Class Introduction: What Happens When We Keep Secrets?
There's nowhere I'd rather be this morning. Honestly, that's true. I'm so excited. You know, for a long time, I didn't really want to teach online because I couldn't imagine teaching without people in the conversation. But you're here. And you're also at home. So I want to begin by congratulating you for showing up. And I'm speaking of people who are tuning in as well. We're all here because we have a story to tell. And many people have a story to tell and they don't want to look at it. But you're here because you're willing to. Does anybody find that scary? Looking at your story? I understand. You know, I've been doing this a long time and it takes a lot to scare me and make me embarrassed at this point. As I have been called many times, kind of shameless. But I didn't start out that way. I, too, was a person who, for a long time, felt even in my writing life, that I had to keep secrets. I published my first book when I was 19. Book called Looking Back. Some of you might be old enough...
to remember it. Came out 1973. In that book, in the 160 pages of that book, which was my first crack at telling the story of my life, I never mentioned that I grew up in an alcoholic family. For anybody who did, you know that's a pretty significant aspect of your experience. I never told that I, the sort of, youth spokesperson of America had in fact, dropped out of my ivy league college to move in with a 53-year-old man who happened to be one of the most famous writers of the 20th century. I didn't get around to that. In the case of my alcoholic family, my father, it was shame. Wasn't shame for anything I had done. It was shame for people knowing a part of my story that I didn't believe was okay. I felt very alone and I felt that it was very important to maintain this persona of being somebody who had things all figured out when, in fact, I didn't. In the case of the other story, it was a sense of obligation to protect. And we're gonna go back to both of those topics because they're central to memoir and they're central to writing honest memoir. I wanna just say that if you have not yet broken through to talking about the really hard subject, you probably know how does it feel to be carrying around a secret. Not very good. And I did that for a long time. And then gradually, and actually I have you to thank, I have readers to thank. I began telling my stories but not all at once. And it really was my respect. It was hearing back from some of you who are in this room and many of you who are at home watching that made me feel that a reader deserved nothing less than the honest story. And here's a great thing that happens when you do start telling the truth about your life. It's a lot less scary than you thought it was going to be. You know, I think about what happens when a child is afraid of a monster under the bed. And the best thing I know to do when a child is afraid of a monster under the bed, is to take out a flashlight and shine it right under that bed and take a look. And it's not so terrible after that. So we're going to look under the bed today. My job here is to give you permission to tell your story. Nobody should need permission but I'm happy to oblige. To urge you to tell the truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth. And to tell you you're safe here. This is a safe place to talk about it. It's time to tell your story. Here we go. We're gonna start out by talking about what is memoir? And what it's not. In the case of people who are here in the audience, many of you have already written down and set to me a little 500 word paragraph or so description of what you want to write. What your story is. And in the case of many of them, I've read them all. I haven't read yours from at home but we're gonna talk about that in a second. What you have done so far, and it's what everybody always does. There's no shame in this. There's no shame in anything as far as I'm concerned that we're gonna be talking about. You are still. Many of you are telling what happened in your life. The story of your life. And that's a great beginning. It's not memoir yet. I call it the string of pearls approach. First I was born, then my parents got a divorce, then we moved to Alaska and got on a salmon fishing boat, then I fell off the boat and swam to shore, then I got married, that didn't work out so well, but 20 years later, I found a great second partner. These are all chapters in our lives. And each one of them is no doubt deserving of exploration. And I hope that you get to look at every single one of the pieces one at a time. One of the things that I think happens especially if, unlike me, you haven't been writing your whole life, is that when you finally do sit down to write, you're exploding with stories. You hardly know where to begin. And it's almost as if this is your one opportunity to tell them. It's not. Slow down, is my advice. And take them gradually. Just for those of you who haven't yet sat down and actually, you might think you don't need to do this because you know what happened in your life. But I'm actually gonna urge you to sit down and write. Couple of sentences, even, of what you want to write about. So where do we begin? First, you need to locate your subject. The thing you love, the thing that keeps you up at night, the thing that scares you, the thing that breaks your heart. And I wanna say, you may have noticed in that list that what I have tended to focus on are more of the problematic aspects of your life than all the things that went great. I'm happy for you for all the things that went great and plenty of things went great in my life. But it seldom makes for the best material to write about the cuteness of your cat or the beauty of a rainbow that you saw this morning. We're looking, actually, for the moments of discord and conflict and struggle in your life. If you think about stories that you have loved, movies that stay in your imagination, there's always a problem. And maybe if we're lucky, there's going to be a solution, or at least some kind of resolution. But I want you to begin to think about what the subject is that you feel most passionately about. And then attach the engine of that passion, that feeling, to your writing. It's going to make you take flight.