Memoir: Nobody wants to hear your half truths


Photo by Duncan Hull off Creative Commons

In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited — sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair–for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me.Dani Shapiro

I often think about how much writing a memoir is like therapy.

Nobody wants to hear your half truths. That’s the polite word. Now I’ll say it the way I would offline: Your therapist doesn’t want to hear your bullshit. Your readers don’t either.

But more often than not, we don’t even know we’re fooling ourselves, do we? And that’s always where the work begins.

I think that’s the most interesting part about trying to write our own stories and trying to figure out what it is exactly about the story we want to tell that might hold any relevance, hold the kind of universal truths that great writing often unearths, in a show AND tell kind of way. How can we truly get to the truth, the ugly, vulnerable, messy truth that’s at the core of what can make writing so challenging and inevitably sets it apart.

It is the exploration and the analyzing that reaches into the pithiness of your most sublime or challenging moments. It’s the wrestling with what it all might mean through an introspective process that becomes explicit on a page.

You’re aiming to translate those times when you’re (ironically) rendered speechless, forced to stop what you’re doing because the ache of wistfulness mixes with glory and rises up like a crescendo of awareness into a hyper awareness.  At that moment, you realize that one fleeting moment will never come again, not quite like it did that first time and you feel overwhelmed in a happy/sad way. This is the stuff and the understanding, I think, of the kind of memoirs that we’re all wishing we could write (and read), if we have any inclination to write (or read) a memoir at all.

It’s this type of treatment of a subject that can quell the concerns about why others would have any interest in our little lives. Because you’re not writing about your whole life. You’re crafting the experiences of your life, or an experience, into a story as unique as a work of fiction by examining the realities as you experienced them. It’s a feeling that comes from a keyhole inside your heart that gets unlocked because you are able to access the emotion that was present when you were touched in a way that almost never happens or you “get” something like you’ve never got it before.

Being able to transform the ordinary into wonder is the work of poetry, through words, written as prose that germinates from the muck that is ever evolving self-awareness. And with any luck, that self awareness leads to honest revelation and your unique journey from A to B that happened as a result which you’ve miraculously (and I consider every published memoir a miracle) deposited onto a page.

At least that’s one aspect. A start. My current understanding. For me. Yours is likely different.

Esmeralda Cabral and I, are offering a workshop as part of LitFest New West called Mining Personal Artefacts as the Foundation for Memoir Writing on Saturday, May 14, 3:15 pm at Douglas College, Room 4247.

Fundraiser for a Revolutionary Daughter: Carmen Aguirre

AguirreBefore I went to the Salmon Arm Writer’s Festival, I knew next to nothing about playwright, actor and author Carmen Aguirre. I’d heard her name. That was it.

I vaguely recall hearing about her book: Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter. It was published in 2011. Aguirre spent 8 years writing it plagued by fear of what telling her story might mean for her safety and for what it might mean for the future of her young son.

I did not know that she was out $60,000 in royalties because the Bank of Montreal called a loan on Douglas & McIntyre which put them into bankruptcy according to Howard White who through his Harbour Publishing purchased the bankrupt company.

Aguirre’s book, although it came out to critical acclaim, sold barely 1,500 copies when it was first released.  Typically, a publisher won’t take on a book in Canada if it thinks it can’t sell a minimum of 3,000 copies. Then, Canada Reads happened in 2012 and the singer Shad backed Aguirre’s book. It won the Canada Reads competition that year and suddenly it began to sell and she became an in-demand guest speaker on talk shows, thrust into the spotlight, meeting with First Nations leaders and even an unlikely guest speaker at Vancouver’s exclusive Terminal City Club.

In Salmon Arm in May, I took Aguirre’s workshop because it was about memoir and monologue but mostly because it sounded interesting. Some of her advice: “Put your theme in capital letters and keep it in front of you when you write.  Find one word that describes your theme. Then, find the opposite of that word. What is the conflict? When there is no longer conflict, when there is no longer a struggle, the story is over. The character(s) have to have a super objective; they have to feel that they will die unless they achieve it.  Do this in every chapter. Every chapter has to have an objective that will move the story forward.”

During the workshop, the best workshop I attended there of many good ones, when Aguirre spoke, what I noticed most was her personal strength communicated through the precision of her words. Think of a sword slicing a blank page in one fell swoop. That is what comes across in the way she speaks with such intensity. She knows where she’s going in front of an audience. She wants you to find your own committed path to where you’re going as well, at least on the page.

