Refractions of Light: My Quandary with Memoir

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Look in the mirror.   And tell the story.

To write or not to write the memoir is a topic often bandied about; and usually what’s discussed or debated are the ethics of such an endeavor.  James Frey’s  A Million Little Pieces  is probably the best-known controversy in recent publishing history.  He created a national scandal, even involving Oprah, by pushing the envelope on the ethics of telling the truth.  Lauren Slater purposely challenges our notions of truth versus embellishment versus downright deception, in her book  Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir,  by questioning whether fact equals truth, or is just one by-product of many that delivers a truth.   Charles Mingus’  Beneath the Underdog  doesn’t read like memoir at all, but like the most artful turn of poetry, at once urbane and plebeian, which has begged the question:  Just how “creative” is his memoir?   Yes, loads have been written and discussed on the subject.

I confess to being baffled at all the uproar Frey’s book created.  I once wrote a novel, a piece of fiction, that was told in first person from a child’s standpoint.   And at one juncture in its development I had toyed with the playful enough conceit of calling it a biography “as told to Angela Carole Brown.”   And with, frankly, never the intent to genuinely deceive a public, as it would all, by design, come out in the wash, and just be this piece of fiction turned on fiction’s ear.   But at the time I was considering it, the idea seemed harmless enough while achieving that sense of urgency that a true story intrinsically has on the psyche.   It never even occurred to me that such a conceit could be somehow profoundly damaging to culture, as I am someone who believes that truth does not always equal fact.  A universal truth can be unveiled in the very best of fiction.   So, yes, I was a bit puzzled over the degree of James Frey’s “crime.”   Yes, he exaggerated his story.   What exactly did that take away from us?

One of the rumors I’d heard throughout this scandal was that Frey had originally submitted his manuscript to the publisher as fiction, because though it had come from his own experience he admitted to greatly embellishing, and therefore thought it was best to submit it that way, and that it was his editor who suggested it would be more marketable as a memoir.  Whether or not that rumor is true, I think the greater point here is just how easy it is for a “true story” to be rendered true, false, real, deception, whatever, merely by the way in which it is framed.   And that perhaps Truth isn’t subject to perception and window dressing, but is the oak beneath it.

I have my own quandary with the memoir, but it looks nothing like the above.  Because though, as I’ve said, I never really saw the injury in James Frey’s “true” story, this article is not about to be some confession that I , too, have written a lie and called it memoir.  No, I have not done so.  And I’m not saying, by my take on the Frey scandal, that I’m a proponent of deception.  He exaggerated some details.  A memoir is supposed to be the truth.   I get that.  Only that perhaps Frey’s deception really didn’t merit the public slaughter it received.   He wasn’t writing a history book.  He was sharing his own personal experience for the greater purpose of the message it had to offer.

I only even bother to mention this particular avenue of the dialogue on memoir, and my take on it, because to write a piece on the memoir and not to acknowledge its most road-tread of avenues would be to plant an elephant right in this room.   And no, I never did publish the “biography as told to Angela Carole Brown,” nor in its pre-published state have I remained with the idea of that conceit.  To be honest, the reason I abandoned the idea (which was only a momentary entertaining anyway) is because such a gimmick would only distract from a story I believe is compelling on its own merits.   Its day will come.

Here, finally, is my quandary.  As a writer, I am primarily a novelist.   It’s only been in recent years that I have even begun to entertain the notion of the memoir.  And what I know about myself is that my issues with self-value have often created a twisted knot of identity assertion and confusion whenever I have entertained that notion.

Simply put, I’ve lived in the belief, for my entire writing life, that memoir was reserved for people in the public eye.  After all, why would anyone’s story be interesting to a total stranger unless it was that total strangers already know who you are, and this is, after all, a culture of fame-worship?  The irony here is that most of the memoirs I’ve read were written by writers who had not been especially well-known prior to a publisher finding something powerful in their story and taking it on.   And yet, the belief in me seems to be gravely deep-seated, and likely more a reflection of my own self-worth than anything.

I’ve generally tended to journal.  But I’ve never been that person who opens the notebook ritualistically at the end of every day lived, dates the log entries, and into the golden years can boast volumes upon volumes of my life on paper. No.  It’s been erratic and sporadic at best.  Something just hits me as worthy of documenting.  And I may not be hit again for several years.

The first of those incidents in my life that I felt strongly enough about documenting, in a way that I could easily envision as a book, was the death of my mother.  It was, however, almost a decade after her passing before I felt clear enough to unfold it in the written form.  It’s a book that I’ve more or less finished, though I’m not quite ready to put it into the world yet, and the reasons are more personal than they are about marketing and pacing strategies.

