Memoir can be a difficult genre on which to build a career. I suppose romance novelists and mystery writers sometimes feel like they’re scraping the bottom of the creativity barrel when they have to come up with a followup, but when a memoirist starts scraping, she’s having to remove another layer of skin. For anyone with a healthy level of shame, it hurts.
Not long ago, while digging through a manila folder vaguely labeled “Book,” I ran across this smidgen of inspiration that I apparently penned in 2007, about five years before my first memoir hit the bookshelves. “I can’t possibly write memoir because I lack the courage to reveal myself,” I wrote. In the margin, I scribbled: “Turtle Girl”? Working title?”
I am Turtle Girl, sunning myself on the banks of creativity and expression, pulling my head inside my shell whenever the writing gets too close, too raw, too real, too embarrassing. The truth of my feelings and thoughts are safe inside this shell, protected from other people’s shock, indifference and criticism. The sunshiny promise of fame threatens to dry me out to a wrinkly, skinny, soft-bellied lizard. I am Turtle Girl, and I can’t possibly write memoir.
I was about halfway into a manuscript that eventually became The Percussionist’s Wife: A Memoir of Sex, Crime & Betrayal. I put it aside for four years before I found the courage (and the time, thanks to a work layoff) to finish it, and then it took another year before I could summon the bravery to self-publish it. During that lull, I found my voice and my raison d’etre in one of the lines I wrote for The Percussionist’s Wife:
When I started opening up to people around me – both about my past with [my husband] and my present unsavory situation, I felt immense relief. Admitting my misdeeds seemed to open a safe passageway for others to be real, too. More than one person shared their personal stories of shame and sorrow, and I felt like the mutual revelations of our humanity brought us closer. I wrote in a diary, “Living authentically is so much more rewarding and not just for me, I think.”
Sticking my head out with that book proved my daring not reckless but worthy. After reading my intensely personal and oftentimes mortifying story, several people confessed to me intensely personal and what they had believed to be mortifying stories of their own. My story had given them the gift of fellowship and relief — sharing a secret didn’t kill them. That’s the power of revelation. No one is alone in his human frailty.
Memoir, then, is revelation in all senses of the word. The first meaning of revelation is “a surprising and previously unknown fact, especially one that is made known in a dramatic way.” Good memoir is dramatic (even better is drama mixed with humor, which takes a special writer indeed).
The second meaning of revelation is “the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world.” This is why the last book in the Christian Bible is called The Book of Revelation: A message from God to man. But if you believe God is not only in heaven but also working his miracles through his creation here on Earth, then memoir could qualify as a divine revelation about the human existence, too. Magic happens within the pages of memoir between author and reader.
Fortunately, the drama of most lives fills only one book, but for a memoirist making a career of it, she must plumb for the drama that makes good revelation more than once.
This is why Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat took five years to write. My first memoir was about sex! Crime! Betrayal! How do I top that? I decided more quiet, less mortifying revelations could qualify for good drama, and I settled on the year I turned 15 and learned to French kiss.
At the time, figuring out boys and what they were interested in was conclusively mortifying. Fortunately, we aren’t teenagers forever, and adulthood grants a little perspective (and then you turn 50! Whooo-boy, then you wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t go, and you don’t give a hoot what anyone thinks of your questionable choices).
Maybe teenagers today could use a commiserative revelation. And maybe some adults might enjoy being reminded of how far they’ve come.
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I’m celebrating the countdown to the launch on March 28 of Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982 with a month-long blogging bonanza, which mean I’ll be blogging here every day this month about my book, about memoirs in general and about the launch.