by Arleen Williams
(Editor's note: Arleen was a PoetryBridge Featured Reader in April 2017.)
A while back, I was driving home to Seattle from eastern Washington with my sisters. I sat in the back seat. As we drove over Snoqualmie Pass and started the descent into the Puget Sound lowlands, I noticed two police vehicles parked in an open area, perhaps a weigh station parking lot, to the north of the highway. One was an SUV, the other a sedan. Both were black. They were parked head-to-head with the drivers’ windows aligned. The SUV was on the highway side, almost blocking the view of the sedan.
“Looks like that’s where the cops take a break,” I said.
“But there’s no donut shop around,” said my sister, the one riding shotgun.
We laughed and thought nothing more of it.
Five minutes down the road, a police SUV passed on our left. A moment later they’d pulled someone over.
“Where’d that guy come from?” I wondered.
“Same one we just saw,” my sister said.
“No way. The parked cars were black. That one’s white.”
“No,” my sister said. “It’s the same white SUV.”
So what happened? The paint color of the cop cars obviously hadn’t changed, so one of us had to be wrong. Was it her or me? Was the white SUV the same vehicle we’d seen parked or another? Was it possible that when we joked about donuts, my sister and I were actually looking at different cars?
If I were writing a memoir that included this scene, I’d write them as different vehicles. The two parked cars were black. The SUV that passed us was white. That’s what I saw and that’s what I remember. I also know my sister would tell me I was wrong. And maybe she’d be right.
I could contact the Washington State Patrol to find out what vehicles were patrolling the I-90 corridor that Saturday at that precise place and time. But for a memoirist the actual color of the SUV is not of primary concern unless it is an essential element of the story. Memoir is not the reporting of researched, measurable facts. It is the sharing of perception and personal memory.
I write memoir not only to remember people, places and events in my life, but also to make sense of those events, as well as the decisions I made and paths I took. I also write memoir because memory, how the human brain remembers or doesn’t remember, intrigues me.
I believe memoir – whether poetry, short essay or book-length work – is the most challenging form of creative nonfiction because while memoir allows us the freedom to revisit our past, it demands we dig deep with brutal honesty to make sense of life lived, choices made, and the consequences of those choices. If a writer is able, if I am able to write that deep personal truth, pain subsides, joy deepens and life goes on, richer and fuller than ever before. This is my experience writing memoir.
As a memoirist, I write my own memories, my personal version of events I struggle to understand. All the while I am aware that the simple act of recalling and transcribing memory, the act of turning memory into story and hopefully into art, alters the memory.
Memory is a sneaky devil, a slippery thing. As soon as I come close to what I believe to be an honest truth, shape-shifting is a risk. Especially when excavating memories from years past. The person remembering is not the same as the person who lived the experience. The me today – the rememberer, if you will – is not the same me as the young woman living in Mexico City, or the ex-pat moved back to Seattle after the disappearance of her youngest sister, or even the middle-aged daughter caring for her aging mother. The me changes, and as it changes so too does the way I perceive past events. The act of remembering alters the memories.
I am not the same woman or the same writer today as I was in 2002 when I began The Thirty-Ninth Victim. If I were to write that story today with the life experience, knowledge and understanding I now possess, I have no doubt it would be a different book from the one I wrote fifteen years ago. My perspective has changed. But that in no way invalidates the memories recalled or the story told back in 2002 when I began writing or in 2008 when the book was published.
Here’s another way to think about memory. There’s plenty of evidence about eye witnesses to the same crime reporting extremely different versions of what they saw, just as my sister and I saw different colored police vehicles. Witnesses have also changed testimony over time. Were they wrong? Did time and distance, life experience and perspective, change the way they saw the event?