What continues to fascinate me is that the entire time I was writing it, a balls-to-the-wall battle was going on between my two selves: the Left Self, we’ll call her, who argued that everyone has a story, and every story has value not only for the one living it, but in the written form to be shared with others; that every story has a lesson, a light bulb, a dawning, to offer, if written with authenticity and purity of goal.  Every story has universality.

Right Self argued that no one cares about your story if you haven’t already made a name for yourself; that our present culture just doesn’t operate any other way.  And who do you think you are, anyway, to think anyone should care about your story?  That it’s only delusions of grandeur and self-importance that would make any writer think that her unknown life holds any interest for the average reader of books.  So stop being so narcissistic and wallowing up your own ass, and write a great piece of fiction, instead, that will be universal enough to resonate with an audience.

Well, fiction IS what I’ve generally tended to write.  And while I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that (though fictional) a great novel carries truth within it, just as I said above, I also believe that memoir is a very different animal indeed, and has a place.  The question for me became, does it have a place documenting Joe Blow’s ordinary life?

While these two Selves warred, I trudged forward, anyway, with my first stab at memoir.  Because something in me believed that my story had a message for the world.  One about the layered complexity of the mother/daughter dynamic.  One that examines grief in all its nuances and bumps.

Right Self, of course, just kept whispering, “self-indulgent.  Who cares!  You aren’t the first to write about grief.  And only the grief of Joan Didion or Frank McCourt or Edwidge Danticat is going to fetch an audience.  Go work yours out in therapy.”

Right Self had a point.  But I kept on writing, kept on trying to defend Left Self’s creed.

Since the writing of my grief memoir, which still sits on the proverbial shelf, I’ve written one other, not counting all those journal entries over the years of isolated mini-stories and experiences, which has been published.  I felt a little more qualified to write that one, though that idea discombobulates my brain because the fact is I am qualified to write about any part of my life.  It’s my life.  Who knows it better?  Yet clearly I am still being influenced by Right Self in determining whether I have a worthy story, and by extension a worthy life.  Isn’t that really what’s going on, Angela?  So I guess what I mean to say is that I was finally writing about something that might count as sensational and unique in the eyes of a society that craves sensational and unique, whereas death and loss and grief is not especially.

I’m truly bothered that I allow myself to reduce my merits to that graph; but, well, there it is.  The point of all this (all this being a good chunk of why I write) is to work that out.  I’ve already been writing, already producing content.  Now I’m just bobbing around in the waters of trying to get read, and trying to figure out the puzzle of how to get that done when I am not Joan Didion.

In any case, my unique story (the second stab at memoir) is that I donated a kidney to someone who might’ve died without it.  I saved a life.  This wasn’t done for sensationalism, but it was sensational, in every sense of the word, and in anyone’s book.  Yet what I wrote about was not the “hair-raising” or “breathtaking” aspect of such a deed.  All the adjectives any good sell-line MUST have these days.  The real story is about how the deed managed to save my life too, as I had been living in a profound spiritual malaise at the time this need presented itself.  And so it is the story of an ordinary and flawed human being struggling through the landmines of life.  Not about heroism.

And that’s when I realized that I was writing a book, yet again, that had Right Self’s eyes rolling.

“Who cares about your self-exploration!”

Right Self is mean.  But then so is the world.

I also now really understand my relatively new penchant for writing about myself, after years of writing fiction.  Because when I look back on the grief memoir that sits on the shelf, waiting for polishing  –  and courage  –  I realize that my flaws as a human being are not only on parade in that one too, just like with the kidney book, but truly are the nucleus of all my stories, it seems.  And it is suddenly clear to me that the gravity of my need to tell MY stories exists as a way of granting permission for my life to be made valid, and my flaws to be expunged if not transformed.

The act of storytelling, and my own stories specifically, may well be of no interest to anyone who doesn’t personally know me, but it is first and foremost, for me, an act of healing.

Now here’s where I will chest-spread.  I also believe that such an act of storytelling requires a special kind of bravery.  And I think what separates the women from the girls is the ability to resist self-aggrandizement in the writing, to look in the mirror, and to tell the story.

Of course, there are those who would say that the very instinct to write a memoir, in and of itself, is pretty self-aggrandizing.   Well, that’ll have to be.    It still requires walking a road many would shudder away from.

I read quite a bit of memoir when I was preparing for writing my first one, especially those dealing with grief.  There were the ones I was floored by, like Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and the Lauren Slater book.   These were examples of startling perspicacity, the very seed of the brave and gnarly self-reveal.

