I participate, virtually these days, in a writing class on memoirs. We write them on our own, then read them to the cluster of faces neatly assembled across the top of our computer screens. The memoir group is small and has been together for what, I suspect, is a long time. I don’t really know how long because I am a newcomer to the group. In fact, I have not personally met any member ‘in the flesh’. So, I know them by the tales they share, the gentle remarks made at the conclusion of each member’s story, the banter between them when we have not exhausted our allotted time, and the unique collection of items surrounding them on their Zoom ‘set’; the paintings above their shoulders, the knickknacks on the shelves, the wallpaper, the closed curtains, the desk at which they sit all offer hints about the people with whom I am speaking.
As the COVID virus lingers, staging our Zoom calls has become increasingly important as a means for telegraphing to others something we want them to know about us. My wife tells me that there has been a run on lighting specifically designed to enhance one’s screen image. I get that. The sunlight that streams in from the windows on both sides of my desk enhances every imperfection, blemish, line and crinkle on my pasty screen face. The glass-covered painting behind me reflects the light from the door before me so remains unseen by my ‘audience’. Cable TV viewers will appreciate how interviewee’s carefully construct their set, placing newly published books conspicuously behind them or poised in front of a library-like collection of books with certain titles prominently displayed so viewers are offered a glimpse into the interests and values wish to project as their own. It all makes me think I should make an effort to create a more meaningful and flattering set for my Zoom meetings.
This is a difficult time for a lot of us. It is also a peculiar time insofar as it is changing us in ways that a few years ago would have been unimaginable. Or, more accurately, it has escalated the pace of changes that were not unimaginable but inevitable. In either case, it is safe to say, much is in flux. The way relationships are formed, Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to send us to the virtual world interacting with the creations of some programmer’s imagination, seemed unimaginable but now inevitable. And, of course, Twitter, Instagram, Tic-Tok and so on only escalate the pace of these changes.
Returning for a moment to the memoir group; it occurred to me the other day as I listened to one story after another, that those I found most interesting recounted some significant change in the life of the writer. Changes on a large scale, like social movements, political changes, world events are interesting but, for me, what makes a memoir especially compelling is when a writer openly and honestly explores how the people, events, and circumstances of their life have changed and reshaped them. Discovering the right level of intimacy between writer and reader is what makes a memoir most captivating. It isn’t necessary for the writer to simply vomit, but find that critical balance between intimacy and discretion. Changes are often subtle and we readily and efficiently assimilate them in a manner where they become barely noticeable. It’s a bit like aging. It happens slowly and incrementally so we remain unaware of how much our appearance has changed until we stumble on an old photograph and are stunned. Or, we attend a class reunion and are struck by how old everyone else looks, oblivious to the fact they are thinking the same about us.
I think what makes change so interesting is our capacity for awareness of the fact of it, our ability to reflect on and make sense of it, which, I believe likely qualifies as a uniquely human characteristic. However, I believe the response to change is not by any stretch unique to humans. What, I suppose is true universally, change is regarded as a blessing and a curse… and a blessing or a curse.
Change comes in all sizes, shapes, and colors. It takes place suddenly and gradually, externally and internally. Because imposed changes often cause significant disruption of what we see as settled norms, change management has emerged as a specific discipline supported by organizational psychology. Theories about how one successfully implements and sustains change on large- and small-scales is a prized skill. The aim is to facilitate speedy and reasonably smooth assimilation. Change management is a set of sought-after skills in high demand in the corporate world, by government agencies implementing broad changes that impact how public services are delivered, by educators, worship leaders, television programmers and so on. Even therapists and doctors are change managers facilitating a reordering of their patient’s world and thinking after a relationship problem or health crisis. We are negotiating our way through a growing barrage of subtle and not so subtle changes every day. We learn from others how to successfully manage these changes. And in the end, isn’t this why we read and write memoirs? Why we read and write stories? We are obsessed with change and finding ways to better manage it; to learn from those who have mismanaged it or managed it especially well. And all stories in some form are about change and how it is managed.
