One of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was to rearrange our furniture. We moved a lot, so our chairs and tables and beds were often in new places, but I also remember my mother waking up on a Sunday morning, hands kind-of on hips, saying, “What do you think we could do with this?” While she smoked her Marlboro lights and drank her black coffee, the two of us would spend the entire day — summer or winter — moving the furniture around, finding a new look, creating something unusual and new and exciting, something fresh for our life.
I recently read this essay about how writing memoir is like rearranging the furniture. Andre Aciman says: Writing alters, reshuffles, intrudes on everything. As small a thing as a shifty adverb, or an adjective with attitude, or just a trivial little comma is enough to reconfigure the past. And maybe this is why we write. We want a second chance, we want the other version of our life, the one that thrills us, the one that happened to the people we really are, not to those we just happened to be once.
I remember rearranging rooms most often in the William Street house: we’d slap up some curtains in a doorway and the dining room would become my (suddenly giant) bedroom; we’d move my mother’s bedroom to the living room, worry about the position of the windows, and move it back again; one time we set up a used ping pong table in what my grandmother called “the salon.” I remember, come evening, the sense of accomplishment, changing into our pajamas, maybe baking a Tony’s frozen pizza for supper, and watching TV with plates in our laps in a different room. So proud of ourselves. Like we’d done our work. Like we’d put something important to rest. Like we’d moved on. A fresh start.
In his essay, Aciman says: Writing not only plays fast and loose with the past; it hijacks the past. Which may be why we put the past to paper. We want it hijacked. Is this what it is to write a memoir? Are we hijacking it, claiming it, setting it in inked stone? “It” being our version of what was.
Why would you write a memoir?