New writers are often surprised to learn that the main drama of memoir is not what happened in the past but what happens when we consider the past and allow ourselves to be changed by the consideration. “What happened to the writer is not what matters,” Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story. “What matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
In other words, memoir is a discourse with memory. It is conversation between past and present—the self you were and the self you’ve become. This sense of exchange happens in fiction as well and is why Nathanial Hawthorne called writing an “intercourse with the world.”
For this reason I always encourage memoir writers to reflect on their stories. (Here’s a link to my post on the reflective voice. ) We writers have been so drilled in the school of “show, don’t tell” that often we suppress any impulse to have thoughts about our stories. Yes, lively scenes make lively books, but without the author’s clear quest or intellectual and emotional engagement—without any relational exchange between the story and the meaning-making self—“intercourse” doesn’t happen. Stories are not sequences of events; they are relational hubs, connecting events and characters and writers and readers in a web of meaningful intercourse much like a good dinner-table conversation.
A psychotherapist once told me that when his depressed clients begin asking questions like, “What’s the meaning of life? What’s my purpose? Who am I, really?” he stops worrying about suicide. Because as soon as we enter such conversations, we enter life. Carl Jung believed that the conversation between the small ego and our larger Self is the source of all aliveness. “This is how we make oxygen for everyone else,” Ann Belford Ulanov agreed.
The separation between the small self and our broadest being is also the essence of any spiritual practice. So as we develop our memoirs, we gradually separate the small character self—the younger self who is the main character of the story—from the larger narrator self, whose perspective is still limited but nonetheless more encompassing. And as we develop our novels, we gain increasing perspective on the characters, their circumstances, and the cosmologies they inhabit. Distance between creator and creation makes space for an interchange. And the interchange is the source of life, light, and unity.
There’s still room to join me at the Christine Center from June 19-23 to explore writing as a deep form of listening. We’ll have creative solitude, writing community, and the opportunity for one-on-one mentorship.
Fourth Fridays; 1:30-3:30 p.m.
Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions
Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
June 24: Unearthing the Truth
June 19-23, 2016
The Inner Life of Stories: Writing as Deep Listening
The Christine Center
September 12-16, 2016
Alone Together writing retreat
Madeline Island School of the Arts