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Memoir, myself, and I: a learning curve

I. College, freshman year

They are everywhere, the pretty actors.  In the dingy hallways, the empty rooms, the ratty bathrooms, the sidewalk.  They are pacing, stretching out their faces into plastic gargoyles of exaggerated emotion.  They seem to sing a dissonant chorus of narcissism, with the endless “Me, me, me, me, ME, ME, ME, ME, me, ME, me, ME, me, ME, me, ME, muh-ee, MUH-EE…” of their vocal warm-ups. 

They are too easy to mock, the collegiate thespians, as they tend to gesticulate grandly, quote The Bard, and gather round the piano at any excuse, belting out the full lyrics of the great American musicals as if real life were an episode of Fame.  (That’s the old people version of Glee, okay?)

But they are actually kind of amazing, because after all their offstage look-at-ME! shenanigans, they take their cues on beat, hit their marks precisely, and nail their lines with subtle perfection.  Basically, they give us a gift, transforming a darkened room into magic, transporting us, the giftees, into a netherworld of cathartic engagement with something Greater Than The Sum of Its Parts.  Seeing as how most of those parts will be near-vomiting drunk and howling the entire score of South Pacific later the same evening, “magic” almost seems too dull a word.  Alchemy, perhaps.

 

II. College, senior year

At my particular college, in my particular time, it is the fashion to unleash language from its foundations and watch it run amok among the student body.  I am not quite intellectually sophisticated enough to delve deeply into the texts that have spawned this fashion, nor into the philosophical discussions that linger in the pots of espresso.

I do, however, with my degree, receive a lasting skepticism about words having actual meanings.  One spring day, they bid us each goodbye with a hearty handshake, saying, “Congratulations. There is no such thing as truth, so good luck. Have a great and meaningful life, keeping in mind, of course, that meaning is always subjective and cannot be fixed, and therefore all communication must by definition be approximate.”

 

III. Life

In fact, over the decades, words do wander away from meaning.  What I say is not what you hear.  What you think you said makes no sense to me, despite the apparent plain English of it. You are reading way too much into what I am saying.  Your truth is my lie.

I am not surprised by the loss of “truth,” as my collegiate semiotics-obsessed culture has long ago beat that expectation out of me.  I know not to trust ‘truth,’ ‘history,’ ‘objectivity’; I know that what I am trying to tell you gets lost along the way.  But I had greater attachment to thinking that language created common ground than I thought.  These words become permanently, painfully unmoored from what I used to think they meant: love, God, friend, marriage, trust, baby, identity, self. 

 

IV. Memoir workshop

There is a palpable fear in the room.  A classroom of women, quaking in our stylish boots.  Asking, “Are we narcissists?  For wanting to tell our own stories?  For using the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’?”  We are here to work on our memoirs, so very easily mocked: ‘me’moir, and even worse, mom-oir--accusations of smallness of scope, of narrowness of vision.

Some days the page on my screen nauseates me—it is so heavily slathered with ‘I.’ Who wants to read about me?  It’s all about me.  Me-me-me-me-me. Why even bother to write the words down?  Damn words, they don’t have meaning anyhow, and what I’m trying to say can so easily get lost in the process.  Will inevitably get lost, cannot help but get lost.  My truth is just someone else’s lie.

‘Lost,’ however, happens only if you depend solely on the words.  If you let the words float freely, don’t tie them down too tightly, there is something deeper that we are all trying to get at when we, imprecisely, use the word ‘truth.’  An indescribable center which we twist the words around, a jagged scrap of opaque soul.  An invisible, yet perceivable, gift. 

I keep writing, because the me-me-me is just the vocal warm up, preparing my voice for stepping out onto the page to fully inhabit the written ‘I’ which is not just me but also you and him and her.  My story is a human story, and the character ‘I’ is a heart revealed, a tale crafted, to touch your own.  Wrapped in words, each of which may float away from the intended meaning, but which together point toward the fragment of soul that I have so carefully nested into them.  An alchemical gift, from me to you.  Read into it what you will.

Tags: writing

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