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Writer Waking Up - A Publication Blog

On ambivalence, and its gifts...

In today's post, I present part two of a three-part Q&A series, in which I've asked long-time writing friends for the questions that came to mind when they read A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations. The questions below came from novelist Marian Szczepanski, author of Playing Saint Barbara, and a creative writing teacher at Writespace in Houston and the Writers' League of Texas in Austin.

MS: Have you ever felt conflicted or ambivalent about chronicling events such as emotionally charged or challenging family situations that involve other people, particularly those who are still alive and may read your book?

CH: This is an interesting question because I've been asked many times how family members, etc., feel about the book, but no one has asked me about my own emotional response to writing about real as opposed to imagined people.
When I first realized that I was going to have to write a memoir, I felt sick. By "have to," I mean that every time I sat down to write fiction I found myself writing pages and pages of introspective self-examination embedded in recollected stories about the people and events in my life that confounded me. By "sick," I mean actually nauseated and definitely terrified. But, given the first condition--nothing coming through the writing pipeline but my own intense need to make sense, or try to, of my life to that point, the second condition--discomfort and doubt with the project ahead of me--was simply something I had to wade through day by day at the writing desk. I mean, are there any writers who don't feel that way, at least sometimes, at the start of a writing project, fiction or nonfiction?
For a long time I handled my doubt and fear the way many writers do. I focused on process and short assignments (I recommend Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life for funny and completely serious advice on these points). I simply didn't think about the possible outcome--a book about me in the hands of friends and strangers--until I had a book, a complete draft, in my own hands.
Then, while revising the book, I prescribed myself the same advice I give student writers of memoir. What's most important when writing true stories about real people is to bend over backwards, during the process of revision, to be fair to everyone you write about. You must do your imaginative best to project yourself inside their doubts, their fears, their motivations. Give others the benefit of your doubt. Otherwise you may be fooling yourself about yourself. And, another important requirement: you have to be at least as hard on yourself as you are on anyone else. If you want readers to trust you, you must take care to present yourself as neither hero nor victim of your own life story.
That part of the process caused me some genuine suffering. I had to look at, write about, and deeply accept some truths about myself that were uncomfortable and humbling. One of these dark nights of the soul became a story told within the memoir. When I required myself to read the letters I had written at sixteen to my teenage boyfriend, letters I'd had in a box in the closet but avoided opening for nearly a decade--I discovered I was way more culpable for some of my young adult suffering than I wanted to know, and I had to revise a long section of the book accordingly.

MS: What surprised you most during the process of writing a memoir?

CH: That incident with the letters was the most unpleasant--and most enlightening--surprise, because it was very personal proof of what the brain science on memory tells us: we unconsciously revise our memories of the past to support our present-day concept of who we are. That's spooky. It gave me a deep appreciation for a truth noted by many memoirists: memoir as an art form is inherently subjective. Although every authentic memoirist works hard to get the facts right, a memoir remains the story of a given person's recollected experiences.
A pleasant and liberating surprise was how much happiness writing the book brought me. Yes, despite what I've said here about fear and suffering, I found that I came to understand myself more clearly through the process of creating the book. Writing the book turned out to be a spiritual journey. When I work with people writing memoir, I tell them this is the gift they can expect to receive, if they can be both unflinching--courageous enough to see themselves and others as they really are, and self-compassionate--merciful enough to accept, forgive, and learn from their humanity.

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