I have been poring through volumes of memoir lately, by a wide variety of different writers. They have run the gamut of themes: illness, physical or mental (Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, Lauren Slater’s Welcome to My Country: A Therapist’s Memoir of Madness); border-crossing or culture clash (Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying; Lisa Jones’ Broken: A Love Story – A Woman’s Journey Toward Redemption on the Wind River Indian Reservation); explorations of family and self (Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?); and even variations in form, such as the two the graphic novels Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh and Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi, each of which had their own explorations of self, coming of age, culture clash, mental health.
As a writer, I am primarily a poet. But some of my thoughts and ideas are too large for the poetic form. Recently, I have found myself exploring more and more the genre of creative nonfiction, a term I prefer to memoir. Many of the books I have just listed are, I believe, creative nonfiction. They move beyond memoir, the telling of a life, into literature, which is the distinction I make with that term. Perhaps it is a nonexistent line. Maybe they are the same thing. But even writers of semi-autobiographical fiction must deal with the issues that I find myself facing: the questions from the readers, the examinations of my life. Is it all true? Is that exactly what happened? How can you remember everything so precisely?
Often, when hearing a poem, because I frequently write in the first person, people identify with me as the protagonist. They believe the person is me. But a poem is a snippet, a window. It is not my entire soul laid bare. When I write a larger piece, ten or more pages of creative nonfiction, my readers seem to feel as if they now are my best friends, have insider’s information. Somehow, the reality that this, too, is a constructed world has escaped them. Not that I am trying to hide. That is not my point. What I mean is that as a writer, each sentence, each revelation is crafted, chosen. Ten pages is not the same as having a ten-year relationship.
The novelist Ann Patchett, a friend of Lucy Grealy, wrote an afterword to Autobiography of a Face. In it she describes being at a reading filled with a couple of hundred fans of Grealy’s work. She says, “As Lucy quickly discovered, the problem with writing a memoir was that once people had read her story they thought they knew her. They filled in any parts that may be missing with details from their own lives, thus creating a picture in which the author and the reader are intertwined.” During the question and answer period, a woman said, “It’s amazing how you remember everything so clearly…all those conversations, details. Were you ever worried that you might get something wrong?” “I didn’t remember it,” Lucy said pointedly. “I wrote it. I’m a writer.” Patchett noted that this shocked the audience, but Grealy had made her point: “She was making art, not documenting an event. That she chose to tell her own extraordinary story was of secondary importance. Her cancer and subsequent suffering had not made this book. She had made it. Her intellect and ability were in every sense larger than the disease.”
Jeanette Winterson also addresses the issue of truths in her work. Her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was semi-autobiographical. She says her adoptive mother, Mrs. Winterson, objected to what she put in, “but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story’s silent twin. There are so many things we can’t say, because they are too painful.” (Grealy makes a similar comment, noting that she in no way includes all of the physical suffering in her book; it would have been overwhelming.) Winterson continued, “When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold. When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”
So here is my story of silences. My writing group puts out an anthology each year. In 2013, I wrote a creative nonfiction piece called “In Another World,” with four vignettes, about things in my life that are difficult to deal with, that I wish were different. One of them was about living with a service dog, the way that I am met again and again out in public with the attention, the inquiries. Some are sweet (“Isn’t she beautiful? May I say hello?”), some are benign (“They do such wonderful work. How old is she?”), some become more curiously invasive (“What exactly does she do?”), and then there are the outright insulting (“What’s wrong with you?”). In my piece, I wrote that I am faced, on a daily basis, with the challenge of having to decide how much to disclose about my disability, since addressing my dog’s skills means talking about my own health – which, for most people, is a private matter.
After the piece was published, a member of my writing group approached me at a meeting, and said, “I found your essay very interesting. Because here you are, saying that you don’t want to talk about it. But then you tell everybody all about your disability.” I was stunned. He had entirely missed the point. Nowhere in the piece had I indicated what my health issues were. I had very carefully constructed it so that it was left unstated. I spoke only about what it was like to field the questions, to feel watched, to be approached endlessly. I never said anything about either my dog’s tasks, or my special needs. Not because I intended to mislead, but because that was a part I still needed to hold close.
The reader had filled in the silences with his own story, and now he thought he knew me. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Fact or fiction or in between – every word I write is a construct, a world created. And the silences are as important as the words. I cannot control where my readers go with my stories, the assumptions they make. All I can do is keep writing.