Monday, February 16, 2015

What Does It All Mean?


Whatever memoir I choose to write, I am looking to construct a larger meaning from the experience. Why does this specific experience matter to me in the grand scheme of my life? Why should - or would - it matter to anyone else? 




In the last ten days, my family has suffered tremendously. My Aunt Cindy suffered a heart attack and spent three days in the hospital; as I was taking a shower last Saturday morning, preparing to visit her, my husband came in to tell me, gently, that she had already passed away. During the same weekend, physicians admitted my Uncle Bill to a different hospital to treat his pneumonia. While there, doctors discovered he had suffered a mild heart attack at home. When the nurses took him for a routine echocardiogram last Sunday, he suffered a massive heart attack and underwent CPR for 20-30 minutes, leaving him brain damaged and on life support. This past weekend, my Aunt Arlene made the heartbreaking decision to remove his life support. We wait for news of the worst kind.


In the paragraph above, I have barely scratched the surface of what has happened. It certainly is no memoir - yet. There's little in the way of emotion in my bare bones account, nor catharsis; in fact, as my uncle clings to life, we have not had the chance to process what has happened to either my Aunt Cindy or my Uncle Bill, or to assess what kind of hole their deaths will leave in the fabric of our family. There's also the question of what I should include - my own feelings, yes, but what of those of my husband or daughter? As I mull over this subject as a possible memoir, I think of William Zinsser's advice, of the advice of Marion Roach Smith: what is this about? It is about my sadness and grief over the death and severe illness of two of my favorite relatives. It is not about how my husband feels or how my daughter feels, nor do I need to add in every last cousin who came to the hospital. As much as I love them, I can leave them out. And perhaps this isn't the memoir to write right now - it's too fresh, too painful, and definitely lacking resolution. I can't complete the memory because I am still in the middle of making it - however agonizing that might be in this moment. 

It is, however, a story of loss and grief and despair, and perhaps with time, I will be able to construct some kind of meaning out of this adversity for myself in a way that will also reach a reader's heart. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

What to do, what to do?

If I had to write just one memoir, what would I choose? Alas, I have no rags to riches tale, so I will stick with more pedestrian topics as I muse over my options...

1. Teaching comes to mind first. I have been a high school English teacher for sixteen years, and there's no shortage of kids and situations I could write about - I mean, I regularly dress up as a flapper, as Edgar Allan Poe, as a Beatnik poet, as Walt Whitman; I've fallen off of a desk while acting out "The Raven" (I was dressed as a raven at the time); I've had my students build rafts for Huck Finn, act out scenes from The Catcher in the Rye, and perform their own poetry to an audience. My students have gone on to become doctors and lawyers and Hollywood producers and actors; some have passed far too soon or ended up in jail. 
The most cathartic experiences I have had as a teacher are BY FAR those students who have faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles and who have managed to overcome those obstacles in spite of everything working against them. I can think of four or five very special students who would be excellent candidates for a memoir project; their stories would be compelling and full of pathos - no one would be able to read them with a dry eye.
2. Before I was a teacher, I was a journalist. I wrote for my college newspaper, served at an internship for a local paper, and worked at Detroit-area TV and radio stations. This is the most manageable choice, as it narrows down to a five year time period and ultimately culminates in my wedding, as I met my husband through the industry. I could easily find the emotional turning points - the heartbreaking stories I had to report on, the car crash I suffered when I fell asleep at the wheel and totaled my car (I was working overnights at the time), the grandiose speech I gave to my boss when I quit the TV station, full of 22 year old bravado that I don't think I could muster in this day and age. 
The catharsis would ultimately be the decision I made to leave journalism and to pursue either a PR career for nonprofits or teaching. The freedom and lightness I felt when I quit - as terrifying as it was - was worth the struggle. I am certain that anyone who has ever hated his or her job would absolutely relate to my story.


3. The memoir I want to write, the memoir I need to write, is about my journey in search of  my family history. I was eleven when my great-grandmother's death propelled me on this quest, and this summer marks thirty years that I have been researching the genealogy on my mother's side of the family. There are so many a-ha moments that would provide the emotional turning points - surprising discoveries along the way - as well as the deaths of those who held secrets that they took to their graves. This is undoubtedly the most daunting of the three suggestions, but I am heartened by some of the advice that Marion Roach Smith gave in her NPR interview. If I can construct this by asking myself "What is this about?", deciding on a concrete answer, I can strip away the extraneous material and focus on exactly why this story matters to more than just me. I am so laser-focused on this idea that those ancestry.com commercials will look like chump change after I say all I need to say.

The catharsis would be that what I have learned about my great-grandmother - about all of my family, really - is that we are survivors. We suffer, but we suffer well, and we keep going no matter what life throws our way. We all descend from a woman who stood no more than 4'9" tall, but she is a giant in my eyes. Whenever I am confronted with another obstacle or tragedy, I think back to all she experienced in her 103 years on this planet, and I am heartened. I come from strong stock, and I can withstand - and triumph - over anything life hurls at me.