What Gets in Your Way?
These are some of the greatest hits of what gets in peoples way when they sit down to write. "I'm not that special". I think we had somebody back at home who was saying that. Nothing big ever happened to me. Anybody share that view? Oh good. You are special. Alright. You were saying that? My goodness. You have a huge story. Honest writing is always special. What makes a piece of writing worth reading is not the extraordinary events that take place in it, but the telling. And the willingness of the writer to go to the deep place. And Payrue, also extraordinary events have taken place in your life. "Writing about myself is narcissistic". How about that, anybody suffer from that one? Yes, Nathan you're, oh so you must think I'm a really terrible person. I've spent 50 years writing about myself. How disgusting can you get? I could've been writing about you and you and you and you. I've just written about myself. I haven't just, I have occasionally written about other people. But I go back ...
to myself. So, narcissistic? To me, it's the one story that we do have total claim to tell. It is the most modest thing to do. In my first article, it was the one that Ken alluded to that I kind of made a name for myself with when I was 18. "An 18 year old looks back on life". Totally missed the irony of that title. (audience laughs) I spoke for my generation. I made all these big pronouncements and I used the first person plural. "We grew up in the 60's. "We listened to the Beatles. "We protested the Vietnam war". Whatever I was talking about. "We had drugs. "We stopped the Vietnam war". How presumptuous was that? For me to speak, for there are probably a few other 60 something year old people in this room. I had no business speaking for you. I certainly have no business speaking for somebody who grew up in Vietnam or Taiwan or as a farm worker. I will only speak for me these days. That's the story that I can tell. And to do more would be, I feel, offensive to you. You'd be very kind about it, I'm sure. But ultimately I have no business telling your story. So, "Writing about myself is narcissistic". Should you be writing about me instead? Oh here's a terrible problem. (audience laughs) Maybe there's somebody in this room who suffers from this one. "My family wasn't dysfunctional". Is there anybody here who has that issue? It does come up. On very rare occasions. (audience laughs) You'll find something. The nature of family is that there be conflict. And issues. There's love. I do get to hear these wonderful stories and I sit listening like Lenny in "Of Mice and Men". "Tell me about the rabbits. "Tell me about your happy family". And I have students who have had happy families but there's always issues. We can always come up with a few. "I just don't remember all the details". How about that one? You're worried that you'll say something that didn't happen, you'll get it wrong. There are no Memoir Police. (audience laughs) This is an important one. And I want to very clearly make a distinction. Cause a few years ago there was a big scandal involving a writer named James Fry. He had a huge bestseller called "Jagged Little Pills". He pretended that he had this massive drug addiction and he spent time in the big house. And it turns out he was overnight in county jail. (audience laughs) I forget what. But he made it to Oprah's couch and had this big bestseller. He lied. That's what he did, he lied. And he called into question every other memoir that had ever been written. I'm not talking about lying. But whether your dress that you wore that day was red or blue. Or whether the Crosby Stills and Nash and Young song that was on the radio that day was "Sweet For Judy Blue Eyes" or "Marrakesh Express". The memoir police aren't going to come and get you for that one. You know, and neither will they get you if you quote your mother. Irene, I'm gonna go back to you. You're mother has been dead for many years and I doubt that you had a tape recorder in your pocket when she spoke to you. But I know you can hear her voice. And you know the kinds of things she said. And what you write will be true to, will have emotional truth. It will have emotional truth. You know your characters. In "At Home in the World" I create whole conversations at various points. And you as a reader are sophisticated enough to know that the 18 year old girl that I was, believing that she was going to be with this man forever, was most certainly not taking notes during those conversations. But I remember his voice. I can hear his voice. And if I need a little help I can read his letters and I can read his books. And I can get his language. And I can get the rhythms of his sentences again. And all of you have equivalent tools to draw on. Use them. "Everything's already been said". Problem? I've probably over the years worked with, I'm guessing a couple hundred women who've told a story about breast cancer. But every time a woman comes to a workshop of mine with her breast cancer story it's a new one. Because it's her breast cancer story. It's not the breast cancer story. And every woman's is different. And there is, anyway, nothing new under the sun. That was true for Shakespeare too. It's how you tell the story that matters. There's basically only a handful of stories. Boy meets girl, man steals money. There are these classic stories. But it's how it played out for you. "I can't do it well enough". Well, you won't do it at all if you don't try. Nobody ever does it well enough. Nobody ever has. You just do the best you can. And you work on doing it better all the time. "I have no time". Oh, come on now. Where do your priorities lie? When was the last time you checked Facebook, Instagram, etc? It's a matter of how much this matters to you. And whether you place the telling of your story right at the top of your list. Or as close as you can. "I will hurt someone I love". Yeah. There's the big one, isn't it? Is there anybody in this room who doesn't think about that one? And I