MEMOIR VS. THERAPY

"The writer must have done her work, made her peace with the facts, and be telling the story for the story's sake. Although the writing may incidentally turn out to be another step in her recovery, that must not be her visible motivation: literary writing is not therapy. Her first allegiance must be to the telling of the story, and I, as the reader, must feel that I'm in the hands of a competent writer who needs nothing from me but my attention." 
~ Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir

 

This is another subject it is vital to gain clarity on before we begin our work in earnest.

The challenges in our lives can forge our profound moments. It is often through our suffering and greatest pain that we encounter the depths of ourselves, the breadth of our possibilities, our wisdom, our capacity for grace, our access to transcendence. It is no surprise, then, that the experiences we are inspired to write about, the chapters of our lives we wish to transform into chapters of a book (or into segments of an essay) may comprise some of the most difficult and painful of our lives. Those are the times when we have been stretched, broken open, forced to do our most noble work as human beings: to grow, to evolve, to heal, to forgive, to develop compassion, to truly love.

Of course, the writing (or reading) of a memoir may have therapeutic benefits. As we probe around in our histories, craft and recraft our stories, we might find ourselves encountering difficult emotional terrain and being forced to face aspects of ourselves we might otherwise have overlooked (or managed to avoid). The writing might prompt insight, healing or liberation. But ideally--even critically-- the bulk of the work necessary to process one's story to the point where it can be crafted into art has already happened. For best results (and fewer throwaway drafts), it has happened long ago.

For some people, the process of separating from their stories takes the form of traditional talk therapy. For others, it might be a multifaceted process of healing involving as much 'body work' as talk. For some, it lies in hundreds (or thousands) of pages of journal writing or in innumerable conversations with friends. We all process our lives and stories in our own ways; no one way is better or more effective than any another. The only thing that matters for the purposes of writing memoir is that we are on the other side of the story. We can see it from a certain distance. We can crawl inside and around it without being gutted by it, we have attained enough detachment and separation, enough space and grace, that we can see the story with perspective, from a number of perspectives, and we are able to see the story we wish to write about as that: A Story.

And so the cathartic or confessional writing (or what Mary Karr calls "raw reportage flung splat on the page") has already been done and that preparatory writing has brought you to where you are now: ready to revisit your experience as a writer crafting a story rather than as someone who has lived through something horrendous and needs to get it down onto the page. The difference might seem subtle, but it's enormous.

In the latter case, the person is writing the story for herself; in the former, the writer is ready to write the story for someone else.

There is an image and experience that works well for me as a metaphor for this process. I talk about it in the video which follows this lesson. May it speak to you.

"Most successful memoirs are written with love and forgiveness. Their childhood might be painful, but it is generally not a portrait of victimhood. They have survived (something) without resentment and have moved on with their lives. This is memoir as an act of healing: everyone is healed by reading it."
~ William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Jeanette Walls's extraordinary memoir The Glass Castle tells the story of a hair-raising childhood with parents who were as eccentric as they were neglectful. It's an incredible tale, no question about it, but the reason it works as a memoir is not simply because Walls had such rich material to draw from. The reason it works is because --incredibly-- Walls has forgiven every person in that story. At no point does she judge or berate or blame or disparage anyone. She paints the story and leaves the judgment to the reader.

Two things are able to happen because of this. Firstly, there is now space for the reader to have an emotional response to the circumstances and portraits Walls paints. Instead of telling us to be outraged, she simply illustrates an outrageous scene without commentary and we are left to feel outraged. No reader wants to be told how to feel; it disengages us from the story and prevents us from having our own reaction.

 

When the electricity was on, we ate a lot of beans. A big bag of pinto beans cost under a dollar and would feed us for days. They tasted especially good if you added a spoonful of mayonnaise. We also ate a lot of rice mixed with jack mackerel, which Mom said was excellent brain food. Jack mackerel was not as good as tuna but was better than cat food, which we ate from time to time when things got really tight. Sometimes Mom popped up a big batch of popcorn for dinner. It had lots of fiber, she pointed our, and she had us salt it heavily because the iodine would keep us from getting goiters. “I don’t want my kids looking like pelicans,” she said.

Once, when an extra-big royalty check came in, Mom bought us a whole canned ham. We ate off it for days, cutting thick slices for sandwiches. Since we had no refrigerator, we left the ham on the kitchen shelf. After it had been there for about a week, I went to saw myself a slab at dinnertime and found it crawling with little white worms.Mom was sitting on the sofa bed, eating the piece she’d cut.

“Mom, that ham’s full of maggots,” I said.

“Don’t be so picky, she told me. “Just slice off the maggoty parts. The inside’s fine.”

* * *

Brian and I became expert foragers. We picked crab apples and wild blueberries and pawpaws during the summer and fall, and we swiped ears of corn from Old Man Wilson’s farm. The corn was tough—Old Man Wilson grew it as feed for his cattle—but if you chewed it enough, you could get it down.

~ Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle

I include the little paragraph below the break because, for me, the magic of what she is doing is all in that little break. She doesn't say, I couldn't believe my mother expected me to eat maggots or I was outraged. In fact, she says nothing at all. She just tells the story and leaves it to the reader to be outraged if we so choose. But she doesn't need us to be outraged. She's forgiven her mother, so she no longer has a need to make her case or justify how she feels or seek allies to stand beside her in her outrage. She is free, now, to simply tell the story.

The other thing that is able to happen as a result of Walls's forgiveness is that readers are given a taste of her compassion. We might feel enraged by her mother's lack of responsibility (or a hundred other things), but through Walls's sensitive portrait, as she sees her now, we witness her mother as a complex and deeply flawed human being, as we all --all of us-- are. And what happens in these moments is almost impossible to set down into words. Grace moves in. Something transcendent opens. There is a lightness we never imagined possible amid such heaviness, such pain, such neglect. One person's compassion can inspire our own.

The world can be a better place by a certain story being in it.