And then there were the ones that were so much “Isn’t my life blessed?  Even with all its precious dilemmas?  Don’t you wish it was yours?” that I could barely get through them without choking on the propaganda.  I won’t name them; I’m not interested in being cruel.  But they were such obvious cases of fear and inability to see the pearl in authentic confrontation with the shadow that I felt deeply for the writers, if not the writing.

William Giraldi speaks in a recent Poets & Writers issue, an article on Louise Gluck, of knowing oneself en route to becoming oneself.  That “the facts of any life are impotent and ineffectual until literature intercedes, until it takes hold of those facts and twists them into the light, casting a refraction that allows us to glimpse them anew.”1

From the same article comes a quotation from Stanley Kunitz: “The empty ones are those who do not suffer their selfhood.” 2

I see both of these sentiments as revering the act of vigilant self-inquiry and the level of courage it takes to face Self, and to mean that only through that kind of bravery can any writing truly arrive at an important place.

So, my question is, could bravery possibly count as a worthy enough star in the memoirs of the unknown?  Might that be my sole hope for believing that I could tell my stories to an audience that would bother with me?

Or is the better question:  Should I care?

Maybe I should just be writing.  And healing.  And sharing the experience.  Because the experience of leaping out from a prison of the internal through words is like nothing else I can describe.   For all the criticism that both of these writers have received in their writing careers, I imagine that James Frey and Lauren Slater, both, understand that sense of liberation.  And I suspect there are resonant ears and eyes out there, just waiting for me and others like me, hungry for a tale that could very well be their own, for what it might dare to examine.   We just need to find each other.

And then, to be able to let go of all else.

Alas, my running theme in life.

 

 

*             *             *

 

 

Notes / Works Cited

1. 2. Poets & Writers, Sept/Oct 2014 Issue; Internal Tapestries by William Giraldi.

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.

A Simple Life

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“Just let go.  
Let go of how you thought your life should be,
and embrace the life that is trying to work its way
into your consciousness.
― Carolyn Myss

 

The life I used to want . . . or perhaps the better way is to say the life I thought I wanted? . . . was a grand one.  A life of being celebrated, and documented, because of what I’d put into the world.

Maybe it’s age and the wisdom that hopefully comes with it.  Maybe it’s disappointment, and choosing to redefine a goal instead of wallowing in the failure of an old one.  Or maybe I just lost my appetite for grand.  But today there is a very different life that I want.  And it comes closer to a renunciant’s path, to Zen, and to nature, than ever before.

Let’s take Oprah Winfrey for a minute.   I think the legacy that she has carved for herself is a noble one; that of being the spokesperson for discovering one’s best self and living one’s best life, and the idea that this has nothing whatsoever to do with financial prosperity, but instead with spiritual prosperity.  Yet the irony can’t be lost on even Oprah that her own financial wealth makes the very kind of zenning, sentient life she purports virtually impossible for her.   A woman with homes (plural) that rival the size and scope of art museums, and require staff.  A woman who has entourages.  A woman who is stalked and hounded and quoted and misquoted by a frenzied culture desperate to crack the code that is the Entity Oprah, because we all want whatever magic has befallen her.   How does one live in that life and temper the monkeys in the mind, never mind the monkeys coming after you?

Yes-Men surrounding you constantly will lose you your touch with reality, and make you operate from an engine of dissociative ego.  And I often wonder to what degree she is aware of that peculiar power (or is it a liability?) and takes full advantage of it. I think back to her controversy with the author James Frey [read about it here, if you’re not familiar].  I have my own opinions about what he did, which is perhaps an article for another day, but I have always, and for this article’s purpose, also questioned her role in this, because of the Yes-Men phenomenon that ostensibly makes Oprah incapable of ever being wrong, and gives her permission to wield the ax at her discretion.  Did she really think that what Frey did was morally reprehensible?  Or had she just been personally humiliated, and therefore needed to use her power to humiliate him in return?   Was the punishment that she doled out to him on national television really about teaching James Frey some ethical lesson?  Or just about saving her own face?  And does she even choose to recognize that whether she feels it’s her responsibility or not, she has set herself up to shape the zeitgeist for a lot of America and what America should think about such things?

I only choose to analyze the Oprah phenomenon, as opposed to anyone else out there in the celebrity world, because she is not just a celebrity but a pop culture icon, and there has been a pretty wide swath in my life of envisioning a similar station.   A few years ago I wrote a grief memoir about the death of my mother (not yet published), but what the book is really about is an examination of our relationship; complex to say the least.  One of the commonalities that I examine is both of our desire for fame.  I am an entertainer.  My mother’s life was in politics.  And we both had an appetite unlike anyone else in our family for renown.   There was something just so fundamentally dreadful to us both about living unsung (let alone dying unsung) in anonymity.  And somehow the belief that if only a hundred people were touched by our gift, versus a million, that our gift was meaningless.

