Recently I was speaking to Barbara Turner-Vesselago, author of Writing without a Parachute – The Art of Freefall and writing teacher extraordinaire, about the requirements and cost of writing memoir. In an upcoming article for the WCDR’s Word Weaver magazine, she shares some of the challenges she faced when her editor pushed her to say more about particularly difficult passages. Passages in which she’d felt she had stripped right down. I felt her pain.
I am working on a memoir of my first year in India, currently and tentatively titled, Touched, about my experiences in the Osho Rebalancing training. My mentor at The Humber School for Writers, is the remarkable Donna Morrissey, author of several wonderful novels, including, Kit’s Law, and who, much like Barbara’s editor, consistently zeroes in on the toughest bits of my work and says, more please. Those bits that scraped at nerve endings, pushed me out of my chair and around the room before I forced myself back into the chair to continue, that even so almost didn’t get written; those bits. She wants more.
Theoretically, I get it. One must get right inside a character in order to empathize, to be interested, even, and the only way to do that is to expose them, let them be vulnerable. It’s just a bit different when the ‘character’ is oneself.
My friends and fellow writers all love and appreciate the small incisions made at the breastbone. We breathe and hold our breath together when one of us reads a passage where the writer has shown themselves with all their blemishes in plain view. But out there? I’ve read the backlash from reviewers and commenters on various blogs – criticism that goes beyond an assessment of craft or form and zeroes in on the personal. Tabloids thrive on dirt, and that’s because there are many people who love to chow down on a heaping helping of dirt. In writing fiction, the writer is able, to a reasonable degree, conceal themselves behind the manufacturing screen. With memoir, if you don’t take off all your clothes and a good lot of your skin, no one will be all that interested.
A few years ago, when I first began to spin this tale, I had tentatively titled it, “A Safe Distance”, due to the fact that I always stay just close enough to the edge of just about everything to ensure the possibility of a quick exit. A friend asked me why that was, and suggested that unless I was willing to explore and expose the underlying events, traumas, etc., that created that tendency I wouldn’t really have a story. Crap.
I had a similar issue with the novel, The Cost of Weather. That story was inspired by a real story, and in the beginning I endeavoured to stay true to some actual events while crafting a fictional story around it. Not only did that not work, but it shut me down. In fiction, people have to respond with action. If they don’t, the story can be very flat. Unless of course the writer has formidable literary skills and is able to dive deep into psyche and weave the tale from within. I am not that writer, although at the start I fancied myself capable of such nuanced writing. Since in real life the character took very little outward action, my fictional character appeared on the page as a limp ‘floorcloth’ as one friend called him. I had to distance myself from ‘fact’ in order to write a story that moved and a character with whom to sympathize.
In the memoir, I am being asked to do a similar thing. Since most of the conflict in this portion of my life was largely internal, and not earth-shatteringly traumatic, I need to bump it up a little in order to make the story compelling. As Donna reminds me, this is ‘Creative’ non-fiction. So in this memoir I’m now hungrier, thirstier, more heartbroken, more insecure, and so on, than I remember.
But here’s the rub: in exaggerating the ‘truth’ I think I have come that much closer to it.
So, I forge ahead, travelling along that thin line between finessing and dodging… or overdoing it and spread eagling all over the page. There is more than one line on which one needs to balance. It takes more courage to be vulnerable than to be tough, evidently.