Memoir is Subversive Literature

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Memoir is subversive literature.

Just so we’re all on the same page with the definition of subversive, here goes:

Subversive: tending or intending to subvert or overthrow, destroy, or undermine an established or existing system, especially a legally constituted government or a set of beliefs.

I didn’t know that about memoir when I started writing mine. I had stories to tell, an unusual life to share with anyone who cared to read about it. I wasn’t in the business of overthrowing or undermining anything. Had you told me that’s what I’d be doing I’d have laughed you out of the room.

So I began and the stories rolled off my fingers like old friends. Sort of. At least the first one did, the story of my mother’s illness when I was five. I’ve rehearsed it many times over the years and it’s part of my belief system. It’s become a reason, an excuse, a foundational principal on which to hang dysfunction and irresponsible choices throughout my life. I didn’t know that until I wrote it down. When committed to paper it became blatantly obvious, and I cringed under that painful awareness.

It wasn’t an auspicious start, but I continued. I’d describe an event, render it alive again by the power of words, then sit there as it stared back at me in black and white. Is that what really happened? Is that how I felt? It’s the story I’ve always told myself so it must be true, mustn’t it?

Whether by virtue of the kindness of time, or a different perspective, or maturity, when I took a close look at my particular rendering of personal history I was dumbstruck. They were stories, some even compelling, but the act of writing them down demanded a certain adherence to fact, and memory tended to give me impressions, nuances of remembered emotion, but nothing concrete. When I dug them up, the aura around old enemies was softer, pastels instead of intense reds. The ones I’d blamed seemed less culpable than I was myself.

Disturbing. Yes, in a word it was disturbing to realize that my existing system of beliefs was nothing more than a network of interwoven stories, many of which were no longer true. Often during the writing of my life I’d stop and scratch my head, Really? and attempt to put myself back into the scene for a replay.

What happened as a result was the biggest surprise of all. Clarity. I gained clarity about who I was then and how that person is different from who I am now. I saw the forces that were driving me, some good, some not, and took note. Are those same forces still at work? And my belief system was shot full of holes. I couldn’t believe my own stories and that called into question…everything!

The other big word was opportunity. Memoir gave me the opportunity to rewrite the script, literally and figuratively. I have huge compassion for the woman who lived that life. There were reasons she remembered things as she did. And where it seems fitting, I’ve told the stories her way. But for me, now, the revelations gained through that process have reminded me of a basic truth: life is made up of the stories we tell ourselves. At any point we can decide to frame it differently and the power of that can transform our present reality.

Every life is a treasure trove of stories, and telling them can be a healthy exercise for anyone who’s lived a bit. The insights gained are valuable beyond measure.

But memoir is subversive literature. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

 

 

 

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Eight Degrees South of the Equator

P1090651Today the clouds are heading at me on stiff breezes out of the east. Winter is coming…I can feel the change. It’s mid-autumn here. March, April, and May are precursors to the winter months: June, July, August. It’s still a challenge to wrap my head around the backward and upside-down reality of living in the southern hemisphere.

As if to herald the new season, one that is more inspired and prolific than the past three months have been, I woke up in the night with a sentence in my head. It’s a great sentence…so great that I got up out of a dead sleep, turned on the light, found pen and paper and wrote it down. Here it is in all it’s brilliance:
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The moments exist in picture without story, devoid of memory, bone minus flesh. 
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Now you tell me, is that or is that not a great sentence?! Too bad I have to be asleep to come up with such artistry. But I know exactly where it belongs in the memoir so I’m turning there now, to plug in that literary bit.
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But before I go, I scribbled a poem recently. Maybe you’ll enjoy…
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EIGHT DEGREES SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR
P1090121I crack an eyelid.
Through east facing windows
the ink of night
pales at the horizon.
A rooster crows,
then another.
Without warning,
summoned by their cry,
a fringe of coral
singes jagged palms and rooftops,
shoots to ragged clouds.

The sky explodes in color,
softens and is gone.

