July 27, 2012

Public/Private: On Writing Memoir

In my class on “Memoir,” I used to tell students to notice the recurring claim: “Now I’m going to tell you a secret, something I’ve never told anyone before.” Whether this was a genuine confession or a literary trope, the statement pointed toward a reality in writing memoir: when you are writing it, you often need to go into a very private reality. And yet you feel a simultaneous need to communicate something to real people somewhere.

While writing Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood, in whatever hours I could snatch from daily realities, I dug into myself in intense solitude. I needed to think about life experiences I had not yet fully articulated even to myself, though I had not kept secrets from those to whom I was closest. I needed to explore thoughts and meanings that might emerge, nascent, from this solitary inquiry. And I needed to write these down, as they came to me, without the intervening censor who sits on my writer’s shoulder. Only by suppressing that censor could I begin to take advantage of what writing can do: become an agent of discovery, not just a recording of prior understandings.

But lurking within the zone of privacy was also the need to make my discoveries known to someone else. And when I surfaced from my solitude, I brought forward the need to communicate. I wanted readers. The censor, however, could still not be released. The hard won understandings could only be articulated when judgment was silenced, when the clamoring voices of others were set aside. Now I had to prepare myself to allow readers into the conversation, not the clamoring voices of judgment—though those will come—but the reality of what others have to say.

After years sequestered in the zone of privacy, Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood is at last a public document. I begin to hear reactions from readers, mostly family and friends so far, though also a few online reviews by people who have no prior knowledge of me. I am gratified when these responses suggest that what the reader read is what I meant to write. But that cannot be the case with every reader. Inevitably each of us brings our own experiences to any reading, and memoir more than some genres seems to invite its readers into the text.

As I go public, I face anew the anxiety felt by many writers. On the eve of publication, Jane Lazarre reminded me of a passage in To the Lighthouse where Virginia Woolf spoke this anxiety through her character Lily, a painter: “that any other eyes should see the residue of her thirty-three years, the deposit of each day’s living mixed with something more secret than she had ever spoken or shown in the course of all those days was an agony. At the same time it was immensely exciting.”

Yes, both: “an agony” and “immensely exciting.” Like Lily, I prepare myself for response in going public. I celebrate when I feel understood, but also when I come to new understandings through what others say, even thoughts that are alien to my own conception of life. A book, perhaps, is never finished; it awaits readers. It exists as part of a conversation that winds its way into the world.