Why do I get so nervous for each publication of one my memoirs? Honestly, nothing else frightens me, well… maybe cooking, but I’ve learned how to avoid that.
On the day of my latest launch for my third and final memoir, Coming Ashore, I went to the gym in the morning to work off some of my excess energy and did what I always do, stepped on my treadmill and placed my hands on the heart rate monitor handlebars to see my resting heart rate. The machine does some fancy calculation involving my weight and age, (both appalling) and comes up with a magic number called my ‘training zone’ that my heart is supposed to take to heart.
Today for the first time as I stood there I read a message on the monitor I’d never seen before. In big green letters it said, SLOW DOWN! “I’m not even moving”, I said aloud to my machine. After a few minutes of standing still I started to walk stealthily like Peter following the wolf.
Then the screen went red and it said, PRESS EMERGENCY RED STOP BUTTON AND DISMOUNT!
I can only assume my heart was racing. My first thought was this was a great way to lose weight. You can surpass your training rate just by standing still and having a book launch.
I write memoir. I have written ‘truths’ about myself that I would never have told anyone. Sometimes I’m embarrassed when I see that I’ve said in print. I write alone for years on end in the confines of my third floor office perched in the treetops and confess to the squirrels and to my computer. My latest and, praise the Lord, last memoir in my trilogy covers my life from the age of twenty-one to twenty-six. I wanted to be honest about what I was like at twenty-one. (Who wasn’t somewhat of whack job at twenty-one?) At my launch I had to read a section about my ridiculous and somewhat embarrassing antics involving Jimi Hendrix in London.
In my life, or anyone’s life, we all use defenses—denial, humour, intellectualization, delusions of grandeur and anger, the latter being my defense of choice. However, I’ve used all of them in various moments of need, and they have helped me to glide through life quite happily, relatively unscathed.
The problem with creative writing is that highly defended writing doesn’t work. It’s hackneyed and ultimately boring. To be a decent writer, you have to dig down a layer and skulk around in your filthy unconscious, which is littered with hidden trauma and humiliation where your unbridled instincts lurk. Jung says, we as humans have a collective unconscious. It is in the unconscious where we all have things in common. To write you have to mine the creative unconscious.
In reality no one cares about my life or anyone’s life but their own. When people read fiction or memoir they are trying to find verification for their own unconscious thoughts. People say they read to learn about others and other cultures, but I don’t buy it. I believe they read to verify their interior world. It is a normalizing process.
I have received many letters referring to my first childhood memoir Too Close To The Falls, saying they also thought the Indian on the test pattern on TV in the 50’s was talking to them, just as I wrote that at the age of four, he was talking to me. They were relieved they weren’t alone in their fantasy or misunderstanding of new technology (TV was new in the 50’s). I think that people are really afraid of their own thoughts and are relieved when someone else has them. Memoirists come from behind sweeping with a normalizing brush. Ask yourself why would anyone care about Cathy McClure Gildiner at the age of four in Lewiston, New York in 1948. I am not Madonna or Princess Diana. They read to find themselves in the book.
On the day of my latest launch, I opened the paper and read my first review, which said the book was witty and well written. As I expelling a sigh of relief, my roving eye alighted on a phrase near the bottom of the page saying I was pig headed.
So here you are out there on a tightrope telling the truth without a net and you get slammed. In memoir there is nowhere to hide. You are not hiding behind a fictional character. I can’t assume the identity of Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy. The character is me. When you write a memoir you have to grapple with the truth, frozen in time, of who you once were in your early twenties while still hoping to keep the reader on your side. It’s a tough balancing act.
The angry side of me wanted to scream out “Of course I was pig headed you thirty-five year old charmed reviewer.” If you are born in the forties, you have to be pig-headed not to get married at twenty-one and be a housewife and marry the catholic next door. (Not-that-there-is-anything-wrong-with that-- but it sure wasn’t what I wanted.) It was before feminism laid out the red carpet and I had to swim upstream. There were no laws on my side in the work place or anywhere else. I got to Oxford, got a phd. on Darwin’s influence on Freud, live in three countries, started my own business as a psychologist, then decided to be a writer at the age of fifty. When everyone said it was too late to become a writer, I forged on ignoring rejection. Then I published three memoirs with all my faults flashing in full Technicolor. Why?-- Because I’m pig-headed and proud of it.