In 1997, on vacation during a Christmas vacation, I was standing in the lobby of a hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas when our GAP tour leader explained that there had been a massacre, 22 kilometres away at a place called Acteal. Fear rose inside me but only momentarily. Then, like a suitcase ready and packed, that horror, distant, unreal, nothing to do with me, easily slipped back inside, remote. A remoteness born from a Canadian upbringing and ignorance about the realities that occur in the lives of people who aren’t as lucky in the random geography of their births.

Outside the workshops when I passed her on the wharf she seemed remote. Maybe a little bored. Professional. Polite. Given her past, perhaps that remoteness is a way of being that can’t ever be fully released. Her face is riveting. Her jawline as sharp as the edge of the tool that plastered the walls Diego Rivera painted his murals on.

This morning I finished Carmen Aguirre’s memoir and it is the kind of book that will accompany you forever once you’re done.  I can’t begin to imagine how it would be possible to experience what she describes on the pages and then to return to Vancouver in all its safe and pleasant banality and not feel that you weren’t in a constant state of disassociation. Moving forward and embracing a future might be surreal in a very different, yet just as unsettling way. I don’t know. I’m just surmising.

On June 9th, there will be a fundraiser for Carmen Aguirre put together by those who worked on the book at D&M and bringing together communities her life intersects with in publishing, the theatre, literary.

It’s taking place at Heritage Hall on Main Street, 7:30 – 11pm. You can contribute virtually without even attending.

Get tickets and/or contribute through the Eventbrite website.  Online sales end June 8th.

Honesty the Holy Grail of Memoir


After all the writing and writers, and being part of a writing community, I’m starting to feel like I’m getting a little sidetracked, mentally that is.  I’m not 25, 30, or even 40 anymore, and therefore, it’s beginning to feel like if just one more piece of information about writing comes my way through Twitter, Facebook, through web sites, at writing events or via Shelagh Rogers on CBC, then I am going to run screaming from the room and not stop running until I find the nearest pier.

When I get to the end of the last slat on that pier, I’m going to hurtle myself off it doing the biggest cannon ball ever.

In short, just one more reference to writing and I think I’m going to puke.

I realize that, for me, there is only one person I really need to listen to; really need to try and hear as loudly and clearly as possible in order to get the thing done and that’s myself. Writing, like therapy, might be the most difficult thing any of us can ever do in life. And the most difficult part of all of it is being honest with yourself – really honest about your human experience. More honest than you’ve ever been to anyone.

If you have done everything humanly possible to make whatever it is you are working on complete, then after that, whether it reaches the world or not, you’ve done the first part of the job only if you get keep going and finish the thing. Submit it to the journal. Send it to the publishing house. Find an agent. And let it go.

One of my most challenging things to live with as a writer is to keep believing in what I’m doing, to push aside my monkey mind and my negative self-talk that suggests I’ve dropped into some black hole of delusion.

I have to keep finding a way to believe that it makes sense to keep writing regardless of the fact that I am making next to no money to feed myself. I have to push aside every bit of advice about these being my top earning years with that voice screaming back every bit as loudly. I have to remind myself that getting to the end of life with a pile of money as one’s primary goal in life is an empty goal that has been blown way out of proportion.

The thing about writing is that if you have a compulsion to do it and do it daily, then you are a writer. A lot of people in our fame-crazed world don’t get that. You, as a creative person, have to find a way to come to terms with being able to stay strong in your rationale to yourself; a rationale about how you want to live and a definition of success that has very little to do with money because you must give your head a shake if you think that money’s current prominence as the only meaningful yardstick of everything makes sense.

You have to be willing to fail. And then get back up again.

All that matters is the writing that you are working on at the moment. All that matters is the story you are trying to get down and get right with right being your right, like your moral compass right. You have to be sure that the writing is first and foremost meaningful to you  because by accomplishing that first highly personal goal, you are doing what you  can to hope a few others might find it worth reading later.

In all those hours when you are alone and in your head, it’s hard not to get bogged down, to think that you have completely lost your mind and every once in a while you find yourself typing “Cheap rentals on deserted  islands” into Google because you just want to escape.

When I see myself acting the way I am lately, yet the word count continues to add up and the rhythm of the piece is beginning to sing and the story feels like the reader will embark on a journey, I sense that it’s even more important to keep going.

I have to believe it’s that same inner voice; the one that I’m trying to access to write, to get to the purity of what I’m trying to convey, that’s suggesting, as well, that I must be getting close.

PS: If you’re feeling the way I am, don’t read this.