In broad strokes, the archetypal story generally includes a hero/heroine, an event that precipitates a crisis that sets him/her on a journey or quest. The quest includes a trial in which the hero/heroine must prove themselves worthy of new, and often extraordinary insight that invariably changes them, imbuing them with some new power such as wisdom, strength, longed-for love, enlightenment, moksha, nirvana and so on. The story reaches its apex as the hero/heroine undergoes their trial where they use their newly discovered gift, and resolution of the trial is successfully achieved and the hero/heroine emerges triumphant and changed.
Memoirs are important because they call to mind our own journey, the hardships we endure, and the hoped-for reward as we undergo our own trials. A good memoir is one in which we can find our own story, discover the qualities that sustain us throughout our trials, and offer us the confidence to remain faithful to the journey’s end where our reward waits for us on the other side. A good memoir, a good story helps us ask the questions that lead to some understanding of our life and its purpose.
There are so many good examples to illustrate this point but let me point to two. The Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible is about a man who is well off but falls upon hard times. The hard times are a result of a bet between God and Satan. The bet has to do with Job’s faithfulness to God which Satan contends hinges on his life of abundance. If he were to lose his good fortune, he surely would relent. Well, the story evolves and has Job losing virtually everything, including his health. He ends up on an ash heap covered with festering sores. But for our purposes the story is about a man who encounters a crisis, whose life changes irreparably, leaving him on a metaphorical ash heap. He must either give up or embark on his journey toward healing and redemption. One effort after another to help poor old Job fails and, at the end of his rope, he wonders aloud, where is this God who has brought me to the lowest point in my life when I really need him. A violent storm commonly translated as a ‘whirlwind’ envelops Job and a voice speaks to him from the very center of it. In essence, the voice asks, “Who do you think you are, questioning me? What do you know about the big picture? Where were you when I created the world? What do you know about any of this and what makes you think that your woes are so important?” Job relents having learned that suffering is very much a part of life. Still, many of his losses are restored and he grows old and dies. But he dies a changed man. One who endured the great ordeals and was chastised by God himself has come to a new understanding that life is bigger than what happens to you alone.
Our stories remind our readers that life is fundamentally about the person we are becoming as we navigate our way through its trials. I have never met a wise individual who claimed they had finally become all they were meant to be. And so, let me share with you a segment from the second story; a memoir entitled, DARKNESS VISIBLE, by William Styron, concerning his battle with depression.
On his way to the venue where he is to receive a literary honor in Paris, he is overcome by the sensation that he simply cannot manage to get through the event honoring his work. The constant flow of trial upon trial has reached its peak, or so we think, and he just can’t do it, feeling on the verge of collapse. The book goes on to chronicle his journey to it darkest point when, late one night, he decides to take his life. After wrapping his personal journals in paper towels, stuffing them inside an empty cereal box, he places them all in the trash wanting to keep private a very personal journey that ends with his demise. Then, he sits watching television. It is a movie of one of his books; an effort of sorts to find some final consolation from reliving the fulfillment of a creative endeavor. As he watches the film he explains, “the characters moved down the hallway of a music conservatory, beyond the walls comes a voice singing a “sudden soaring passage from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody”. For some unknown reason the voice, the music, the movie, the depression all converge in such a way as to wake his recollection of “all the joys the (his) house had known”. Instead of killing himself, he awakens his sleeping wife and asks to be taken to the hospital. Out of the whirlwind of our trials there comes a voice, a sign, an impulse that drives us just beyond complete despair so we can begin the process of reconstructing our new self. No solitary event, this re-creation of self, but one that requires us to confront the whirlwind again and again until we come to the realization that becoming, not simply being, is our purpose.
Isn’t it when we speak to our readers about our time on the ash heap and how we came to decide we needed to soldier on that touches the soul? How will one recognize the voice that calls to us from the whirlwind urging us not to abandon our trials but to believe that we will emerge from them a new creation; the voice that nudges us forward, closer to understanding what our life means. Isn’t this the greatest story anyone has to offer; the one that demands nothing short of complete honesty; the one that showcases our vulnerability rather than ingenuity? Isn’t this where another finds themself in us?
This is the story we write.