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I steal things – no, really I do (pt 2)

I steal things – no, really I do (pt 2)

As a fiction writer, I steal people, their gestures, patterns of speech, their history and stories. Then I dress it up and change it around in any way that suits me and my story. Usually it’s only the folks who recognise a small part of themselves who have any idea that I’m a thief.

As a memoirist I don’t fictionalise people or borrow bits of them, or disguise them. Rather than take a little bit and change it, the idea is that I take all of it and lay it bare. There’s no hiding and no where to hide. Rather than the petty theft of fiction, of small generally unidentifiable gestures, mannerisms and bits of stories, in memoir I’m moving into the Grand Larceny of stealing people and their lives whole. Working on a memoir has me feeling as if I’m moving from a small bit of shoplifting, to The Great Train Robbery.

I talked about it with my Dad. He’s an historian and does a lot of family history work. He tells me that when he researched our extended family, he found all sorts of skeletons in many cupboards. Some were surprising, he said, and others explained things that had never quite made sense in the stories that are passed around and passed down in large extended families and which make up the family’s oral history. So that time in the 1920s that Uncle Whatsit vanished for a while actually wasn’t a sudden business trip, but according to the court records a rather nasty divorce case in which he was the other man. And we can’t be sure how it was that Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other raised three kids in the 1890s after her husband died and quite where she got the money from but it looks like….. well you know what I mean. And that’s just our family.  He tells me that when he’s researched family history for other folks, he’s found all sorts of things that no-one knew about. According to Dad if you go back two or three generations or more most of us have got something hanging from the family tree that has been conveniently forgotten, fictionalised, or changed to make it more acceptable.

Anyway, I thought that he’d be worth a chat. I wanted to know how he made decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. Truth be told – I was hoping for a magic formula, or wand that would help me in the Grand Larceny that writing a memoir entails. His solution wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. He told me that when he found something that may cause distress, be controversial or embarrassing, he consulted the family. If they wanted it published – then he published it. If they would rather it remained secret – or at least not published – then he handed what records he had over to them and didn’t publish that particular part of the history.

I tried translating this into something that would be helpful to me as memoirist. Certainly it’s possible to combine some people, or change some names or physical descriptions, or to leave some people out altogether. But there are some things and some people that won’t work for. I can’t write about my life as an adopted child and then adult without writing about my parents – all four of them. If I change them then it’s no longer a memoir, it’s fiction. I tried to back away from my Grand Larceny and go back into petty theft, and thought “I’ll just write a novel. I’ll write a story about an adopted child, then adult and her four parents and make it all up”. It didn’t work. My four parents kept emerging into my fiction. This was going to be a memoir, whether I wanted it or not.

Back I went to Dad. I’d already asked him how he managed potentially tricky disclosures, but in looking for the easy way out I hadn’t asked him why he managed it in the way that he does.

It’s compassion he said and it all fell into place for me. Compassion for the awful predicament that Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other found herself in as a mother raising children alone in the 1890s, and compassion for her descendants who weren’t concerned for themselves; they just didn’t want anyone to think badly of Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other, who did the best she could with what she had. And while Uncle Whatsit had always been a bit of a rogue, compassion for his wife and surviving children  – now family elders – who  didn’t want to revisit his choices and behaviour that had made their family life so harsh and difficult while they were growing up.  They had been pleased to leave it behind and saw no point in going back there.

Memoirs are, by their very nature, acts of Grand Larceny, but I’ve decided I’m going to try for compassionate theft. If I can bring compassion to the telling of the story and of the actions and decisions that my four parents made,  perhaps then my memoir  will be an act of Grand Compassionate Larceny.

 

I steal things – no, really I do. (Pt 1)

I steal things – no, really I do. (Pt 1)

There. It’s out in the open now. I steal things. I will continue to steal things. You’ll know about it when I do, although you might not recognise the theft.

Writers steal things. A gesture here, an expression there. Sometimes writers steal whole stories about people. An ex of mine got nearly an entire book of poetry out of our relationship, although if you didn’t know that it was really me and her, you wouldn’t have known. (Hello Catherine, how are you?). Another acquaintance took my adoption story and the adoption story of another ex of mine (I’m not that promiscuous really – just old enough to have quite a bit of history) and got a paragraph out of us. In a 500-and-something page book there was one small paragraph that was  – if you knew us – recognisably us. I was thrilled. “Hey look – we got a paragraph in A’s book. Isn’t that neat”. My ex – not so much. “How dare A” was her response.

I still don’t understand why my ex was so upset. It was a very good book and A is regularly nominated for writers awards and speaks at writers festivals and the like. It wasn’t as if A had taken our respective adoption stories and portrayed us poorly or unfavourably. We would only be recognised by people who knew us and knew that A knew us which is a very small set of people; you could count those folks on your fingers and still have fingers left over spare. And between us we did have unusual adoption stories. So what if A took our story and got a paragraph out of it. My ex didn’t feel the same way. She felt that A had intruded into our lives, and bared everything for the all the world to see.

I’ve stolen things too. The first poem that I had published was a true story, and there on the page was me and a dear friend and her kids. (You can read that poem at the end of this post). Coincidentally the poem was about theft too but that’s just coincidence. We still talk about that day and that poem and as sometimes happens with friends that have been a part of each others life for a long time, we’ve developed a shorthand, a shared language about it. All it takes are a few words and we’re both smiling, and often laughing.

