Pain in Memoir
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” ~Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
I have been in graduate school for the better part of the past three-and-a-half years with a year-long break, which I spent abroad. Much of my studying has focused on the genre of memoir: reading it, writing it, talking about it. I’ve always enjoyed reading within this genre and a few years ago it somehow came about that I was writing a book-length memoir of my own. I’ve taken many “breaks” from that bigger project to work on smaller, essay-length memoir pieces.
When I first entered the MFA program of which I am now a part, one of my fiction classmates said to me, “Oh, you must have had a shitty life then.” Of course he said it as a joke, but I’m sure some of my writing confirms his theory, even if I maybe wouldn’t use as harsh of words as he chose.
Memoir sometimes earn its reputation for being confessional or whiny or even for settling scores publicly. A book like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is not for the faint of heart. One of the things I have noticed, though, from my classmates’ writing is that brokenness is one of the commonalities we share in this life. The hurt from our past dominates our memory. Growing up in poverty, broken relationships with parents, abuse, coming out of the closet, getting fired from a job, illness, and a suicide attempt are just a few of the events my classmates have poured onto the page.These experiences possess both a particular and a universal element. We all need another chance, forgiveness, answers, or healing, and memoir gives us a safe and artful venue to express what is felt most deeply in their lives. It is a chance to create something beautiful out of something tragic. This is also how Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said we survive our suffering: we have to make meaning out of it. That is what memoir does; it makes meaning out of difficulty.
The truth is, I probably wouldn’t have started writing as a habit had it not been somewhat therapeutic for me. Apparently, I am not the only one. But there is also something helpful about reading others who write about their pain. Not the whiny, “Whoa is me!” diva kind-of-nonsense, but the honest grappling of confusion or tension or painful memories. It helps me to see that I’m not alone; it helps to let go of some of my own self-pity. This is one of the reasons why I conclude that reading and writing memoir is still a worthwhile enterprise. Most of us can identify and hopefully empathize with someone at their most vulnerable. And yet, we navigate through tragedy differently; we react uniquely; we learn different things from our suffering.
It is interesting that so much of the time we don’t write about the championship we won or our parents’ marriage that thrived; we write about the time we witnessed child abuse next door or the time we, completely ruined, parted ways with the person we loved. I remember one classmate of mine –a mother — complained about how her kids always remember mom and dad fighting on a trip from their childhood but rarely remember the serene walk in the woods. In the same vein, a professor of mine told us about the time he wrote an essay about how birthdays were not a big part of his growing up. His mother was so upset about it that she made him sit down and watch all the visual recordings of birthday celebrations. And yet, he didn’t remember it that way. Why? What is it about our memory that so holds on to heartbreak, that can’t seem to let it go?I won’t claim to understand the intricacies of memory, but I suspect that one of the things that triggers our memory is pain.
We live more out of our woundedness than we know or want to believe. This is not to diminish or overlook joy; it surely exists and is probably even worth writing about. I sincerely hope when one reads my own work that they will find some joy in it. But readers will also find my pain in it, and for that, I do not apologize.