This post originally appeared on my tinyletter, Where is my Mind?
I’m writing another memoir of sorts. No, it’s a memoir. It’s about growing up where I grew up when I grew up and how that shaped and continues to share my identity. It’s about language and race and class and culture and identity.
I’ve said all this before.
I’ve also said that I’ve been preparing to write this memoir since I was an undergrad; my first published piece was about West Island summer pools. I wanted my first chapter, at least the first chapter that I wrote, to be about that. That was the thing that was nearest and dearest to my heart.
That would have been a mistake.
I should have known it would have been a mistake. When I was trying to edit my other memoir on my own, I picked up every single book about writing memoir I could find. Every single one of them mentioned how hard it was to write about the thing you were closest to, how it was hard to take a critical stance on what happened and why. That is did not make for good memoir writing.
I tried to start writing that chapter first, but instead I wrote a wholly unexpected chapter called “violence”. The chapter snapped into place one day while we were driving, as we did every day during our period of commuting into DC, past the Pentagon, right past where the plane hit on 9/11, at about the time we were driving past. I was struck in that moment of realization that this was how all the drivers and Pentagon workers felt that day, like any other day, mundane and routine and ordinary until it wasn’t. How everything changed on that day, but a lot of things went back to normal.
I had been resisting trying to make sense of the violence we witnessed (albeit from afar) growing up. But that moment gave me the framing I needed to start, and so I started, because I couldn’t not start, and the chapter poured out of me in one sitting, as it often does when I write; I had been thinking about it for so long that once I got started, it all just comes rushing out.
This was the chapter I sent my editor. This was the chapter that helped her make sense of what I was trying to do, and the chapter that helped her help me find how this would all hang together as a book.
I had been holding off on writing more (I did end up writing the chapter, Aquatics), wanting to wait to get feedback, to take direction before moving forward. A rejected freelance piece explaining CEGEPs became, again the start of a chapter (or maybe even section at this point) on Education. I started at K-11, moved on to CEGEP, then university, and then on to my PhD.
Each section, up until my PhD section, was about five thousand words. I looked at the word count, up to 15,000, astonished. Again, the writing came pouring out of me, and I was even able to go back and add and move and edit things as they came back to me, making sense of the narrative, remembering the thread that ties it all together. I could barely do anything else except write this past week, write that, keep that flowing onto the screen.
And then Part 4 (Or Sec IV I am cleverly calling it for now because it amuses me but thinking about it makes no sense to the narrative structure) comes along, talking about my PhD years, and I stop. Which isn’t all that extraordinary because I didn’t keep writing day and night and stopped to do my work and take care of my family and not write right up until bedtime so I could sleep. I was at a good place to stop, temporarily at least, and then come back, sooner rather than later.
Except I couldn’t. I was stuck. I couldn’t write anymore, at least I couldn’t figure out how to write this part.
In all of my memoir how-to books, and even in the memoirs I had read, there is always a point where the author writes around something or avoids writing something altogether and an editor or friends says, no, you need to write THAT. I knew from these books that it is usually because there is some truth buried in telling that part of the story that we aren’t ready to face, to share.
I didn’t know what that truth was. I thought, or convince myself, that I was still scarred, traumatized by the who experience, so I wrote that. But I have told and retold that story, so it couldn’t be. That part was difficult – difficult to articulate, difficult to make relevant to that narrative (my PhD sucked, the end). So I pushed that down the page and talked about the one thing that did matter to the narrative, which was teaching Comparative Canadian Literature.
And as I wrote, the truth I was trying to avoid came out: I was a terrible teacher.
But worse, I was a terrible teacher and I hadn’t forgiven myself for it. I was barely 24, fresh off my MA, without a mentor in the program, without any guidance, and without any training, and I was given my own course to create and teach. Of course I was terrible. Who wouldn’t be terrible? But terrible was good enough and so I let myself keep on being a terrible teacher for those four years.
Yeah, I didn’t want to talk about that. Who would?
And I’m probably still being too hard on myself, but I finished the section and it turned out it was just as long as the other sections, even though it didn’t feel as rich as the other three section. But that’s what I have an editor for, to tell me, write more about THAT, tell me more about it, because that’s where the next truth will come out.