I’m a reasonably straightforward person and it makes sense to me that if I’m to write about something, it’s useful if I’ve seen it, or experienced it. It’s not essential by any means – that’s what imagination is for  – but it doesn’t go astray. So I watch people. I eavesdrop in public, in restaurants and coffee shops. And I take things. A gesture here, and a way of moving there, and that story that I overheard last week when we were out for dinner in Big Town Down The Road. I’ve stolen the whole town that I live in and some of my neighbours for a short story. I have a idea for a novel bubbling away and a manager from a job a few years makes a great character. He demonstrated passive aggressive behaviour better than I could ever imagine it.

As a fiction writer I have absolutely no qualms about stealing things. In that way I’ve been writing about ‘real’ people, places, events and things for years. Sometimes people recognise themselves. Sometimes they don’t.

It’s interesting making the move from poetry and fiction to memoir. By it’s very nature, memoir has ‘real’ people in it, with ‘real’ events. If those elements of the story weren’t real – and I’m using that term pretty loosely anyway – it wouldn’t be memoir, it would be fiction. Memoirists will tell you that they might have combined two people into one, or left out an event or three, but fundamentally memoir is about people, places, events and things that are in some way real.

Making the move to memoir has brought some new challenges in sharing and honesty. It’s my memoir so I’m in control of what I share about me and how I do it. It’s the people that I care about that I’ve spent sleepless nights considering.

More in the next post…


And here’s that poem

Theft on a Sunday Afternoon

So there we were:

Two women,

Three kids,

A too-small-axe,

The nearly-blunt-saw

and

The Tree.

 

I’d like to tell you

that The Tree was:

Tall

Imposing

Green and lush

Reaching for the sky

 

I’d like to tell you

that The Tree held memories of:

Shade in summer,

Children laughing in its branches,

and home-made jam in spring

 

In fact,

it barely reached the verandah roof.

and its leaves had a brown sort of tinge.

It made the front room always dark,

and the kids slipped on the soft dark fruit.

 

So we got chopping

and the tree began to tilt

and the kids got worried about the letterbox.

But we kept chopping

and talked about role models

and pretended we didn’t mind blisters at all.

 

And then,

Just as we knew we were going to do it,

a few more strokes and it’d be down

and it looked like we’d miss the letterbox;

we told the kids to stand out of the way,

we leant and pushed,

and pushed,

and pushed

and then one more…………………………

 

It was just then that

some man walking past

ran in the gate and said

“Look out love, here’s how it’s done”

gave one big shove

and the thing went over.

 

Well,

the kids drifted off

and the tree just lay there

next to the letterbox

and the blisters began to hurt.

 

 

Changing Memories

Changing Memories

Memories are set – right? We have a memory of an event or a conversation and that’s the way it was. Unlike Back to the Future, we can’t go back and change the past, no matter how much we might like to.

So that party you were at, 20-something years ago, will always be that party where you drank too much, and your friend Lynne who knows everything had to bundle you into a taxi and take you home, stopping only to wait while you threw up in the gutter somewhere on Hoodle Street. And the Ex who treated you so badly will forever be an evil nasty person – right?

There are heaps of articles about how memories are created, and how our brain makes and stores and memories. Google ‘how are memories made’ and the the list is almost endless (About 9,630,000 results, according to the search page) The Smithsonian Institute has a interesting article on it. If you get really hooked on understanding brain function and memory, The National Centre for Biotechnology Information gets detailed with different types of explicit and implicit memory.

So back to where I started – once all that brain chemistry and neurological stuff in our brains have done their thing, memories are made. I assumed that once created, there were memories that I could call on and remember and other things that aren’t so easy to recall, and in that way were ‘forgotten’.

The very nature of writing a memoir is  – arguably – about taking memories and and putting them together in such a way that they’ll be interesting to others. The others might be family, friends, the local cricket club, or for an agent, publisher and wider audience.

It should be easy, shouldn’t it. If you’ve got a story to tell, it should be as simple as writing it down, deciding what bits go in and what bits to leave out and if it’s chronological order or perhaps ordered by themes and then you have it. A Memoir.

That was what I thought. I thought that writing a memoir would be easy. I would draw on my memories and knock them into some sort of shape so as to be readable and engaging. Instead what I’ve found is that writing a memoir is an intense and interesting exercise in the changing nature of memory.

In remembering, I find the memory rarely changes. The people, the place, who said what to who. The details largely remain the same. Sometimes, I recall small details that I had ‘forgotten’ – events immediately before or after, things that lead up to the main thing.

However, I find that I’m reinterpreting my life through writing about it. When Socrates talked about the unexamined life and the repercussions of living that way he was referring to a life lived ethically. I find that I am writing – and living – a very different sort of examined life. In looking at and writing about memories, I am examining my life. Despite more than a few visits to therapists and psychologists I’ve never looked at much of my life in this way. The facts remain the same – but I find new layers of interpretation. I’m seeing myself differently – not necessarily ‘better’ or ‘worse’ but differently.

I didn’t think that writing a memoir would change the memories. And yet, somehow, it has.