Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Have I told you that I'm writing a memoir?
In order to write this memoir, I have studied other memoirs and am grateful for the opportunity to learn from so many fine voices
One early memoir, Thoreau’s Walden, tells of Thoreau’s reflections on his experiences in a little cabin by a little pond. As a teenager and young adult, I was inspired by Thoreau’s passion for seeking the truth. That passion inspires me still.
Another early memoir, Elie Wiesel’s powerfully slim volume Night, invited me into the young Wiesel’s central question: Can there be a God of goodness when pain and cruelty hold such sway in this world?
Both texts integrated storytelling with reflection on larger questions, both were about both the circumstance and the thinking about that circumstance. I hope my book combines storytelling with existential questions. I hope my book is about fear and courage. I hope that it is about doubt and faith.
With my freshmen students in my last year of teaching high school English, I read and studied Luis Rodriguez’s excellent memoir, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA. Rodriguez began writing the story of his involvement in gangs and then his separation from gangs when he was a teenager. He finished the memoir as adult when his son began getting involved in gangs, but the story was not powerful enough to keep his son, who is now serving a life sentence for manslaughter, out of prison. A colleague told me of a freshman in her remedial reading class who was reading Always Running, though it was significantly above his reading level. When she asked why, his eyes swelled with tears, “I want to learn how he got out.” Though Rodriguez’s son did not learn this lesson from his father’s story, other children do.
Though I’ve never been involved with gang life, I learned about a life and struggles different than mine when I read Rodriguez’s book. I hope that my memoir will be helpful for other who have had my struggles and will help those who have not connect with a story different than their own.
In my twenties, I loved Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, especially her reminiscence of a simple moment, patting a puppy, and being present. Dillard’s call to be present has guided many of my adult moments, and I have tried to integrate this call in my life and in my writing.
More recently, Patti Smith's Just Kids, her portrait of the young adult relationship between her and Robert Maplethorpe, the relationship of soulmates, made me cry out of my right eye, an eye that hasn’t otherwise teared in the four years since surgery.
I also loved Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black, Kerman’s story of a year in federal prison, and I hope that in my memoir I am able to tell stories that connect others to my experience and my vision in the way that she has connected with me.
I probably seemed a little crazy as I laughed my way through David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day on a cross-country plane ride. Lots of people make me chuckle, but only David Sedaris makes me hee haw. When I was visiting a colleague’s Language Arts classroom one day, the students were reading a Sedaris essay, and I told them that David Sedaris and I had gone to first grade together (We went to E.C. Brooks Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina, but I don’t remember him and I doubt he remembers me.) I asked the knot of students that I was talking to, “Do you ever wonder who in your class might turn out to be famous?” One girl opened her eyes wide and whispered, “I think about that all the time.”
From teaching English, I believe that the best writing teachers are the writers who inspire us, and for these mentors I am thankful.