don't have a simple answer for you on this one. Everybody has their own story. I've worked with a woman who said "If I publish my memoir I won't inherit the "10 or 20 billion dollars that I'm supposed to get "from my family trust". What can I say to that one? It's a nice problem to have perhaps. But it's not actually. But I can just tell you how I've worked it out in my own life. And how I've worked it out in my own life is not so simple as to say, "Well my parents are dead, it's not an issue anymore". Because even with my parents dead I care a lot about how I wrote about them. And how I've written about every single other character. And I have different standards for different characters in my life. And a 53 year old man who wrote letters to an 18 year old girl suggesting she give up her college scholarship and come live with him. That's one level of sense of obligation. Not very high anymore. Another would be my children. And that's very different. I don't want to hurt them. And this is particularly a problem for women. Because women, much more than men, I will say I don't want to offend any of the men in this room here. But women feel they have to take care of everybody else before themselves. And if you are gonna have to make the choice between being a better and more successful writer but a damaging mother you're probably going to be a less good writer and protect your children. But a larger question to me is, how well you really do protect your children if you perpetuate untruths? If you buy into an ongoing pattern of secret keeping. There's a story that I tell in "At Home in the World". It concerns the birth of my son Charlie. And I won't tell the long version of this story here except to say that my son Charlie was born at home. Like all three of my children. A midwife intended to come. We lived out in the country at the end of a long dead end road in a very small town in New Hampshire. And on this one particular night round about the time that he was due, I got a call from the west coast of Canada where my father lived. And somebody told me that my father was dying and was likely not to make it through the night. He'd been sober for a while, he'd gone on a bender and he had pneumonia and he was in an oxygen tent. I couldn't speak to him. I put down the phone. I became violently ill. I began to shake and to cry and to pace and fling myself on the bed. And to shake and pace some more. I was trembling so hard that my husband had to actually physically lie down on top of me just to stop me from shaking. And in the middle of all of this, which lasted for about five minutes, I suddenly heard a sound coming out of my body that I'd heard only one time in my life. And that was when I was giving birth to our daughter. And I looked and saw that in fact my baby was being born. I had missed the whole thing. I thought this was about my father. And there was definitely no time for the midwife to make it. I was alone in the house with my sleeping four year old upstairs and my husband. And my husband said "I think I need to have a cigarette". Now I don't want to make him the villain in this story. I'm not gonna protect him either. Because he had his story. But he went and had a cigarette. And I crawled after him, begging him to come back. And he did eventually come back. And the baby was born. And he did all the things that a person needs to do. He said "Well, I've read the fireman's manual". And for 15 years the story of how my son's father heroically delivered him alone in a house in New Hampshire was repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated. Sometimes I repeated it myself. But when time came for me to write that book, "At Home in the World", I knew that was a core story of my experience that belonged in that book. That book was about keeping silences. And breaking through them. And I had never told that story. My children have heard many stories. I never had told that story because I thought it might hurt my son. And I didn't want to hurt my son. And I was right not to tell it to him when he was six or eight or ten. But he was 16. And I didn't want him to read it in the book, so I told him. I told him. In those days you could get a teenagers attention by driving on the highway in car with them. My children only had pagers then. So I told him, and I told him in a very sort of flat, non-dramatic way. And when I was all done telling the story he kind of chuckled and I had this knot in my stomach. It was so difficult for me to tell that story. And when I was done telling that story he kind of chuckled. And he said "Well, that sure sounds like my dad". And he loves his dad. For many good reasons. Which do not include that his dad would be the best guy to be alone in a house giving birth in New Hampshire with. At that point. No doubt it has changed. But what I think now is not simply that I chose my work, but I actually chose honesty. I planted my stake in the belief that all of us deserve the truth. Deserve to tell our truth, and deserve to know the truth. And although I had protected, "protected", my son Charlie from that story, I had most certainly not protected him from my bitterness and anger at his father for many years. I had not protected him from a pretty unpleasant divorce. He knew about those things. And I came to feel that this was actually the first story of his life. This was the first thing that ever happened to him. And he deserved to know it. He deserved it as a tool to make sense of his life. And actually it did not hurt him to the core. Because he knew it already. He knew all the characters. He had the goods on his father. He has the goods on me. Okay. I hurt someone I love. I could talk a long time on this one. I will just say that when we model honest behavior we give permission to the other people in our lives to do the same. We are the only person that we can be in charge of. And let everybody else figure that one out for themselves. It's just too hard to take care of all the world. I've resigned from that job.