Thursday, May 2, 2013

Meditating on Memoir: My Beloved World, Traveling Heavy and Men We Reaped

We are not publishing our journals, or imagining ourselves to be so important that people are actually interested in the details of our lives.  No.  We are taking those details and lining them up, amazed, astonished, rapt the way a child might be, building blocks to form a tower.  We are attempting to make sense out of what we can -- to reach out a hand to the reader across a rough sea of isolation and separateness and offer up something that has shape, integrity, even beauty and symmetry.
Just like life?  Hardly.  But that isn't our job. ~ Dani Shapiro, On Memoir

In April, I started working on my memoir in earnest.

Maybe this sounds like a simple thing, but it was complicated. I have written this story before, so many times, so many different structures. It's a little like watching the same movie over and over. I feel like I've lived a thousand lives since I was little. My parents were around, then they weren't; Mom smothered me with love, then she snatched it away, last year for good, forever.

I have never been able to empathize with people who complain about writer's block. I have writer's diarrhea. I can, and have, vomited on the page, a flash flood of emotions, random memories, dreams, fears and when I look up, an hour is gone, and I've written 5,000 words and I realize that even though I was grounded in place at my kitchen table, I was transported back.

A friend reminded me of the funny exchange between Adam Sandler and an elevator guy in the movie Mister Deeds. Adam Sandler asks the man how its going and he says, "It has its ups and downs." This is what writing memoir is like. It has its ups and downs.

The downs: In the face of the second anniversary of my mother's death which I've written a bit about in a few places, there is the downer of Mother's Day. What to do with myself. How to be. Maybe deciding to do nothing. Possibly doing everything that I can so that I exhaust body and brain. Writing through it, no matter what. I wrote a piece about it I hope will be published on the monumentally sad/frustrating annual reminder of the mothering I didn't receive, the day that makes me wrestle with the fact that I was nurtured in other ways by other mothers. That I am a kind of mother -- to my craft, to my dog, to my family, to my friends.

The ups are incredible. Not manic, euphoric or even particularly beautiful. But noteworthy.

I interviewed Ruth Behar about her beautiful book, Traveling Heavy. Ruth reminded me of the power of being a professional nomad. Though I have been making travel plans for summer and fall, I am actually physically grounded in a place in Austin in a way I never have been anywhere before.
The photographs and details of her memories in the book, as a little girl leaving Cuba and later as an adult who returns, remind us that while we may not physically bring things with us on each journey, we still carry much more than baggage and things. "We travel heavy with our memories, our histories," she says. "In that sense, we all travel heavy with the things that make us who we are. We travel with all our traumas and maybe we relive them when we're elsewhere with strangers. The emotional baggage may be heavier than all the things we carry with us." 
Behar is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and, among other things she has been awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant. Her work takes her around the world and she estimates that she travels an estimated 50,000 miles annually. Anthropology has allowed her a passport to all the places she's ever wanted to go.

There is also, too, at the center of Traveling Heavy, the question of whether we ever return home. I mentioned to Ruth during our discussion that I think we all have multiple homes -- at least I know I do. My spiritual home, my physical home (where I grew up) and the place where I am located in the present that feels most like home.

I've been thinking about this as I slowly make my way through Sonia Sotomayor's beautiful memoir, My Beloved World. This has been a great year for Latina memoir - Raquel Cepeda's compelling Bird of Paradise, along with My Beloved World and Ruth Behar's book to me, all published in the first quarter of 2013 to me signals the growing diversity of women of color telling our stories and they all have unique power and of course, a unique perspective to bring to the craft.

I am a huge fan of Sotomayor, and as I await -- like most people -- the outcome of the Fisher vs. University of Texas case, I found it particularly interesting to read about her personal experience with affirmative action. She is a master storyteller and I love that she embeds Spanish in the text without translating it. Her story reads like New York City. She is a New York City girl, even when she visits Princeton, even when she is navigating academic spaces that no one ever really encouraged her to pursue. It is inspiring.

On the horizon is a beautiful memoir by Salvage the Bones author Jesamyn Ward. Men We Reaped is elegiac, heartbreaking and harrowing. It is the story of Ward losing five black men she loved deeply, but it is also the story of the black men we all lose to depression and violence. It will be released in September. It was a devastating but important read.

Reading these memoirs while writing my own has revived a sense of commitment that I hope will show in the work. Writing is such a solitary, often lonely pursuit. You wonder, "Who cares?" But you still can't stop writing. It's strange and beautiful in its own way, a process that feels heavy but it worth the weight of the journey.

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