Memoir and Melodrama

It took a Personal Essay class to make me realize how much I work through my life in writing. I transferred down to a private liberal arts school in the small city of St. Petersburg, Florida in an effort to “sober up” and hone my academic skills and expand my knowledge base. While the public university I attended in Boston was welcoming and endearing, a ripe open playground fit for destructive self-sabotage, freedom and teenage debauchery, I soon had my fair share of fun and became bored.

I needed a challenge and moving to Florida provided just that.

No longer required to take General Ed classes that—although interesting—were already concepts that I had covered in Singapore, I took the plunge and signed up for classes purely out of my intellectual interest in them: Literature and Creative Writing. I had decided to double major (sticking to my original Communications with Lit as a second) and chose my classes to fulfill the needed requirements. Creative Writing seemed like a natural progression, but being a transfer student, I had been slightly late for registration and while I had my eyes set on an introductory class for Fictional Short Story or Poetry Writing, they were booked up or conflicted with other classes I needed to take, so in the end I settled on a genre that didn’t seem like my kind of thing: the Personal Essay.

Excited as I was to finally take a class on writing, something I could never have done back home in Indonesia or even in Singapore, I was also nervous. Most of the positive feedback I’d receive up until that point came from people who (although well-intentioned) spoke English as a second language. They were all too quickly impressed by my perfect grammar—which of course as a native speaker came naturally to me—to scrutinize my flair, substance or tone. Worse, this class was also a Workshop, which meant we would have to submit pieces to be dissected and criticized by the entire class.

It was time for my (non-existent) ego to be shot down, for me to enter the big leagues and finally realize how much of a crap writer I am among those who actually practice the tricks of the trade.

While I was prepared for all of that, the moment never really came. Personal Essay as a genre, is a type of writing that incorporates the writer’s perspective on things, usually drawing on personal experience as a catalyst for exposition. (While Memoir does fall under Personal Essay, the Personal Essay can be about anything, while the Memoir focuses more on the writer’s past and their interpretations of it.) I’ve unknowingly dabbled in this art through blogging—I write about myself and my life constantly, forging meaning out of it, making sense of it.

In the end, for my second workshop submission, I turned in a 34-double-spaced-page long essay entitled Liminal Spaces. It was my pièce de résistance, my magnum opus, my life looked at as a whole, broken down into key moments and unified by an overarching theme of identity, transitions and liminality.

It was in my final consultation with Professor Wolfe that lightning struck.

“You’re obviously grappling with a lot of things here and while this does work as stand-alone piece—a testament to your abilities as a writer—I feel like there’s more to work with here,” Prof. Wolfe says. “You should consider writing a book.

Consider it, I did. It took getting to San Francisco to finally have the time to sit down and work on it. And by work on it, I really mean revisiting all the assignments I did for Wolfe’s class and rewriting them, reworking them. The final rendition of Liminal Spaces really was a culmination of my life so far at that point in time.  It ended in Florida, and so much has changed since I left, so much has happened. And I find myself unable to write anything new. I travelled to Korea and Bali. I volunteered abroad in Tanzania. Now, with San Francisco also under my belt, life seems to be moving too fast of me to sit down and write about it.

Or worse, the things I felt like needed to be write about—certain things about Tanzania, for instance—were painfully nostalgic. Tanzania was still too soon, too fresh. And due to recent developments, part of me even wishes not to think about certain parts ever again.

It was in an effort to get myself out of this “writer’s block” that I turned to The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.

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The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Mary Karr, who has not one, not two but three best-selling memoirs under her belt, also teaches the art of memoir at Syracuse University. Her book is a perfect combination of practical writing tips (bring the carnality of a scene to life! use sensory details!) and navigating the potential legal pitfalls (warn those you write about well in advance. let your friends choose their own code names.) to the more deeper guided introspection of what memoir does and an author’s purpose in writing and publishing their life story.

