WHO ARE YOU? If you are writing memoir, it’s important to know the answer to that question. Memoir is about territory, and you have to walk its borders. What are those borders? Your areas of expertise. And what are those? Here’s a hint: There are many more than you might imagine.
I am a woman, a wife, a mother, a sister, a writer and a dog owner. I sail, I own a home, and I garden. I recently cared for a friend as he died. These are only a few of my areas of expertise, and I try to write from each of them, one at a time. I’ve written about memoir as territory more than several times before. I write about it a lot because it may very well be that learning your limitations is hardest of all lessons when writing memoir.
The first limitation you need to know is how to write memoir versus writing autobiography. I keep the distinction between the two pretty simple, thinking of autobiography as one large book about one’s entire life, and memoir as a genre that focuses on one aspect of your life.
After choosing memoir over autobiography, the next thing you need to learn is how to limit your scope. Want to see how I limit mine?
Here’s an essay from when my daughter was five, and I was a parenting columnist. See what you can learn about limiting your own scope from reading it. And then ask me questions. I’m here to help.
In my dictionary the definition of hell is listed as “any place or state of torment or misery.” Well, then, I’ve been to hell on earth and it’s other people’s children’s birthday parties.
As the mother of a five and a half-year old, I am experiencing many things for the first time. My daughter started in real school last September so there was the requisite retooling our lives to her holidays and school closings; snow days are particularly challenging, of course. Along with that are the new vagaries of school lunch nutrition, having to be home for the school bus and things like that. But most of those seem like small potatoes when compared to birthday party hell.
Like many children her age, our daughter is straddling the time when she is not yet comfortable being dropped off with friends and not still completely tied to us. The parents of her friends know this and try to include us in the festivities. Which is worse, I wonder? When your child happily goes off alone to parties with kids you barely know and do things they’ll never tell you about or witnessing every single ear-splitting, clothes rending, icing smearing, stomach-turning minute of someone’s rite of passage into her sixth year?
And it’s not only the individual experiences that have me crazy, it’s also the number of parties. In her first month at her new school we attended three and it’s been that way ever since. Twenty-four kids in the class, nine months of school, you do the math.
To date there we’ve gone ice skating, roller skating, bowling, swimming, to gymnastics halls, several museums, community centers, found ourselves in basements, backyards and several living rooms and just as I started to swoon at the mailbox the other day – recognizing, as I have come to do, the terror that begins when I see a little pink Disney-inspired envelope waiting to be opened – I caught myself, just before the whining began, and said aloud, “What did you expect?”
What did I expect when I became a parent? Did I really think I would enjoy everything about the experience? Specifically, did I somehow imagine I would magically morph into someone who is comfortable with blue icing, bad punch and noise?
I think I did. And I was wrong.
Like so many issues in life – one’s comfort with one’s own body, the books you’ve read versus the ones you keep meaning to read, the length/color/curly or non-curliness of your hair, your in-laws’ politics, to name a few – I realize that some things simply are all too easy to whine about and way too difficult to look at with a neutral eye. So I took it one step further, there at the mailbox, and applied the age-old leveler, the great question passed down from the beginning of man and asked myself, what, after all, does any of this have to do with me?
Not a thing.
Then I wondered if I had made any nasty comments or retching sounds before, during or after any of the parties we had attended. Had I infected my child with my displeasure in any way? So I called my husband at work and he assured me that to date I had been the perfect party girl: Well behaved, ate everything, didn’t gag.
Determined, then, to start all over again, I took the invitation to the bus that afternoon and handed it to Grace with a flourish.
“Look what came for you!”
She sat straight up, opened it and read it aloud. As she did, her little face glowed with the secure joy that only a request for the pleasure of one’s company can bring. And nothing else mattered.