Somewhere I got the notion that I need to have some weighty life lessons learned prior to writing my memoir: that any readers must gain wisdom from my stories. However, if I stop to consider what life stories or segments I have most enjoyed reading, they do not all contain major (or even minor) epiphanies. Some are entertaining, some are quirky, some are thought-provoking just because the writer learned little.
And some are downright mundane: The day-to-day story my great-great-grandmother wrote of her trip from Nebraska to Nevada in the summer of 1863 merely details life on the trail but is never boring because the reader gets to see another time in history through the eyes of a teenager. She probably had no idea her words were going to be read over 100 years later by her descendant; after all, when she wrote she had not even met my great-grandfather yet.
It is likely that we may never know who will be reading what we write when we chronicle our lives, or if anyone will see our words. Is the potential readership of any concern? Does a low (or no) degree of profound insight hurt the product for the writer or the readers? Will no clear purpose for writing matter when you take pen in hand?
Some recent reading convinced me to start writing even though I lack both purpose and profundity. First
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Christopher Benfey wrote about the poem and said Heaney's pen is a "divining rod." From what I know about divining rods, when you set out with one, you are looking, not sure where you will be going. That metaphor has freed me from the restriction of needing a purpose. With my pen, I will dig.
Now about my lack of profundity. I am not sure I have ever done anything profound or thought profound or written profound. So why start now? Or try to: I am not sure one can just conjure up some profound. I finally felt fully unfettered from that restraint after reading this from a post "Trapped Inside the Novel" (New York Review blog) by Tim Parks:
My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge.
Parks is not talking about memoir, but don't you think his words can apply to that genre, too? I am going to say "yes" and lose the obligation to "[connect] effortlessly with the past and [launch] bravely into the future" when I write my story. I am not trapped inside a memoir.
With those two excuses gone, what's stopping me now? Sometimes I ask myself, "Where do I start?" Do I begin from the beginning or from now and go back as appropriate or just string the vignettes like beads from a random pile of colors and sizes? From the days when I taught classes in life story writing (yeah!—we teach what we most need to learn), I know this question of where to enter a life is very common. To get over that roadblock, I found a very good Web page today that presents a plausible and doable method for me to begin. I am drawn to both The Life Story Interview and Guided Autobiography.
And just one last thing I have been pondering: Will I be writing a memoir or a life story or an autobiography? I know there are technical distinctions but in my newly unshackled freedom I will say, "Who cares? Just write. Soon."