Underneath the act of writing memoir is an implicit belief: A wholeness exists among the fractured memories of a life. If we didn’t believe this, it’s unlikely any memoirist would take on the endeavor. In fact, I suspect many people write memoir because they long for a complete, unified perspective on their lives and intuitively understand that writing can help them achieve it.
Unfortunately, unity rarely makes itself apparent early on in the writing process. As we draft, our story first shows its brokenness. We write random chunks of memories. Or we write in strict chronological order, starting from the beginning, and grow distress by how little life this stream of facts contains.
Entire periods of our lives we can’t remember at all, and the images we do remember seem random. When a scene arrives complete and in great detail, it raises reams of new questions and demands that other scenes be written as well. Eventually a writer amasses enough material to work with but is absolutely overwhelmed. So many pages of print, all so messy and disconnected! In the face of this chaos, it’s easy to despair. Not only have you NOT found unity in your story, you’ve made matters worse by writing in such a disorderly fashion.
In my experience, this disorder is the necessary precursor to unity. Writing memoir is an awful lot like creating stained glass; you have to gather the broken pieces before you can envision fitting them together into a cohesive image. When I’m at this stage of a project, I often revel in the sensation of foreknowledge that comes to me– the whole exists just beyond my awareness. Intellectually I believe there’s unity to a life because I see it lived out. We each have a unique and complete personhood infused with personality; despite our brokenness we are each whole, and therefore our stories must be as well. But I also have a intuitive experiential knowing of unity that doesn’t need my brain. Whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, the themes exist within our life stories that will bring them wholeness. These themes are the questions that flummox you year after year, the weaknesses that plague you, the dilemmas that repeatedly appear in your journal. These themes reside in your being, and they will appear in your stories.
One task of revision is trusting that unity exists, and then seeking it out. When you read over your mass of pages, look for those threads that crop up across the anecdotes and speculations. Make a list of themes. Draw flow charts that delineate the connections between memories. This work may not feel like writing, but it is; it’s the deep contemplative work of revision, where we ground our stories in the stuff that makes us all human.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew