Rearranging the Furniture

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.

The house on William Street, 25 years later.

The house on William Street, 25 years later.

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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.

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Why would you write a memoir?  

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26 thoughts on “Rearranging the Furniture

  1. Averil Dean

    We rearranged the furniture, too. It was the only way we could think to escape the familiarity of our lives and reimagine our circumstances. We were still trapped, of course, but we liked to see different bits of the prison walls.

    I could never write a memoir. My life is profoundly uninteresting and my mind isn’t interesting enough to make something of what isn’t there.

    1. Teri

      It absolutely was a way to escape the familiarity of our lives, a way to recreate our circumstances into something new. But you, my dear Averil, are anything but uninteresting.

  2. lisahgolden

    I wonder if furniture rearranging is related to writing because it’s something I do often. Teri, this is beautifully written. You put me right there in that house on Williams with you and your mother.

    Were I to ever write a memoir, it would probably be so that I could remember what I remember.

    1. Teri

      Reading your comment, Lisa, makes me think that moving furniture around is really not unlike moving sentences and paragraphs around to reorder the story, to make it something other than what it seems to be.

  3. Jennine G.

    That all makes sense. I’d also write memoir to make sense of things. That quote, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I’ve written” is really me.

  4. girl in the hat

    I loved this. I’ve been fooling around with memoir just recently, so I don’t have much experience to speak from, but so far, by moving pieces around, I see them differently and recognize connections I didn’t see before– not because they didn’t exist, but because spatial restrictions blinded me. But in my home, I have to rearrange the furniture every couple years. It’s much cheaper than moving.

    1. Teri

      It’s the recognizing connections you never knew were there that’s so fascinating to me. So many disparate parts that suddenly aren’t so disparate. And in making those connections, the story becomes both clearer and more complex than you ever imagined.

      As for moving the real furniture around, this might be my first house ever where I haven’t done it. I wonder what that means.

  5. Josey

    i don’t want to hijack it so much as make some fucking sense of it. something. i just want a better anchor. i moved back into the house of my memoir and gutted it. you’d think it would have given me all the clarity i needed, but really, it was just the first wipe at it. the tip of the iceberg.

    every time i try to rearrange furniture here where we are now, i always end up moving it back to the way it was when i started.

    …and tony’s pizza? yes. dear lord, just the name tony brings back the bright orangey-yellow box with the red cursive letters.

    speaking of memoir, i went to see david sedaris tonight. when the lights went out and his spotlight came on and he walked on stage–i got chills. so great. my favorite joke from david tonight: What’s the last thing you want to hear after blowing Willy Nelson? “I’m not Willy Nelson.”

    1. Teri

      Tony’s pizza boxes with the big red cursive letters. Yes!

      In your current house you try to rearrange the furniture, but end up putting it all back the way is was when you started? I wonder what this might mean???

      We’re seeing David Sedaris in a couple of weeks — I’ll let you know if we get the Willy Nelson joke. 😉 I’m excited. Can’t remember the last time I saw him, and he’s so great in person.

      1. girl in the hat

        Teri! Are you seeing him at the War Memorial? If so, look for me at the bookseller’s table! (I’ll be the one with pen marks all over her hand just in case I actually GET TO MEET HIM! *just the thought and I nearly wet my pants* because I know I’ll lose my mind.)

      2. Teri

        Oh Anna, I wish! I’m seeing him in San Jose. But I hope like heck you get to shake his hand or, even better, hug him!!

  6. jpon

    I’m like Averil–something interesting would have to happen to me first, before I could even consider a memoir. In fact, last year a journal invited me to write a piece for their creative nonfiction section. I had so little to say about myself that I wound up writing about my grandfathers.

    1. Teri

      Joe, I’m thinking you and Averil aren’t giving yourself enough credit for being fascinating —– though I’d love to be able to write fiction like you two.

  7. Downith

    “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 love this. Am bookmarking the essay to read it later.

    If I wrote memoir, it might be to make sense of things, but I love this idea of a second chance.

  8. Deb

    I don’t know why I would write one, just why I wouldn’t. Some stories are best left to die with me. I’ve built a careful past for my children, one lodged in idyllic country days. There’s no romance in the reality, no making sense, rising above, lessons learned. Only perseverance and forgiveness. Not exactly a story arc.

    1. Teri

      I love that, Deb, that you know why you would NOT write a memoir. Sometimes I think there are way more reasons for not, but I’m still plugging along ….. maybe in protest of my own reasons.

      1. Deb

        You are far braver than I, Teri. Besides, the pieces you put out into the world make me smile and break my heart. So beautiful. It’s going to be great. Keep plugging, friend!

  9. JustAnotherEmpress

    I love the idea of furniture rearranging and its relationship to memoir. And the scene you paint is so vivid, Teri. The Tony’s frozen pizza as reward.

    I think that memoir writing is a sort of autopsy. You know? You become the ME, and your former self is the dead body, and you’re trying to figure out how you died. I know, I know, pretty dark, right? I tried writing memoir in grad school, and after a while, I just wanted the dead person I was examining to not be me, so I chickened out and scurried back to fiction. Memoir writers are brave. So very brave.

    1. Teri

      Oh yes, I’m the dead body alright, trying to figure out how and why I died —- not dark at all. 😉 This is absolutely what memoir writing feels like on so many days, like I’m digging around in the wounds and trying to piece together what happened, in what order, and why.

  10. MSB

    I have dabbled in memoir writing and I think Mr. Aciman’s quote is a valid one. It certainly seams as if I am “hijaking” my past. As for rearranging the furniture, I’ve written much about this. Growing up in one room with your family lends itself to a lot of creativity in this way. Sometimes it was a desk, other times it was a bed that demarcated one’s space. Really, my home resembled a flea market. I’m off to read the article now. Thank you!

    1. Teri

      So very true, MSB. When you live in a small space, or one room, you do what you can to make it your own, to draw lines of privacy, etc… I was just telling someone the other day that I’d never bought — had never seen anyone buy — a new piece of furniture until I was well into adulthood. And no one I knew ever owned a home or had a mortgage. I thought having a mortgage (such a fancy word!) must mean you were really really rich.

      1. Deb

        I still have a hard time buying new furniture. I’m a compulsive decorator (hmm maybe furniture rearranger) but usually work around what I have, or junk shop finds. The one room not put together to my satisfaction? The one we bought the new furniture for.

  11. LauraMaylene

    When I was four years old, my mom entered my bedroom to see all my furniture completely rearranged. (The kid-sized stuff I was capable of moving.) She assumed I’d just been playing, and so she promptly put everything back where it belonged. Then, when she was in another room, she heard me stomp into my bedroom, say, “Now who did THIS???” and set about rearranging everything just the way I had liked it. That was the first sign that I was a “rearranger” — from then on through my teens, I would arrange and rearrange furniture as I saw fit.

    I don’t rearrange so much anymore. Instead, whenever I move somewhere new, I take some time to feel out which is the “right” arrangement. Once it’s there, I know it’s complete and done, I’m satisfied, and things stay that way almost for good.

    God, I wish my writing was like that.

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