Tropic sun crawls heavenward,
drags relentless heat
through daylight hours
then slips into decline,
slight breezes in its wake.
No lingering twilight.
A dog barks.
It’s night.

That’s how it happens here
eight degrees south of the Equator.

March 29, 2015
Sherry Bronson

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Writing Memoir – The Vulnerability Factor

“You should write a book!”

Shouldn’t we all? Isn’t every life worthy? Hasn’t each soul passing through existence experienced the joys and sorrows of living in a unique and personal way?

I’ve tried many times, sat down with the crisp blank Word Document staring me in the face. Where to start? Birth? I don’t remember much. Looking at the whole of my life rolled out through the decades is instant overwhelm. But worst of all, boring. I know this story. It isn’t like writing a fiction novel where the twists and turns are as much a surprise to me as they will be to my future reader.

Looking back at failed attempts I understand why it couldn’t happen until now.

1) Too painful.

To write memoir you have to go back into the stories and re-live them, write the experience of what you saw, the smells, tastes, and textures, the feelings. My heart hadn’t healed enough to go there.

2) Too revealing.

To write memoir you have to accept who you are and write from that place. I wasn’t ready to give up the façade of perfection, take responsibility for my own bad decisions and be honest with myself.

3) Too real.

To write memoir you have to be willing to be vulnerable. Your shadow has to appear in all it’s shameful, embarrassing glory. Because after all, isn’t it the shadow side that makes us interesting…and whole? I wasn’t willing to embrace the darkness of my own truth.

4) Too scary.

To write memoir you have to risk everything. We thrive on connection with others. Shame is the fear of disconnection. To reveal ones self, warts and all, is the ultimate risk. We go to great lengths to keep our sunny side up and numb ourselves to the shameful parts. I was numb.

5) Too soon.

To write memoir you have to have a clear perspective of your purpose. “Because someone told me I should,” isn’t a clear perspective. “Because I love myself and I have an amazing story to tell,” is better. But when you come to the place of knowing that your story isn’t yours, that it belongs to others who are still mired in the swampy numbness of their own failings and insecurities and it may show them a way through, that’s when it’s time.

My time is now. As I muck around in the past, digging up old stuff, the events that light up for me aren’t the ones I expected. And as I write them, the way they present themselves on the page isn’t always the way I’ve rehearsed them through the years.  It’s the most amazing phenomenon. What I’m writing is my life told from a place of wholeness and it doesn’t look anything like the dismal sink-hole I imagined it was.

When I hit a particularly bumpy stretch and make myself go back into it, on many occasions laughter bubbles up. The first time it happened I was dumbstruck. “Why am I laughing? This was a nightmare!” In a flash I realize that I’m laughing at myself, at my naiveté, at my relentless stupidity in not wanting to see what was right in front of my face.

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Walking the labyrinth

I’m loving this memoir writing process. The words tumble out and bounce back at me like the rerun of a movie I watched a long time ago. But I’m seeing it with older, wiser eyes, and a healed heart. And even though I think I know the ending, I’ve let go of the need to control it. I’m willing to be surprised.

 

A High Holy No-No

I’m writing my story, a memoir of sorts, and I’m at a difficult part. In one sense there’s a feeling of release when I make my way through something that I’ve stuffed so far down it’s hard to even bring it back.
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That happened today.
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Then a Balinese friend stopped by. He blew my mind with kindness and I dissolved into tears. There was a mixed group around us and they absolutely did not know what to do. His random act was so complete and so unexpected it overwhelmed me. Then, just to make matters even more unacceptable (crying is frowned upon here) I hugged him. That is, of course, a high holy no-no in Bali!
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His friends laughed, whether in nervous embarrassment for him, or for me, or for some unrelated reason I don’t know, but it accomplished what was needed. I disappeared until I could muster up a little decorum.

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When I tried to sit down and write again after all that, it was impossible. Enough emotion for today. I made a cup of coffee, found a quiet spot and allowed myself a few more grateful tears.

One thing is certain, and writing makes that clearer every day. I wouldn’t trade this crazy life for anything. Not for anything!

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