By Jerry Waxler
To research the memoir she is writing, QuoinMonkey visited her childhood home. At first the lush vegetation crowding the house looked like the work of a zealous gardener. Then she realized the house was vacant and surrounded by weeds. To get her arms around this disturbing sight, she posted on her blog a photo and a haiku named “You Can’t Go Back“. Another blogger, ybonesy, commented that the weeds were trying to consume the house. I tried to lighten the mood with physics, pointing out that seeing your childhood home is a sort of time travel, like when you watch a star and realize you’re seeing the light it emitted a million years ago. I appreciated the opportunity to brainstorm the passage of time: the haiku, the photo, time travel, and return to the earth. Yet I was still unsettled, wishing I knew the appropriate response to seeing a childhood home turning decrepit.
Later I was listening to the audio memoir, The Path by Donald Walters, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. As a young seeker he tried to penetrate the secrets of the universe by reading the Bible, but he was upset by the story of Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden Eden for eating the fruit of wisdom. Walters complained, “What sort of God would want us to remain in ignorance?” As I pondered this question, an insight leapt into my mind and for the first time the story of Adam and Eve made more sense to me than it ever had.
When I was young, all I saw in this story was the deception of the snake, and the disobedience against a direct command. I cried, “No. No. Not the apple! You have it all. Stick with the pleasure.” Now, I realize how much depth there is in the story. They were young, naked, and sexy, but physical pleasure wasn’t enough. Their temptation was for knowledge. Instead of being ignorant and self-involved, as I had first supposed, I now see them as courageous. They chose wisdom. In exchange, they must grow old. Now, as I grow older, I’m seeing for myself the terrible price of that bargain. I lose everything, including eventually my own life. In exchange, I want to enjoy every bit of the wisdom that is owed me.
A few days after I had this insight, I was teaching a memoir class, and one of my students wanted to write about his spiritual unfolding. A number of events over the years had convinced him that there was more going on in the universe than he could see on the surface. He glimpsed this transcendent aspect of life through visionary experiences, unexplainable “coincidences,” and inspirational insight. He wanted to write about what he had observed. It would be a sort of work of art to express the way the universe had made itself known to him through his life.
In my opinion, the journey towards spirituality is a wonderful topic for a memoir. I recently read two such memoirs, one by Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, and the other by Martha Beck, Expecting Adam. Both books rely on a fundamental storytelling technique, called the “character arc” which stimulates the reader’s curiosity to see how the protagonist grows. To create this sense of development in your own memoir, look for your evolving wisdom. Even in a collection of essays, show how you started skeptical and self-involved, and then gradually understood more, until finally you understand a lot.
Over the decades our childhood home grows old. Even our body becomes less fun. Yes, I know all the hype, and believe me I’m hanging on to my body for dear life, but the progression is pretty obvious to me already, and I’m only sixty. So if the body is aging, becoming less enchanting, less thrilling, finally less sexy, why should anyone want to keep turning pages to the end of the story? To find the closure to this tale, the redemption, the reason you or anyone would want to get to the end, I suggest we go back to the beginning and look at the bargain God made with Adam and Eve. Unfolding wisdom is the reward. Look for that wisdom and share it with your reader. The evolution of the central character will make a good story to read, and incidentally will also make a good story to live.
Writing prompt: What stories illustrate the evolution of your wisdom? What incidents in your life exposed a guiding hand, a compassionate presence, a coincidence that “couldn’t have happened.”