“Don’t use your memoir to air old grievances and to settle old scores; get rid of that anger somewhere else. The memoirs that we do remember from the 1990s are the ones that were written with love and forgiveness…although the childhoods they describe were painful, the writers are as hard on their younger selves as they are on their elders. We are not victims, they want us to know. We come from a tribe of fallible people and we have survived without resentment to get on with our lives.” -William Zinsser, On Writing Well
I’ve been reflecting on what’s important to make art about, and what it means to me to make good art. For me, music is worth making, but I’m not in a position in my life where I can afford musical instruments and I am very out of practice on my piano lessons. I love music, which is why I put so many music lyrics in my blog posts. In my own self-deprecating self-talk, I think of writing as a lesser form than music or less of an art than painting. When I think about how many tears I’ve cried over my book and the heartfelt essays and stories I’ve written, though, I know that it is art. Sometimes the pain of the process looks less painful when it produces such beautiful things as songs and paintings.
Over the past several months, I’ve been having a very difficult time writing at all. It’s why my posts, which used to go up daily or at least weekly, have dwindled to one or two a month. I keep giving myself breaks from it all, going to therapy and working through the shit I’m writing about, and then trying to write about it, bouncing back from the dissonance of revisiting trauma, and it’s very difficult to accomplish much at all. That said, I’m making progress on the book and I’ve finished a few chapters that took me literally years to get out, going back to the same memories until I’d finally told the details fully and clearly.
So, it’s difficult. Such is the life of making art, I tell myself, so I shouldn’t complain. I often question myself, though: what kind of art do I want to make, and what kind of art is worth making in the first place?
In attempting to answer the first question, I’ve been working my way through memoirs to better acquaint myself with that particular form of writing. I’m writing a memoir, so I want to know what made great memoirs great, and what details of the story are truly unique experiences. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is that my childhood was not among the worst things humans can endure. I’ve read and heard stories far more brutal and cruel than my parents ever were or could be. While I know things could have been worse and I was lucky in a lot of ways, I don’t have to be grateful that it wasn’t worse.
Back in 2014, I was so shocked by what had happened in my family, and was so full of grief over losing my little siblings who I’d helped raise, that I wrote from a place of anger. I didn’t embellish facts, though my dad is still trying to convince the world that I did. But today, that anger has found rest. I’m wondering now how much longer this back-and-forth will go on, and whether I should directly acknowledge and respond to my dad’s many posts about me that he’s made recently. I am young, and so are my parents, and this could escalate to legal proportions as the years drag on. These are all things I took into account when I decided to write about my parents’ abuse. I am just…apparently still chewing what I bit off, which includes my dad’s hypocritical attempt to damage my reputation by calling me a liar who’s trying to damage his. Which, full disclosure, I’m well aware that I hurt his pride and ministry – two things I do not value. But I have not hurt my siblings by writing, I’ve helped make sure they were put in school. This is something I explained to my Patreon patrons a few weeks ago, and I want to explain it here now. I’m not angry anymore. And I want my memoir to reflect the perspective I’ve gained in the years I’ve spent building a life for myself.
The memoir as an art form is like a self-portrait. It doesn’t have to be an exact likeness, but can be abstract or in whatever the painter’s style is. Showing yourself to the world is a vulnerable act, and good art is raw because artists do the hard work of reaching within themselves to make manifest representations of universal experiences. As I’ve read memoirs that are similar to the one I’m writing, I’ve been observing what I do and don’t want to do in my memoir. I don’t think I’ll be calling my mother a bitch over and over like Christina Crawford did in Mommie Dearest, and I won’t be writing from the same place of confused pain that I first wrote with almost five years ago. It’s taken me this long to get to the point where I am even able to take the outline and notes I’ve been working on and start seriously drafting. But at last, the draft is underway. After walking away from the book for a month and coming back to it with fresh eyes, I have two more chapters done. The process now is to just keep taking it word by word, not letting myself procrastinate in the name of perfection, still looking after my mental health as I write, and forming the best possible memoir I can write, no matter how long it takes.