During my first years of serious writing, I labored under the conceit that I was writing a book. The thought was bracing; it motivated me to climb out of bed at 5:30 so I’d have a half-hour of solitary creativity before I had to face a classroom of seventh graders. Only as I entered my third and fourth years on the project, having given up public school teaching and discovered that my memoir was not an adventure story about biking through Wales but rather an uncomfortably revealing story about reconciling bisexuality with my Christian upbringing; only as I revised the book a dozen times did I begin to understand what was really happening. The book was writing me. The primary creation was the self I became because of the writing—a self humbled by the truth of my story and yet less afraid to own this truth; a self no longer blindly controlled by events in my past, now able to be an active agent in framing them; a self in conversation with culture and history and my community. My commitment to the memoir’s craft pulled me out of the closet and into public discourse, albeit in a small sphere, in a way that enlarged my life.
Bob Anderson, in his memoir Out of Denial, describes the process as being like an Escher drawing:
A hand holding a pencil is drawing on a piece of paper another hand holding a pencil. The two pencil points converge, forming an endless loop in one of those curious Escher puzzles: where does the action begin and end, what is reality and what is dream or intention, who is the drawer and who is the drawn?
…I am writing, and I am written; I tell my story, and my story tells me. It’s an endless loop, this act of living and re-membering.
Embedded in the act of self-understanding is the act of self-creation, the authoring of one’s own being, he writes. This feedback loop is especially obvious in creative nonfiction, where the subject matter is personal experience and where the author is both narrator and main character. Montaigne put it this way: “Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me.” But all genres have the potential for this intimate connection between text and self, and the best writing emerges when the stakes are high—when the author writes what’s most pressing and heart-felt—regardless of form. “Follow the ache,” my colleague Cheri Register recommends.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew