Sometimes children know things beyond the surface presentation of the world, they know what they are not “supposed” to know, and their whole life is shaped by this knowledge. The way a child sees, perceives, and remembers become part of the building blocks of the person and what they will one day call “memory.” This knowing becomes either a point of departure to investigate more, or it becomes buried in secret recesses of the body or mind. As I was judging the Soul Making memoir contest that I sponsor, I found myself invited into many secret worlds of the nearly 100 stories that I read. I was invited into the secret caverns of their hearts, to the children they once were, to the families that whisper now across the veil. The wisdom in the stories affected me deeply. I was pleased to be part of the memoir writing world, proud to “meet” so many fellow travelers who strip away the facade to look into the deeper layers of story, soul, and the humanity that weaves through all of us.
I think of how I found this path of memoir writing—my path into memoir is similar to others I have met—through the stepping stones of joy, shame, grief, love, and heart wrenching memories. And through listening to the whispers of the dead—the relationship does not end when someone dies—it continues after death. We learn more about who we were and who we are as we unravel the legacy that was left us. “What is the history that needs to be repaired,” we wonder? “Can I break the patterns,” we worry. In the world of psychology, in which I have lived and worked for over thirty years, we examine the mysteries of family patterns, trying to understand how the same issues repeat themselves in succeeding generations. All we can do is investigate the stories that the person believes in, and try to discover what is true and what is false, if there are such clear delineations of “reality.” In some branches of psychology, the inner life is not the point, but for me, I was always interested in the beginnings of what formed the person, what forces shaped the raw clay of childhood.
What drew me to psychology was the same interest that I have in memoir—to investigate how the past lives in the present, noticing how ignorance and denial of problems only serve to seed more misery. I learned about this in smoke filled rooms that crackled with the echoed of history of our family, I learned it in the silences of the Great Plains. I learned by being wrong and by hoping for what was not possible, by failing more than succeeding. Perhaps that is what memoir really is—an accounting of the lessons passed down to us as well as the encounters with awe-inspiring moments of grace, the times that take our breath away. There is something about the mountain peaks of our memories that lift us beyond the limits of linear time. We want to capture them, though they are as hard to catch as fireflies, we want to hold this book of our memories in our hands.
Often as we begin writing, we don’t even know the mysterious trigger that will draw us in, and even if we think we do, we don’t know where it will lead us. Like those who journey across unknown lands, when we begin, we take steps, breathless with excitement and not a little fear for what we will encounter, but begin we must, for without the first steps, we will never know the journey toward the unknown parts of our hearts, the secrets that we must bare first to ourselves. In this way, we enter the adventure of writing, we begin the venture of learning to tell stories that are real, the truest rendering that we are capable of.
As I read the memoir entries in the contest, I could feel where the person was throwing out words like lines across a chasm, I could see when the person was writing into the unknown, into new territory. The writer conveys messages to me, the reader, underneath the words, beneath the literal black marks on white paper, beneath the symbols that the words convey. In a piece that works, I can feel the life trembling that was lived, and I can feel the outbreath, the sigh that follows after the piece hits its mark.
I compare this kind of feeling to that of visiting the art of Van Gogh. I have had several encounters with his art, this tortured, sensitive genius who saw through the falseness of the world, who could read pear trees better than people, and recognized through his art the sun’s illumination and brilliance even when he was in the darkness of his depression. In the Van Gogh room of the collection at the de Young museum visiting San Francisco from Paris, the tone of the room shifts, a physical feeling descends on me, much the same as when I saw the original Starry Night in New York over 35 years ago. Then, it was tingles up and down my body, an electricity that enveloped me every time I stood in front of the painting, which disappeared when I stood before other paintings nearby.
Again and again, I felt this shiver of encounter with him, with his brushstrokes, which I experienced also in the Arles courtyard that appears in his paintings and in the landscapes of Provence. At the de Young, I could feel that tremble of life exuding from the paintings and filling the room. His paintings are his memoirs, his take on that moment in time when he captured life as he saw and felt it through the medium of paint. The paintings stir something within us, they resonate as music does, as literature does.
In these works of art, and in our memoirs, it’s the specific brush stroke of each memory that creates an image in the mind of readers, stirring their own associations toward a similar feeling, or desire, or moment of aha. The taking of raw materials, be it clay, paint, pixels, or words as a means of expression leads us beyond the literal truths of our story, though as a memoirist these truths are important, eventually lifting the stories into a realm where others can be moved. What we write becomes something beyond our own small experiences, as Van Gogh did in his art. We are all capable of this universality and deeper connection with others, but it will only occur after many drafts, after we have let go of the need to create a legal document, when we allow the materials of memory, words, and images a life of their own. The story no longer belongs to us, it leaves the comfort of its nest, and moves out into the world.