The RT hasn’t been feeling great lately. I guess “sick” would be an accurate descriptor, and yet he’s trooped through what we’ve had going on. I think this is only the third time he’s ever been ill. Amazing, actually. He had that head-achy, eyeballs hurting when you look one way and then the other kind of sluggish don’t really care about much malaise.
I have it now.
What is it about being sick in the summer that makes it seems so much worse than just generally feeling like crap? It must be the warmth, and all that happy sunshine. You can’t exactly cozy up in a comforter, or languish in bed all day. It’s too warm.Â So I’ve been up, but not as early as I would have liked since I could feel the drum pounding in my skull at what must have been two or three o’clock this morning with the idea of a cup of hot tea wafting through my delirium.
The decadent chocolate fudge cake with cream and strawberries left over from the RT’s birthday get together yesterday perked me up a bit while I was reading the paper, but the idea of eating the rest of it just to keep myself perked up didn’t seem too logical. So here I am with you guys. I employed a new technique to claim my seat at the computer this morning by sitting in the chair in the corner of the office, casually looking at the Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Elements for Teens book I got the RT for his birthday. You do know that book is really for me, right? Sitting in the room while the RT was surfing only lasted about 10 minutes, and then he moseyed into another room, leaving me to think. Scary when my head feels like it’s filling up with something more dense than my brain today.Â All those thoughts crashing into each other, making me wince each time I move my head.
It is a good day to think about all the family photographs my mother has been bringing to our house over the past several weeks with nudgings of, “Go through these when you get a chance and keep the ones you want. Then you can ship the rest to me in Virginia after I’m there.” There are so many of them. So many years, so many people whom I’m related to in some way or another, and so many memories that aren’t always pleasant.
I’ve wandered past the growing stack of boxes taking the time to move some of them to the landing on the stairs where they wouldn’t be such a reminder of something I need to do that I’m not always especially fond of doing. Even the good memories are tinged with a bit of sadness now that so much time that has passed. So many changes have occurred in a face, or in one’s smile — eyes that had a different kind of wistfulness than they do today. It’s hard for me to look and to not notice. To sort and choose. And to ache a bit for what used to be, or could have been.
So I’m going to treat my heavy head to Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir edited by William Zinsser whose books on writing have been favorites of mine over the years. Books like On Writing Well, and Writing to Learn. No, this book isn’t one of those on my stack. It doesn’t count because it isn’t fiction, and I don’t read nonfiction the same way. I scan the titles, notice the contributing authors — Anne Dillard, Frank McCourt — and skim until I settle on something that catches my eye.
Reading what others have to say about memoir will take up time. Call it avoiding setting about the task myself. You can imagine that if it’s challenging for me to look at years of pictures, that writing about what’s behind some of those pictures will be something I have to force myself to do.
With respect to memoir, Zinsser writes:
A good memoir requires two elements — one of art, the other of craft. The first element is integrity of intention. Memoir is the best search mechanism that writers are given. Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own.
In my time deciding how to go about starting, or at least think about starting, I’m sure I’ll return to Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. James Baldwin’s “Alas, Poor Richard” begins this way:
Unless a writer is extremely old when he dies, in which case he has probably become a neglected institution, his death must always seem untimely. This is because a real writer is always shifting and changing and searching. The world has many labels for him, of which the most treacherous is the label of Success. But the man behind the label knows defeat far more intimately than he knows triumph. He can never be absolutely certain that he has achieved his intention.
So what would my actual intention be to write down all that I’ve kept in my head for so long? To purge myself of it? I wouldn’t want that, because it has become part of me, and not holding onto it would be similar to cutting a hole in the center of me. So then might it be so others can understand? If so, what might they understand? That you can choose to either dwell on what happens to you in life and let it mark you, or acknowledge that it’s now a part of who you are, and turn it into something you can leap from inventing yourself.
That would be a good place to begin.
I like the jaunty tone of Wendy Lesser, though in “Overture,” the first of her pieces in The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters. She writes in a pointed, but less pedantic way of the choices we make in life, and who we are as a result of them:
The autobiographical mode implies the justification of a life, but that is rather hard to do when one is still in the midst of living it. Also, it is not clear exactly what in the life could justify it. The plan you conceived and executed? A laughable chimera, believable only when you are nineteen years old and deciding on a college major. The choices you made? But if they turned out well, you don’t necessarily deserve the credit, and if you try to take it, you will merely sound foolish or smut. Do you, in any case, make the important choices, or are they thrust on you?
Thrust? A more gentle word than I may use for some of what I am compelled to write.
Subjected to? Withstood.
I need to go lay my fat head down before I topple out of this chair. My eyeballs ache. But if I stare straight ahead at my books, quietly reading, it’s not so bad. And then I can read and think about writing, instead of writing.
Instead of sorting through those photos.