by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World
When I was 12 years old, I used to sneak out by myself and set fire to autumn leaves. The excitement of the flames blinded me to the danger. Fortunately I never did any damage and was never caught, but now I look back on my actions with horror. I hate the way these memories make me feel, and generally avoid talking about things that make me sound like a criminal. As I work on my memoir, such memories confuse me. Should I include them or leave them out?
Of course I could pretend they never happened. But that solution perpetuates a problem I’ve been trying to overcome since I was a child. I used to believe that people weren’t supposed to have emotions, and I did my best to pretend I had none. The earliest example of this belief comes from seventh grade. I was scandalized when my fellow classmates burst into laughter over some sexual innuendo. How childish! To distance myself from humiliating feelings, I spent my teenage years doing homework or working at my dad’s drugstore. When I wanted a break, I read science fiction novels. This tendency to separate myself from emotions made me seem distant and aloof. I was in a sort of self-imposed exile from the human condition. It took years to break through my own walls.
Gradually with the help of therapy, a graduate program in counseling, and the support of compassionate friends, I learned that emotions are as necessary for a satisfying life as eating. I knew I was making progress when, in my fifties, I walked into the office at Villanova University’s graduate program in counseling psychology. Two of my tenured professors were experimenting with a remote controlled whoopee cushion. They roared with laughter every time the device let loose a simulated fart. I laughed along with them, perhaps not with their childlike glee, but at least I wasn’t horrified, the way I would have been when I was 12.
Now that I’m writing my memoir, I wrestle with every detail that was illegal, immoral, or embarrassing. It all seems so private, and yet it’s all part of my life. How do I decide? To do this right, I remember that the end product of my disclosure is not an encyclopedia. It’s a story. When Michelangelo was sculpting David, he started with a block of granite, and tossed away the rubble to expose the beauty hidden within. By writing a memoir I must discover the real me in a pleasing form.
I dredge through memories, not certain yet what to put in. At this stage, I’m just looking for the raw material. The most dramatic period was during my college years at the University of Wisconsin in Madison during the Vietnam War protests. My adult years are less colorful. I reminisce about my visit to the Great Pyramids on my 30th birthday, and then feel the frustration on my 31st birthday when my boss ordered me to help clean out the septic system.
I slip again into the turmoil of my adolescent years, and as I muse I notice a powerful connection. Around the same time I was in junior high school glowering at classmates for laughing at sexual references, I was sneaking out at night on secret missions to start fires. Wow. Freud claimed that if repressed emotions don’t come out one way they’ll come out another. My adolescence would have made a terrific demonstration of his point.
That’s interesting but must I write it in a memoir for all to see? My childhood preference tells me to skip the whole mess. But to sanitize my story means overriding decades of effort to break out of this shell. Without edgy moments, my memoir will be about a boring person. If I include them, I will be able to show the tension between what is and what can be. By acknowledging the messiness of the journey, I not only make myself appear more human. I discover some of the most exhilarating aspects of my experience. My imperfections are exactly what forced me to grow. Over the years I’ve been weak, confused, afraid. And it’s okay! That’s what drives me to become stronger, more accepting, smarter, and braver.
By releasing myself from my habit of secrecy, I learn about my own human nature, and can apply my learning to understand others. For example, my teenage misadventures help me appreciate the complexity of that period for other people as well. It turns out that sharing the authentic story can also forge intimate connections between people. When readers and writers share tales, we connect sublime parts of ourselves: our desire to learn, grow, love, and be loved.
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