Truth, like the perception of beauty, is individual. Look around you. If you were to describe this room, you might include furniture or wall color, the aroma of rich coffee, the sounds of voices and music. You might add an emotional layer. How are you feeling? How was your day? What is causing you fear, sadness, joy? That story of this evening would be your truth. But what about if you were blind or deaf? Then your memory of tonight would be markedly different. What if you’d just had a fight with a loved one or just celebrated a milestone? Would your telling of this evening be the same if you were to write your memoir right now or later this evening, a week or month from tonight, or ten years from today? Would the versions be the same if you wrote the piece multiple times? If we all wrote a description right now, I venture that they would be quite different. Sure, there’d be some consistent facts – a middle-aged reader, a half dozen people on an assortment of chairs, a barista in the back room – but the details we each choose to include or omit would vary widely. If we all wrote of tonight ten years from today, our stories would vary both from each other’s as well as from our own version written on the spot. Such is the truth of memoir.
Another challenge the memoirist faces is that of shaping memory into story, ideally story with universal appeal, story that readers can relate to, feel connected with, be inspired or entertained by. As William Zinsser explains in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir“A good memoir requires two elements – one of art, the other of craft. The first is integrity of intention … Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own.
The other element is carpentry. Good memoirs are a careful act of construction. We like to think that an interesting life will simply fall into place on the page. It won’t work … Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events. With that feat of manipulation they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone, not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events.”
Zinsser uses Henry David Thoreau to illustrate this. He reminds us that Thoreau did not simply return to Concord and transcribe his notes. Waldentook eight years and almost as many drafts to complete.
Memoir, like fiction, needs narrative structure: plot line, character development, beginning, middle and end. Just as in fiction writing, the writer must also consider genre. The Swenson Book Development website (http://www.swensonbookdevelopment.com/blog/2013/the-many-subgenres-of-memoir/) lists sixteen “subgenres” of memoir including travel, humor and grief. So a memoir must be crafted, but truth must be retained. The writer’s truth must be honored.
Why write memoir in the face of such challenge? Factual, perceptional and emotional truth are all aspects of personal truth, and all equally valid and essential to a memoirist. Yet finding and sharing personal truth and facing those who may not accept my version, my personal truth, of shared events is not easy.
I write memoir because I am fascinated by memory, by how the human brain processes and retains information as well as how it deals with extreme stress. I laid the groundwork for memoir writing in my late teens when I began my first journal. But let’s not confuse memoir with journal or diary writing. Memoir writing is the art and craft of taking a life event and creating a story in much the same way as one writes a short story or novel, with the added challenge of creating universal interest in what is essentially a personal experience.
I’ve written two book-length memoirs and am working on a third. I’ve explored three different aspects of my life, three areas to excavate pain, examine it from all sides, accept it, and then set it aside and move along in this short journey of life. I’ve also taught college classes, given conference presentations, led library workshops on memoir writing, but still I feel like a fraud, like I don’t really know what I’m talking about, like I’m snorkeling in murky water, blinded by the agitation around me. Such is the nature of memoir.
I wrote The Thirty-Ninth Victimto understand my sister’s murder and how our early family dynamics may have contributed to her dangerous missteps and flawed decisions. I wrote a yet unpublished memoir I’m still calling the Mom Book to try to make sense of motherhood, memory loss, and the consequences of writing memoir as I cared for my mother and witnessed her deepening dementia. I’m currently working on a new story about the years I spent as an undocumented ex-pat in the Mexico City of the early 1980s.
With the first memoir, I struggled with collective memory and family myth as well as with the effects of emotion on how we choose to remember or to avoid memories of those events that we’d rather have never experienced. Just as perception affects memory, emotion and memory are also strongly linked.
I’m from a family of nine siblings. Just as witnesses to a crime report widely divergent versions of the same event, so too my siblings and I hold different memories of our early years. World events and family circumstances changed. Kids grew into teens. Parenting styles transformed through the years.
