Courtship of the Past: Falling out of love with your memoir

This is a love story about a girl and her past. It does not end well. There are no wedding bells and forever afters in here.

How many times do normal, everyday, non-writer people think about the things that happen to them in the past? I wonder if my mind is just overactive, or if people actually do think about things as much as I do. And I know that is a vague concept: “I think too much.” But if you had heard those words as many times as I had in my life (and fellow artistic types, I’m sure you can relate), you would become self-conscious of it too.

There are multiple reasons as to why writing a memoir is difficult. True, many artists draw from their own experiences as inspiration for their creations. But memoirs, they specifically dig into the things that happen to an individual, things that after many years of therapy, thinking too much, and constant analysis, finally become foundations for the kind of person that artist is today.

Everyday people work so hard to make those awful character-defining moments into benign facts about their lives. But memoir people have to relive these experiences, immerse themselves in the emotions and the second by second actions of that moment, and if they’re a dedicated writer, they’re reliving it every single day.

We know that writing about the past is hard, but here’s the thing, after a while, it’s not the reliving of it that gets to you. Eventually, after you write and organize, and rewrite and reorganize your memoir so many times, the details do start to become once again benign. It’s not that you’ve forgotten, it’s that in order to write well, you have to compartmentalize your emotions and learn when the right times to bring them out are. You become systematic, and machine-like just to get the words on paper.

So what, you ask, is the part about memoir writing that is so difficult? Why does it feel as if the writers are constantly dragging their feet on new material? The thing that starts to make you absolutely sick the longer you sit and work with this thing that was once such an intricate and secret part of you is that you become disgusted with your own story.

There are a few reasons for this. The first, I suppose, is the constant exposure. You know how when you read a word over and over again, it starts to look like gibberish and looses all meaning, and you almost begin to wonder if it was even a real word in the first place? When you pore over your own history over and over and over again, people who were once in your life become characters on a page. Moments that shaped you start to make you wonder if they even really mattered at all.

It becomes so hard not to wallow in the insignificance and ease at which you survived these “terrible” moments in your life. I found myself many times thinking, why the hell am I so messed up? As a white, American middle-class, average teenage girl, my life was easy compared to some people’s hardships. You have to constantly remind yourself that all pain is relative, even when it makes you feel as if you are whining about your self-inflicted misfortune.

The second reason is that you begin to see yourself as the villain of your own story. To write a well-written piece, memoir or otherwise, you have to become the invisible cinematographer of your memory. What I mean is, normally when you run through a scenario in your head, you view yourself as the actor on a set. You are the main character, the hero of the story. You remember your actions, words, and motivations pretty clearly. But as a writer you move behind the camera.

Most people would think that a writer would become the director. But you soon find that if you try to push the other actors into the kind of story you want, you will quickly fail. No, you are the cinematographer. You are silent, unopinionated, and you watch through the lens, moving in a circle around all perspectives. You begin to realize that your actions were wrong, or you wish that you could have done something differently. Either way, you begin to hate the person you used to be, the person you’re putting on paper for all the world to judge.

And finally, because of all these things, you understand that your story is not about you. Your experience becomes a window into your side of the world, and you are just a bystander. The purpose of a memoir in progress can take on many forms. It can be an apology of sorts, an explanation, a confession, a condemnation.

But at the end, it takes on its most important role, which is an account of real human experience and an offering of that experience so that other might relate or learn from it. And the memoir can only achieve this once it is stripped of all the things that you, the writer, fell in love with. It becomes no longer the book about your life. It becomes something that used to be a part of you, which now patiently sits on a shelf, out of sight, and serves as a reminder or a symbol, waiting for someone else to fall in love with it.