I feel like writing lately. I have been working on not one, but two, memoirs. The themes are different (of course). Here is what I am working on: (1.) my nutty childhood — without pissing my family off (wish me luck) and (2.) riding the dot com boom, including falling in love with Dave via our mutual high tech careers, dudes who appropriated Dave’s credentials, and a boss who went to prison for selling drugs for Bitcoin on the Silk Road. I have a super solid outline for the second one and several chapters written for the first. (And yes, I want to write at least one travel memoir too.)
Nevertheless, as a result of my personal memoir-writing quest, I have been trying to learn more about the memoir. My quest reignited when I returned to college.My Senior Seminar class was called, “Critical Theory of the Memoir.” Instead of writing our own story, we studied other texts. What I learned is that “Cancer” memoirs are now considered boring. Ouch! (I urge my professor to read this piece from Mel Magazine about the actor who lost his nose to cancer.
About halfway through the class I learned from another student that our teacher won an award for writing about his experience working at Wendy’s during college. Ultimately, I realized that Joan Didion’s, poignant and moody memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking” resonated with me most. In fact, my capstone assignment is based on this memoir. Here is a sentence from the second paragraph of my analysis:
“We think of Didion’s memoir ‘The Year Of Magical Thinking’ as sudden, as messy, as organic and off-the-cuff. That misses the fact that it functions as a carefully-crafted grief narrative, adhering to the narrative expectations of that genre.”
After recognizing that I like to deconstruct literature, and after completing my capstone paper, I completely freaked out. I could not breath let alone look at my paper one last time. I knew I was breaking the rules. I knew better. I knew I should let my paper simmer for a minute and read it again. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Instead, As usual I let my insane performance anxiety take over. I knew my structure was not its best. I knew I needed to re-read my paper. I could not face it. I turned it in and immediately regretted my decision. I felt sick. It took me a week to contact my teacher. His words were swift:
“Really? You really think I should let you read your paper one last time? You waited too long to ask. You should have contacted me sooner.”
I received a B+.
It is funny how that B+ has haunted and literally traumatized me.
Nevertheless, I am determined to write my own story. As a result, recently, I decided I need to get reacquainted with the rhythm and tone of memoirs. I really did not care which memoir I read. Two friends recommended Tara Westover’s memoir, “Educated,” so that is what I chose. “Educated” is a memoir about a homeschooled woman who grew up in Idaho in the survivalist, fundamentalist fringes of the LDS faith. Eventually she attended Brigham Young University, followed by Cambridge University. That being said, she is sure to note in the foreword that the book is not about Mormonism, or that it does not make an opinion about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Interestingly enough, I think the crux and conflict of her entire story has everything to do with the relationship in and then out of the LDS faith. Her memoir has won like a gazillion well-deserved awards. Her voice is completely different (of course), yet her story also feels very familiar.
Of course as I read her memoir, I ended up getting into my head and thinking,
“I am nobody. No one wants to hear another memoir about someone who grew up in The Church of Latter Day Saints.”
And then I was like, “There is no separation of religion and person (even when you leave), so this is my story.”
And then I thought of my friend Joanna and her beautiful memoir, “Book of Mormon Girl,” and I was like,
“Well, at least two there are two Mormon-girl books.”
I decided to put myself out there. I made a few calls and wrote a few texts.
A week ago I had lunch with a friend who works in the book industry. She is smart and kind. She also reminded me that people who write memoirs, memoirs that do well, are usually famous, like Michelle Obama. (She actually did use the example of Michelle Obama.) That is when I could see I was not selling her. I brain-scrambled and kept thinking,
“Beth, you have to work on your pitch.”
Through a discussion on how we could actually tip or original waitress instead of the one who took over, my throat cracked. My eyes filled with tears. Now between bites of a Southwestern chicken salad and giant pieces of lettuce getting stuck in my braces, I began telling her about my friend Bill:
“I am a little embarrassed that Bill’s family says things like I helped save his life.”
She perked up.
“I totally feel sheepish telling you this story. Bill worked for my husband, Dave. We were laying people off. That was the startup world. So Bill began consulting with his former colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald. Sure, Bill called me Friday, September 8, 2001, and asked if we had any work for him back in DC. He was working in the World Trade Center at the time. I was like, ‘Bill, I talked to Dave an hour ago. Of course I pressed him. You know I am like that. I asked him if he had work for you to do. He wasn’t sure, but then he called me back. He does.’ Then Bill asked if he should stay in New York or come home. I was excited and I was persistent. I was like, ‘Bill, please come home.You have to come home!’ True story. Thankfully he did.”
My lunch companion gasped, and I said,
“Hey, none of us had any idea what would take place on Monday, September 11, 2001. Selfishly, I just wanted Bill to come home. I loved his family. His wife, Stephanie, is one of my best friends. She was home with their two small children. I wanted Bill home because I did not want Bill and Stephanie to leave Northern Virginia. Thankfully it worked out for Bill. Six-hundred and fifty-eight of his colleagues lost their lives that day.”
As I finished, my friend seemed more encouraged. Then she paused, looked at me, and reminded me about the importance of knowing who my audience is.
“Don’t be too broad.” She cautioned, then added, “Think of one person you can speak too. That is the advice I often give to people showing me their books.”
Since our lunch date, I have thought way too much about who that person would be. Maybe my audience could be my friend, Beth. She is funny and a good listener, or Stephanie, Bill’s wife. We have each raised two sons. She gets it. Of course I thought my audience should really be a younger version of myself. I thought about how I could tell young me my story, reminding her she is valid and worthwhile. Even when things seem really crazy, I would remind young me not give up.
Not to do a complete one-eighty on this post, but in this moment, I think it would write my memoir to Eli’s friend, Roan. He killed himself last week. His parents posted a poem on his memorial page that he wrote just a few days before killing himself. His writing is beautiful, creative, tight, honest and hopeless. I would picture myself talking to Roan at our local coffee shop or the Mexican restaurant, where he worked. I would tell Roan my crazy stories and insane adventures because first, at his memorial I learned from people of all ages what a kind, generous and empathetic friend he was. Meaning, I know he would listen. I also guess that he would give me, (the parent of one of his friends), the validation I needed — even if he did not think my stories were good, or that it was weird, because I am his friend’s mom. I can see him nod in approval, just like he did after suggesting that Dave get one of each type of fish taco. I also know he would be kind, because, at his funeral, that is what every single person said about Roan. If Roan were my audience, maybe I could remind him that we are not alone, that it is ok to be quirky, and think outside of the lines. Through my life story, I could remind him that I understand depression. I understand feeling invisible, totally uncool, and feeling less than. I really get it. I also know that it gets better, even when better seems absolutely impossible, and even when better means that it might get worse and then get better again.
Finally, I would share my stories with this young man in hopes that he could know that he is of value. I would reinforce that like Pink said on, “Ellen,” the beauty of pain is that it creates amazing art. I would tell him that he is talented. People see him. Then maybe if he could feel seen, he would not have felt like he could not stay. Ultimately, I never want anyone to feel like they have to go. I am very sad that he did.
That is why I would write.