I have had many knock-down-drag-outs with my soul on the place my art and my contribution has in the world, and where I place its value.  Is its value in acceptance by the larger public?   Acceptance by the boutique few?   Or is it measured by no barometers at all save my own instinctive sense of personal best?

I think we all know my answer, but putting that into actual action and ownership has been another trick entirely.   Believe it or not, getting older helps.  A lot of delusion gets shed away.  I think I know what kind of famous person I would be, and it isn’t pretty.   Talk about dissociative ego.   Today I am finding more peace with the artist I am, and with the spiritual being I am, while living in a world (“in this world, not of it”) that woos only greatness, as defined by financial station, celebrity, and popularity.  And yes, I’m even finding more peace with that world, as well.

And so, any longer, here’s what today’s dream looks like.  Here’s what’s truly attractive to my soul, and what I believe my consciousness has been inviting.   Hint:  It hearkens awfully close to a Thoreau utopia.

(And let me preface what I’m about to say with this:  I don’t begrudge the Oprahs of the world their wealth, their station, their largeness and their guaranteed seats in the history books and Forbes Magazine.  These choices, and these good fortunes, are not bad ones or wrong ones. I’m just finally finding a different value for my life.)

I want to live simply.

I want to be awakened every morning by the sunrise, and honor a ritual by which I prepare for bed nightly, instead of letting myself fall asleep to the white noise of the television, fighting with everything in me to stave off sleep, just because the waking hours feel like a desperate drug to this addict.

I want to bask in quiet and stillness for at least a few precious moments every single day.

I want to encounter every wonder with the patience and pace required to catch every detail, and I want to write about it, because every one is as remarkable as a Van Gogh or a Stravinsky.

I want to be of service.

I want to read books and, through them, get lost.

I want to stare at a painting in a museum, and have my life changed.  No, it doesn’t move.  No, it’s not interactive.   No, it doesn’t trend.   There are no hash tags.   No friends.   No followers.  No algorithms.  No memes.  No apps.  It hangs on a wall merely, and blows our illusions out of the water, if we’re canny enough to see.

I want to be canny enough to see.

I want to sing, not for my supper, but for the gods.

I want to earn my wage outdoors, with labor and sweat and sun about me.  I want to plant gardens, and eat what I’ve grown, and work my body like the vessel it is.

I want to forgive my body its daring to creak and ache, and instead awe at its magic to move, to protect, to repair and regenerate, to create, to haul lumber and compose symphonies equally.

I want to open my doors, and meet my neighbors.  And hold children.  And praise animals.  And laugh with friends till it hurts.  And invest in compassion.

I want to watch the rainfall with the same fascination as when I watch a great movie.

I want to abolish from my own brain, my own agitated sense of desperate measures, once and for all (warning: incoming rant), the emperor’s new clothes of this insidious Religion of Prosperity that’s gripping our culture today, and the irresponsible false promise that all we need is a positive mindset and to walk in the world AS IF, for all our problems to be solved.  If only the billions of starving, war-torn, Third World citizens of the earth would stop for one second to apply its principles . . . Don’t they know!   I’m not knocking positive thinking – a huge proponent actually – I just reject this idea that it’s a magic pill.  The world IS insecure.  It is unsure and unpredictable.  It will always, and till the end of time, give us joy beyond measure . . . and loss, heartbreak, and disappointment beyond measure.  And all the praying to the manifesting, law-of-attraction gods will not make us magically immune to pain and disappointment.  The true key is not to be constantly coveting an over-there reality that may or may not ever come to us, or to try and create a cocoon of cotton candy denial around us from all the realities of life, but to amass the masterful tools meant to help us respond to all of it – the fortunate and the unfortunate – with grace, humility, mindfulness, and compassionate vigilance.   To truly be able to recognize the beauty, and power, and opportunity for transformation and swift healing in whatever experience is given to us.  Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work toward goals, or not try to cultivate a can-do mindset.   But what it does mean is that if we live only for the GOAL, then we completely miss the GOLD of the absolutely magnificent right now.

I want to never miss the gold.

I want to learn the lessons that every encounter with every kind of being on the planet is meant to teach me.  And I want to appreciate them for that, instead of collecting enemies.

And I want my only prayers from this day forward to be . . . NOT . . . “Dear God, please give me . . .”    But two words, and two words only:  Thank you.

I want a simple life.

 

With wine.

 

And chocolate.

 

 

 T H I S !

(yes, it’s a commercial for life insurance,
but it’s the most brilliant message ever, and is exactly what I’m talking about.)

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.