The garage door lifted against the night. 4am may be morning, but all pitch black and silence, you wouldn’t know it. The car beep startled me awake as I slid into the driver seat, coffee clutched, and set out for Pittsburgh.
Minutes before, I’d fingered the wisps of hair that fell across my baby’s forehead. When he woke for the day, I’d be halfway across the state.
As much as I crave time away, it’s always hard to leave my children. I grip that moment of farewell—when we are still within reach.
This dark morning, I followed 76 West clear across Pennsylvania amid unwelcome truck company, the sun’s coppery first light at my back—as if driving away from day and deeper into the departing night. We are always moving away from something. Each minute leaves behind the last.
And yet, I carry a relentless sentimentality for all that came before, all that once was. I walk forward with my head slung over one shoulder, ever looking back.
In Pittsburgh, I was met—at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference—with a room full of people who believe in excavating their minds and memories for story. “Memory should be interrogated,” Dinty W. Moore taught, “it’s where the discovery happens.” “Telling stories matters. It’s always mattered…” said Lee Gutkind.
In writing memoir, we are researching our own lives (to paraphrase Jill Kandel)—to seek understanding, to ask endless questions about why something was the way it was, why we were the way we were, to push on what we’re curious about, what we don’t understand, what continues to puzzle us, even years later (to paraphrase Moore).
We take our idiosyncratic experience, examine it, and then throw it out into the world, hoping it helps. “The reason to write,” Gutkind said, “is to make a difference…to figure out how what we know can impact other people.”
Many are troubled by how much of our lives are now lived out loud—in this age of (over)exposure, where every person has a platform, where the minutiae of any given day are splashed across the screen: Joe had pancakes for breakfast, people! Jamie chopped off her hair! People (like me) create their own websites on a whim and post personal content for public consumption.
It bothers me little, perhaps because I like to know the mundane details of others’ lives—even acquaintances or strangers. I’m that much of a voyeur.
But also because I believe that’s how Joe and Jamie are marking their moments, telling their stories. Is it the stuff of memoir? Probably not. (I often think of Dani Shapiro’s writing advice that “just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting.”) But they’re letting people in, sharing their truths.
All we have is who we are and what’s happened to us along the way. Every lived life is a story worth telling. I soften, harboring a strange affection for my mind’s hoarding tendencies, my reluctance to let go—I’m gathering data. What better fodder for story than the stuff of real people and place? What better way to connect to your before and to the world all around than to tell the tale of your one little life?
At the Pittsburgh conference, there were several opportunities for attendees to share their stories orally: a “pitch slam,” where brave participants delivered their book or essay pitch to a panel of editors—with the entire conference looking on (did I mention brave?), or the “story slam,” where volunteers took the stage to deliver a five minute true story on the theme of rejection.
A writing conference is already wonderfully strange for putting you within reach of those you’ve only known on the page. Suddenly, the faces and voices of the people behind the prose take shape, stand before you, trade jokes in the foyer, have chance encounters on street corners, affectionately pat your shoulder.
Your mind works overtime, trying to square what you’ve read with what you see; you know, from now on, you will hear their voices as you read their words.
It’s sensory overload. It’s almost too much.
Hearing writers deliver deeply personal narratives in the rise and fall of their own voices before a stilled crowd added yet another dimension to this work of storytelling. My preference remains the written word, which permits us precision—the luxury to revise and refine, to approach control over our expression—the words we use, where they fall—while allowing the reader his own intimate interplay with the text.
But at the end of the day, the key is that we’re standing up and speaking our stories at all—with pen, on paper, on screen, by mouth. The young and old, black and white, gay and straight, the 70ish Russian history PhD and the wild-haired 17-year-old high school student. Each tale worth telling, every story worth hearing.
So tell me about those pancakes, Joe. Share on.