I’m not a big fan of the word “truth” — the people I know who cling to it most tightly tend to be dogmatists, and not much engaged with reality’s malleable and imaginative aspects. Truth becomes a function of certainty, the belief that the world exists in a real way, and there are usually prescriptions for how we are to interpret this reality. That seems to me counterproductive at best, functionally delusional at worst.
My assertions may sound strange, especially as I spent a huge chunk of my life studying philosophy, and pursued an equally strange creature called “God,” or enlightenment.
Love, the practice of compassion, the art of forgiving ourselves and the world, is really the only principle — I deliberately write principle and not truth — that exists, and the best we can do is approximate what that principle looks like in the moment. For myself, the best response is usually intuitive, not something that can be predetermined. The other stuff seems to me just the mind doing its thing, and should be regarded as such, the mind doing its thing.
These days, I’m not too enamored of the mind. I am more or less bemused by its convolutions.
As I set down my story, and a series of other stories, I’m pretty appalled at who I’ve been, and at times gobsmacked by who I’ve become. Not because I was such a horrible person, or that I am so demonstrably awesome now. I’m appalled at the self-destructive behaviors and the self-loathing, the amount of unnecessary angst that I carried as a personal truth written in an unalterable understanding of my story, and my self. It was all so warped, a singularly stellar production of my mind. Who I was is now deeply disconcerting and very uncomfortable, the self-love and self-awareness being more constant with time.
Which got me thinking about all the melodrama and shock value that have been emerging from the pages. I find myself wanting to edit who I was, because that person’s perceptions were so unbelievably skewed. I know why she ended up that way, but seeing her play out the things she played out, makes me more than a little nervous.
Not in the specifics, but in the emotional lenses that got her there. My inclination is to give her an eye roll and hit her upside the head, which was precisely the problem, because all she ever wanted from me was a gentle hug and some understanding.
So I have been questioning the issue of transparency, and if all this “truth” is really necessary in my writing.
The issue, of course, is one of courage, not the narrator’s story. I knew when I began seriously thinking about this memoir that I would use a nom de plume, not because of shame, but because I wanted to create a safety zone. I am crafting from memory a character, and though her story’s emotional contours and extensive experiences are framed from my history, I barely recognize her as “me.”
Two anecdotes come to mind while I buckle up and address my reservations about self-revelation, as the girl that I once was emerges from the pages. During my recent writer’s conference, a poet who has recently published a brutally honest memoir stated, “the more specific, the more universal.” That bit of advice sticks to my skin like something resembling “truth,” a principle irrevocable and inalienable. Be specific, don’t elide the details to make the story palpable. Yes, I will be choosing which details to include, to craft a cohesive story, but I must not omit details simply because I don’t like what I see. Or worse, try to capture her in a way that makes sense, because my choices were chaotic. At times, there’s no making sense of that person, because there’s no making sense of a soul driven but lost. Or creative. Or both. That’s part of the story. The good stuff is the stuff that makes me wince, because that’s where something like beauty or transformation or redemption emerge. And that’s the universal, the material that binds us together.
In Buddhism, “the lotus of enlightenment blooms from the substance of the world.” The pond in which the lotus blooms is usually the nastiest mire of gunk. It’s not the fresh water pool of crystalline blue water in which the lotus takes root. No, it’s all mucky, stagnant, and repugnant. The lotus takes root in the mire, and that’s why its a symbol for the awakened soul, the one whose roots have gone down into the world, while blooming above it’s waters.
In Christian theology, it’s called “grace,” and understood in more stark terms: the more sin increases, the more grace increases. I prefer to side with Jesus (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”) and the Buddhists on sin, rather than Paul. I think of sin as ignorance, not an abstruse theological truth requiring violence for atonement. At-one-ment: a recycled label of belief won’t get you there, a shift in consciousness gets you close.
Which brings me to my second anecdote. I once knew a man who wrote a memoir. Because he was married and had children, he omitted the experiences that would have created a compelling and powerful story. He left out all the extra-curricular sex, the buying of it, the affairs, the phone sex, the experiences that men and women need to hear, from a man’s perspective. He omitted much of what made him human, much of his-story. I understand why he left these details out, in deference to his family. But while his sentences were clean and elegant, the story felt disingenuous. Something was missing. Actually, a lot was missing. “The more specific, the more universal.” The specifics didn’t just fall to the ground, they were ignored. Yet it was all there, waiting to be told, the roots of his craft begging to take root in his life experiences.
As memoirists, we certainly have no truth telling us how to write, or what we must include. Life may at times constrain many narrative decisions. I choose to write a memoir that doesn’t ignore the muddy waters, to shape my story as it comes to me, no matter how much I dislike looking at who that girl was, because I am a writer. As memoirists, we don’t just shape stories, we shape ourselves, and our history. I’m writing my story, and in so doing, owning my life, while creating something that I’d like to call art. In a story’s specificity, we raise ourselves beyond our personal history, and touch those who may choose to pick up our book, read our blog entry, while we go deeper into our own personal truth, which is the only truth that life gives us.
Dani Shapiro once wrote: “I think it may be time for a literary education about what memoir is, and what it isn’t. Memoir is not autobiography. You did not pick up my 1998 memoir ‘Slow Motion’ because I’m an important, influential or even controversial person. You did not pick it up because I am, say, running for office, or just won an Academy Award, or am on Death Row. No. You picked up my book because –– whether you know it or not –– you wanted to read a good story shaped out of a lived life. You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense. You wanted to read a memoir.”
Another friend — a man who taught creative writing, and is a published memoirist — exhorted me at length several years ago about art for art’s sake, when I mentioned the word “redemption” in relation to the craft of memoir writing. While I value his opinion, I agree with Dani Shapiro. Life is art, and writing is both life and art. To arbitrarily create boundaries and insist on something like art only for art’s sake seems to me to smack of another “truth,” as though we’ve got Venn Diagram aesthetics. “Art and art therefore art” is a valid syllogism; “art and redemption therefore life” is invalid. Embracing life, art, writing, redemption, and letting go of the labels isn’t just easier, it seems to me closer to the art that humans have enjoyed and shared since we first sat in circles to be entertained: our storytelling ancestors didn’t tell stories in an aesthetic vacuum, they connected us to each other, and the world. My friend’s position seems to me too dogmatic, too much a construction of the mind, although I admit that I’m probably stretching his meaning a bit to make a point.
In the craft of life, I see no reason not to be artful; in being artful, I see no reason not to redeem my life from its ignorance, while putting metaphorical pen to paper, one day at a time.
I choose to write a narrative that isn’t always pretty, but in owning its muddy waters, I may come closer to a life and craft that serenely float on the world’s waters, while fully rooted in its muck and heartache.
That’s my truth.