Writing Responsibly: The Surgical Art of Memoir

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For the past eight years, I have been working on a memoir chronicling the life of my family; actually, I started eight years ago, but put my feeble attempt to bed. I thought very little about the project for a while since, at the time, my father was still alive. As the major character in the quasi-tragedy, if not the hub of the story, I avoided telling the tale until he was no longer here to take offense or challenge my assertions. But even after his death five years ago, I honestly didn’t give much thought to going back to the task. Now, all these years later, I am deep into the first 20,000 words of a story that divulges details, excerpted,  crafted, and  cradled in a blanket of empathy, love, and understanding.

Writing a family memoir requires a deep sense of responsibility: a commitment to the truth as the writer saw it, attention to the history concurrent with the story, and a gentle touch.  While the story burns inside the writer, those about whom the tale is told are owed a degree of deference.  For me, the most amazing part of the experience is the unpacking of a lifetime of experiences, one detail begetting the next, unlocking memories long forgotten. I may be unusual in this aspect due to a monumental and admired ability to remember “everything”, a great aptitude for a memoirist to possess. Even with this trait, memoir is exhausting work, revealing not just the larger story but also unearthing clues to my own personality, my innate foibles, and their origins.  As one friend projected, “It must be very cathartic.” And my answer surprised even me. “It’s a story now”, was my unrehearsed answer; and, in truth, it is someone else’s story, with my own past woven into the account. In any case, I write because the story of “us” burgeons inside of me now, fully incubated and ready to break through its semi-transparent shell.

The proverbial baggage of being anyone’s child can leave behind a residue that gnaws at one’s psyche. In my adult life, I hear others lay claim to having had “great parents”, practically canonizing them for their aplomb at handling the task of parenthood. Or is it that they avoided critically assessing the standard of parenting they experienced?  Should it be enough that parents provided a roof over our heads, allowed us to make mistakes, or supported us unconditionally? Rather, the truth is that our parents can leave us grateful, bewildered, or incredulous.  When all is said and done, can we truly confine our memories to the good ones alone and still appreciate the plethora of life experiences found living within the complicated dynamic of a family?

While the detritus amassed in a lifetime gives birth to a story, the writing of memoir demands obligation to a few truths: to storytelling so as not to shame, to revealing the roots of behavior without indictment, and to unconditional love despite the pain.  I liken the responsibility to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians: Do No Harm. And like a surgeon, the writer comes dangerously close to nicking veins that potentially unleash the flow of emotions that have the potential to trigger resentment and anger.  In these cases, not unlike a surgeon, the memoirist must know just when the cut is close enough without causing a bloodletting, to tell the story to entertain but not destruct the integrity of each situation and character. In memoir, the writer as surgeon uses the pen like a scalpel, with attention to closing the wound with care so as to minimize the scars left behind.

Cautiously, I embark on this journey, owing to those who came before a respect and a responsibility to tell their stories accurately and fairly. While the events unfolded in real life, so many years ago, contempt, anger, befuddlement, and incredulity may have been some of the emotions experienced.  Now they are replaced with a measure of understanding and a great love. It is the catalyst that pushes the pen point across the page with a velvet touch as the emotional history unfolds in my mind, cushioned in a reality of arriving unscathed at other end of my own life, in spite of it all.

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