I wish I were writing fiction instead of non-fiction. More specifically, I wish I were writing a novel instead of a memoir. It’s far more pleasant to sit with make-believe plots and characters than with painful truths.
With fiction, you can show until the cows come home, provided you write competently and develop characters well. You don’t have to tell the reader much although all the great novels do quite a bit of telling (e.g., Lolita, Revolutionary Road). The reader is smart and will follow the dramatic arch. He/she doesn’t need extensive character reflection or internal monologue. If you like, you can even write characters who never learn their lesson (e.g., Amy Elliot Dunne from Gone Girl). None of this is true for present-day non-fiction.
With non-fiction, especially memoir, the writer must tell as much as he/she shows, if not more. The writer must also provide extensive reflection, or the memoir will lack character development. The memoir writer must also demonstrate that he/she learned something; otherwise, there is no dramatic arch and the reader is left wondering: What makes your life worth reading about?
All writers are emotional excavators to some degree, but when you’re writing a memoir, you don’t get to leave the dig until the final draft is complete. You are bound to the dig. You must set up camp as close to the dig as possible. You cook meals there, eat there, shit there and sleep there. When you’re writing fiction, you can pack up your characters and plots and walk away from the dig. Sure you’ll obsess about them just like you would if you were writing a memoir, but, ultimately, those characters—even if they are based on someone in real life—are only as real as you choose to make them. Fictional characters are not as intrinsically tied to the writer’s sense of self as “characters” in a memoir are.
I’ve been drafting and re-drafting my memoir manuscript for 13 years, and today I hate it. I hate v1 (version 1). I hate v2, and I really fucking hate v3. I hate my laptop, and I hate writing, and I hate words. I hate that I can only seem to write this memoir in 2- to 4-hour blocks before I am depleted, as opposed to the 8-hour marathons I run when I am writing fiction. I hate that at this novice phase in my writing life I cannot seem to move forward until I tell this one fucking story about my childhood.
I hate that my most painful childhood experience was not something like divorce or my parents’ being con-artists. I hate that I was abused as a child, and that the effects of the abuse affect every facet of my fucking life. I hate that therapy and prayer didn’t fix me. They only confirmed what my mother and father always taught me: pain is part of life, and the only way to get through it is to know God and know yourself. But it is no easy feat to know God or yourself, even if you spend a lifetime trying. I am 39 years old and here is a list of my attempts to understand my childhood, so maybe one fucking day I can know peace:
- Approximately 21 years of therapy (i.e., counseling, hypnotherapy, Jungian therapy);
- 38 years of church-going and prayer (i.e., Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Unity, Unitarian Universalist);
- Nine years of meditative practicing (i.e., Mahayana Buddhist meditation, Tantric meditation, Siddha Yoga meditation, primordial-sound meditation, and Kundalini meditation);
- 28 years of community service (i.e., volunteerism, tutoring, mentoring, outreach, program development, service, and leadership);
- 25 years of self-reflection and healing via creativity (i.e., drawing, painting, writing, opening myself and purging the pain);
- 6 years of study in literature and creative writing;
- 12 years of giving and receiving love from my husband with approximately two of those years devoted to actively sabotaging my relationship with him because sometimes I just want to fuck shit up; and
- Nine years of half-assed attempts to eat healthy and exercise. Damn, I want a fucking cookie right now!
And all this work for what? So, ideally, I can create something that matters to me, something that’s raw and true. Has any of that work paid off? Right now, I don’t fucking know.