By Dani Shapiro
July 26, 2009
As I packed, I wondered what I might bring -- what talismans or photographs -- to help me remember the story I wanted to tell. It had been tough going. A novelist, I felt at sea when it came to writing memoir. I was accustomed to my imagination leading the way. A journalist friend had suggested that I outline the story. "After all," she said, "you know what happened." But did I? Did I really know what happened? What did it even mean, to know what happened? I had been at it for a year, and I barely had a sentence down on paper.
It was then that I remembered my journals. Volumes of them, stuffed into the bottom drawer of an old file cabinet. The journals! I had kept them in various forms: pretty, fabric-covered notebooks; simple lined ledgers; reams of typing paper from the years I started writing them on my computer. I ran over to the file cabinet and pulled at the bottom drawer.
It was locked. I yanked and pried. I stuck a paper clip into the lock and tried to jiggle it open. I kicked it, succeeding only in stubbing my toe. The harder I struggled, the more determined I became. The locked file cabinet became a metaphor for the memoir itself. It seemed the success or failure of it -- the very creation of it -- hung in the balance. What happened was in there. Times, dates, even the weather existed on the pages of those journals. What did I have for breakfast the morning I received the phone call that my parents had been in a terrible accident? What shoes had I worn to my father's funeral? What details of my life had I forgotten? Finally -- this took hours -- I broke open the drawer with a metal ruler, leaving a dented, useless file cabinet behind.
The next morning, I packed my journals in the trunk of my car and drove to Saratoga Springs. I was shown to my room -- a grand, octagonal affair with more than a dozen windows and a fainting couch ("Carson McCullers wrote 'The Member of the Wedding' here!"), and then there I was. My baggage of every sort surrounded me: duffel bags, book bags, my journals, my computer. I had a whole month ahead of me. I unpacked in high spirits.
The next morning, I climbed up to my room after breakfast and settled onto the fainting couch. I had organized the journals the night before. At the top of the pile, the first red-and-white flowered one, which I had begun at 16. At the bottom, in boxes, the last typed pages from my late 20s. I had stopped keeping regular journals a few years earlier; it wasn't so much a decision as a sign that I had become . . . happier. More at peace. I found it less necessary to document the ins and outs, the ups and downs of my tumultuous personal life, because that personal life had become less tumultuous.
I opened the first one. The tiny, neat, girlish handwriting! Those hopeful loops! I had stopped just short of dotting my i's with hearts, it seemed. As I began to read, a strange sense of disconnectedness settled over me. I wondered if it was just the Yaddo effect. I had heard there were ghosts in the old mansion. Maybe McCullers didn't approve of memoir as an art form. I kept reading, but with a growing unease. I put down the red-and-white flowered journal and picked up the next one. A thick, heavy journal with illustrations on each page, it was the record I kept during the year of my parents' accident. Maybe this was where I needed to begin.
I balanced the journal on my stomach. The girlish, loopy handwriting had been replaced by an undisciplined scrawl. I often had written late at night, and often, I was tipsy. It showed -- both in the sloppiness of my handwriting and the unexamined nature of the content. It was shallow. It was uninteresting. I had written copiously about my feelings with no insight, no perceptiveness. I pressed on in horror. Who was this girl? What had she been thinking?
At some point, I fell asleep. I'm not -- nor have I ever been -- a napper. But that summer morning, I slept for hours. When I awoke, I felt drugged. Poisoned, almost. I stared at the ceiling fan, its blades circling. It was then that it came to me: My younger self wasn't worth writing about. That girl with the loopy handwriting, that young woman whose banal, unexamined misery filled the pages of the journal still resting on my stomach -- she was nobody's heroine. She couldn't possibly be the center of the story I was trying to tell.
I had thought I needed to get closer to the girl I had been. Now, I realized, if I spent one more minute in her company, I might abandon the whole idea of writing a memoir. I might flee the Yaddo mansion in shame. I packed up the journals into a big cardboard box and pushed the box into the deepest corner of a closet. I needed to forget them, I realized -- to forget that they even existed.
Slowly, over that next month, I began to write my book in earnest, which is to say that I began to sift through my memory to find the shape of the story. This remembering was a delicate alchemy: part archaeology, part forensics and -- perhaps the most important part -- a powerful creative urge to take that time in my life, those ashes, that sadness and self-destruction, and turn it into something larger and universal. To find the narrative in the tragedy. To make art out of loss.
But what was this art? I discovered that memoir is not a document of fact. It isn't a linear narrative of what happened so much as a document of the moment in which it is written. The present moment acts almost as a transparency, an overlay resting atop the writer's history. The interplay of these two planes -- the present and the past, the me now and the me then -- create the narrative and the voice. One can't exist without the other.
I was in my early 30s when I set out to write "Slow Motion." My reasons for turning to memoir were, at least in part, writerly ones. I felt stuck in my fiction -- haunted by the story of my parents' accident, which defined me at the time. My three novels revolved around some central calamity. I felt like my autobiographical material was controlling me. It was clear that I needed to wrestle my past to the ground. I needed to pin it in time, to capture it as if it were a wild animal I could domesticate -- or at least put behind bars.
But in the two years it took me to finish a first draft, other things began to define me as well. I met the man I would marry. By the time the book was published, I was pregnant with my son. The tragedy of my parents' accident and the calamity of my adolescent rebellion receded a bit, and began to feel like pieces of my past, rather than of my present.
If I hadn't written "Slow Motion" at the precise moment I did, it would have been a very different book. How would motherhood have affected the story? Or marital happiness? And if I were to have written the book today -- at fortysomething? How would my mother's death have changed the writing of it? After all, it had changed me. A disturbing thought: Would I have felt the need to write it at all? Of course these are unanswerable questions. Ultimately, "Slow Motion" stands as a document of a particular moment in this writer's life -- the only moment in which it could have been written.
It's beautiful and strange that our lives shape our memories, and our memories shape our lives. All we have -- our entire consciousness -- is memory. Events turn into memories even as they are happening, and memories become the stories we tell. What we are left with is the shifting nature of these stories. We stand wherever we stand, and from our perch at 30, 50, 70, 90, we see what we see. As painters use color and shape to imply closeness or distance, our memories too supply ever-changing color and shape. That white smudge in the distance might once have loomed large as a mountain.
As it happened, I did remember what I had been eating for breakfast the morning I received the phone call about my parents' accident: a half-grapefruit sweetened with honey. And I did remember the shoes I wore to my father's funeral: black heels I never wore again. But I didn't need those details to write a memoir. Nor did I need the words of that sad, lost girl I had been. The story, I discovered, wasn't about what happened. It was about layers of time, one on top of the next: a dialogue, a dance between two selves. Me now, me then.
Shapiro is the author of five novels, a memoir "Slow Motion" and the forthcoming memoir "Devotion," which will be published in January of next year.
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