Then there’s memory loss due to the emotional blocking of memories too painful to endure or the altering of memories to create a more manageable personal reality. As I watched my mother slowly lose memory after my father’s death in 2002 until her own death eleven years later in 2013, I couldn’t help but question what brought on such a dramatic decline. The simple physiological explanation – mini infract syndrome – felt inadequate. I believe my mother could no longer handle the emotional overload of loss. Losing her youngest daughter to murder had been traumatic enough, but now she’d lost the love of her life, her reason for living, her life partner of fifty-five years. With Dad gone, and only a few years later his dog, Mom had no one to take care of, to keep alive. So she let go. But the remarkable thing was that in memory loss she became in some ways the happy carefree woman she must have once been, the woman I only caught a glimpse of at a point in her life when she no longer remembered my name, when she confused me with a favorite sister who always made her laugh. A comparison I was happy to embrace.
Now as I work on The Ex-Mexican Wives Club,I’m reminded of a complaint I’ve heard echoed repeatedly throughout a lifetime of teaching English as a Second Language. “Teacher, I cannot remember anything,” my students tell me. The burden of learning a new language in a foreign culture layered over the trauma of immigration and day-to-day survival jumbles the mind. I experienced the same frustration when I was learning Spanish, a feeling of such confusion that all memory, even the simplest To Do list, slipped from grasp. Was this because the memory was stored in Spanish and I was trying to remember or visualize it in English?
In “Working memory: looking back and looking forward” published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience(1 October 2003) http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v4/n10/execsumm/nrn1201.html Alan Baddeley wrote, “The concept of working memory proposes that a dedicated system maintains and stores information in the short term, and that this system underlies human thought processes. Current views of working memory involve a central executive and two storage systems: the phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad.”
I imagine two storage systems, two file drawers or computer files, one full of sound, the other images, both in neat alphabetical order. When you learn a second language, do these drawers or files become a muddled mess? My minimal research shows equally minimal research has been conducted to address that question.
My current memoir project is focused on a six-year period I experienced over thirty years ago, in a culture utterly different from that of my youth, at a time when I spoke fluent Spanish. Is it linguistic and cultural differences that challenge my ability to remember people and events? Perhaps trying to retrieve memories in English creates a barrier to events experienced and remembered in Spanish. Perhaps returning to Mexico and relearning Spanish would allow greater access to memory.
Or is it that one moment, the moment I opened the letter from my mother telling me my youngest sister had gone missing? Did that moment short-circuit my memory? That’s my husband’s theory. At first I laughed him off. But shock treatment was once used to block memory or deter behavior. Life experiences can do the same. That’s what PTSD does, block some memories and intensify others.
So I keep writing. I have a treasure trove of letters, journals and photographs I am mining. I have contact with some, but not all, of the friends with whom I once shared Mexico. I have the ease of modern day research at my fingertips. And I have timed-writing practice. I set a timer, alone or in a group, plant my feet on the ground and go deep in hopes of being surprised by the memories that emerge on the page.
With all the challenges and pitfalls a memoirist faces, why publish? Why do I share my work – either as blog posts or as books? This is a question every memoirist must address, a difficult question, especially if the memoir explores painful events involving others who may not want the story to be told or who do not agree with your version of events. Given that few of us live in a vacuum, it’s likely that our work will include characters in addition to the narrator. How do we justify writing about others and why publish?
I walk a razor’s edge. I am from a very large first family that is not at all fond of having a writer amongst them, particularly a memoirist. I understand their position, but that does not change who I am or what I do. When I write memoir, I include others where their lives intersect with my own and are essential to the story I’m writing. I do not tell their stories or pretend to know where their truths lie. I tell my own.
I publish because finding voice necessitates the bearing of witness to that voice. I began writing to understand, and I published my first memoir because I understood that if I did not publish I was allowing others to censor my voice. Personal growth and strength came in learning from readers that my story touched many lives in a variety of positive ways. I found voice, and I found myself, by seeking publication for that first memoir. I will continue to write and publish memoir despite the challenges, and I hope you will do the same.