in your kid-mind back then. (does that even make sense?) I look at many of my mother’s decisions and actions now and think, yes, of course that’s why she did that.
The really fascinating part about a memoir is when you put it in a philosophical context. Heidegger (and forgive me if it wasn’t you Heidegger, and forgive my take on it if is was you) had the idea that once something actually happened it was done along with the person who did it. For example, you’re late for your train in the morning and you see it pulling into the station. You run to catch it, papers flying, tripping over your untied shoes. The only thing in your mind is that you have to catch that train. And you do. But once you’re on the train, you think about how embarrassed you are, what you must have looked like, how others must have viewed you.
The thing he was positing, is that the you doing the remembering is imagining a you that never existed. Because the you that was running for the train had not one care other than catching the train. Everything else is false because you are making up the you that would have been embarrassed. She never existed. You created her after the fact.
All of this is to say, albeit poorly, that I can’t imagine how difficult it must be when you are dealing with the you that exists presently, and come up against the you that you created all those years ago in your remembrance of events, and challenge both of those with the you that is the writer trying to make it all come together: Present you, past you, remembered past you, and what will make the story sing.
Phew. My brain hurts just thinking about it. Continue on being a rock star. I suppose I could have just left it at that…
That’s super interesting. Introducing philosophy to the act of writing a memoir is either brilliant or suicidal.
Thank you for sharing that, Lyra. My brain is not hurting at all —- I’m riveted!
Love this concept. Thank you for posting it.
That is a fascinating concept! I love it.
i’m going to be thinking about your Heidegger analogy years from now.
Go Dog Go – such a classic.
Teri, this is fascinating. How much of what we remember really happened and how much is coloured by photos, family stories told and retold, and other events merged into it?
Last night I laughed out loud reading How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran:
“…there is scarcely a woman in Britain wearing a pair of pants (underwear) that actually fit her. Instead of having something that, sensibly and reassuringly, contains both the buttocks, they’re wearing little more than gluteal accessories, or arse-trinkets.”
I have a giant family portrait on the wall (me, husband, kids, dogs) that was taken the day of a funeral. My best friend’s son had died, I’d barely slept in 4 days, and we’d been up late the night before printing and collating memorial cards. My daughter was home from college so we kept the appointment with the photographer and just powered through it.
I look at this portrait every single day. My smile is too big and wide-eyed. Faking it. But only I would know it.
This is why we write memoir. To attempt to understand who we are.
Who we are, and who everybody else is, too.
That’s true. I hadn’t thought of that before.
You know how simple things can seem? How someone seems almost one-dimensional, either all good or all bad? It’s impossible to write a memoir and not see people in a bigger context, as more 3 dimensional, as more real. I swear it’s made me more open and forgiving, writing this book.
I wish I could say the same. I feel like I’m getting less tolerant.
“must certainly be embroidery” …just perfect, that.
Teri, I firmly believe this is such a core part of the human experience, for our characters, for ourselves, and it’s one I love to explore. There seems to be so much theory on when we really begin to catalog memories as children but I suspect it is far earlier than many think. Conversely, those of us with imaginations more vivid might find themselves confusing memory with imagined, or even dreamed.
When readers ask if the fiction writer bases any of her characters on herself, how can we not answer yes? What else, really, are we drawing from if not our own experience, even if it’s our experience of someone else’s memories.
Yes, on the fictional characters for sure. We are in all of our characters, complex beings we are….
Last week I lay in bed, close to sleep, while the entire landscape of a new short story revealed itself to me. I quietly took it all in, and while in most cases I’d force myself to get up and write it all down before I forgot it, this time I knew I’d remember. And I have. It’s rare when all the bones of a story are in place for me before I even start writing, but when it happens, I take full advantage of it.
I love this Didion book but haven’t read it in years — perhaps I need to re-read.
Isn’t it fascinating how things come most fully formed when you’re nodding off to sleep, when you’re most relaxed and open?
Who let the dogs out? Sorry, someone had to say that.
You chose one of my favorite books to read. Didion’s eye for the ironic has held me in thrall since the first time I encountered her writing. I may have to pull that one off the shelf myself. But for now I am slogging through a book I promised to review, a tome so pompous and self-important that it is sheer torture to read, and will pose a reviewer’s ultimate challenge when it comes time to find something positive to say about it.
I can’t believe Joan published that book 50 years ago. To be that open while that young ….
I feel for you on the review. I’m not sure I could read “pompous and self-important” right now, as nit-picky as I’m feeling. I can barely read a decent book, hence the going back to classic Joan.
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This is why I think memoir is the most difficult of all writing. It requires everything: courage, reflection, honesty, creativity . . . I could go on and on. I could never do it because I don’t have the intellectual wherewithal (or an interesting story), but I can’t fucking wait to read yours.