Recently I wrote a short memoir, unusual for me, since I’ve written fiction and poetry almost exclusively for going on four decades; plus, it’s a sort of confession with real stakes: if I ever showed it to my childhood best friend, recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, I thought it might hurt him, maybe a lot. Yet I was driven, having hung on for half a century to the story of my friend who, humiliated by a bully before witnesses, afterward hid indoors for an entire summer. And another boy (me) who, along with his peers, assassinated that boy’s character every day of that summer. A story my heart, maybe my soul, refused to let go of.
The fictional version consumed a good part of my second (unpublished) novel written three decades ago, but I never felt I got it right. That’s what I hoped this memoir might accomplish. I was on a quest like none other I’d yet experienced in my career: to get the entire truth, so help me God. And, as I usually do when faced with the unknown, I did research, but of an entirely different kind. Instead of hitting the library, bookstore or Internet, I drove 450 miles to see my old friend whom I had not seen since the 90s. Did I have qualms and reservations? You bet—but I did what I always do when a story chooses me. I obeyed.
My old friend, his son and his son’s wife with whom he now lives while getting chemo treatments could not have been more welcoming. And my old pal, despite recent brain surgery, seemed pretty much himself. We talked, laughed, played a little music together. And though I considered unburdening myself, saying how I regretted being a party to his scapegoating all those years ago and getting his input, I didn’t mention it.
First, I decided that he had enough on his plate, recovering from surgery and facing chemotherapy. Second, in one of the reversals that Mary Karr talks about in her new book, The Art of Memoir, I realized the story wasn’t really about him but about me—what I could/should I do with the emotions that have grown ever more complex during the half-century since the incident: guilt, yes, but also admiration if not awe for how my friend weathered this childhood storm. Existential questions loomed, too such as: who was I? Who was he? How did this landmark event affect us in our future lives?
Mostly I wanted to find out what the experience had to teach me—what the story was ultimately about, knowing that it might metamorphose again. I realized that True Stories, as much as fictional ones, are like that: chameleons that change over time, perhaps evolving toward some final resolution, perhaps not. It depends on who you are this time when you write it.
I did eventually write the essay, working, I believe, as hard as I’ve ever worked on anything I’ve ever written, wondering the whole time if I’d have the guts to show it to my old pal when finished. So did I? Ah, good topic for another blog!
Barbara Rohrer, editor of The Sycamore, an online as well as print publication, is looking for poems on the theme of service for the winter issue by poets whose work fits (or can fit) within the bounds of Christianity, interpreted widely.
The deadline for submission for the winter issue is December 15. Here’s a link for the online publication: http://readthesycamore.com/
Reading at Glen Helen!
Speaking of poetry, mark your calendars for the fourth annual Solstice Poetry Reading at Glen Helen’s Vernet Ecological Building on December 11, 7-9:00 p.m. As usual, 11-12 scheduled poets will read for 3-5 minutes each, followed (after a wine and cheese reception) by open mic. This year’s theme is The Sacred Solstice. Find out why so many include this event in their holiday traditions. 🙂