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 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. 

1 comment:

  1. Great ideas here. You may have to find some way to manage the length by choosing that one kid or that one interaction with your grandmother that epitomizes those memories/relationships/examples. Choose the one that offers you the greatest opportunity to learn something new or to remind yourself of something valuable. Writing the memoir should offer you valuable insight and perspective.

    Love some of the ideas you implement as a teacher. Lucky students!