This book has made me think I’m not cut out to write a memoir, yet at the same time, has made me more determined to do so.

Chapter 3 of the book is “Why Not to Write a Memoir” and includes a checklist (in reverse order of importance to the point I’m leading up to):

“4. Also if you’re young, you might want to wait. Most of us are still soft as clay before thirty-five.”

Ah, the dreaded “I’m too young to do this.” It was a small fear of mine when I set out on this venture, and while I was momentarily dissuaded by this, I stubbornly strengthened my resolve. Being young didn’t mean I didn’t have enough experience or anything worth saying. And no offense to Mrs. Karr, but I trust Prof. Wolfe’s judgement more. (Though the soft as clay metaphor makes me wonder, if I have perhaps already been hardened by my past.)

“3. If the events you’re writing about are less than seven or eight years past, you might find it harder than you think. Distance frees us of our former ego’s vanities and lets us see deeper into events. “

Read previous paragraphs about Tanzania. All I can say is, some memories make me cringe. Badly.

“2. If you have a bad memory, give it up. Many people ask me how to recall the past, and I say if they don’t, they’re lucky—get a real job.”

Bad memory. It’s a concept that has terrified me for a few years now. It’s not like I have bad memory as some kind of personality quirk, like most people do. It’s the deterioration of my “good” memory that frightens me. I used to be able to recall memories with such clarity, retain information at a staggering rate. It’s what helped me ace all those tests and become a straight A student.

Yet somewhere along the line, my memory blurred and turned hazy. I first became aware of it during my second year in Singapore. All that cramming for tests the night before, proved to be a poor way to store information long-term. I remembered everything I needed to know long enough to answer the tests and once tomorrow rolled around, I could barely recall any of it. Though this sounds like the typical plight of an average test-taking student, it made me question my memory in a way that helped me stumble across an important truth.

I don’t remember much about my childhood. There is a blanket sensation of me being generally happy—genuinely happy, I’d argue, for the last time (until perhaps very recently)—but I’m unable to focus on any details. In conversations with other people, I find myself envying those who are able to retell childhood tales so vividly. The best I can do is relay the information—the year I was born, the names of the schools I went to, the city I lived in. Semantics, not episodes.

If episodic memory is the backbone of memoir, I’m as spineless as they come.

It is almost superhuman to me, the way Karr describes the sensation of remembering. Sometimes all she has is a small fragment, a rough idea of what is happening, a single image, a smell. Then she starts digging, chiseling away at the edges of the memory until the floodgates burst open and she is filled with clarity. She describes it as suddenly being transported back in time, sitting in the body and looking through the eyes of her younger self.

Yet despite this disadvantage to the form, I find myself writing memoir precisely because I can’t remember much about my past, and though writing may not ever fully bring those memories into the light, writing about it—writing through it—is the only way I sort through the mental mess I make for myself.

“No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self—your neat analyses and tidy excuses… Your small pieties and impenetrable, mostly unconscious poses invariably trip you up.” 

I’ve been tearing myself apart over how my brain is letting things—letting my memories—go far too easily. My coach, ever the voice of reason, reminded me that the brain is mysterious and magical thing and while “your brain doesn’t process everything, your heart does.” Karr echoes a similar sentiment: “Neurologist Jonathan Mink, M.D., explained to me that,… we often record the emotion alone, all detail blurred into unreadable smear.”

And while yes, I agree, the emotions are still there and palpable enough to recall vividly (and even elicit a few residual tears from me), the details matter too, because without the details I have no idea what the feelings are in response to. I have no idea what the story is anymore, lose sight of what it’s supposed to mean.

You think you know the story so well. It’s a mansion inside your head, each room just waiting to be described, but pretty much every memoirist I’ve ever talked to finds the walls of such rooms changing shape around her. There are shattering earthquakes, tectonic-plate-type shifts. Or it’s like memory is a snow globe that invariably gets shaken so as to shroud the events inside.”

Of course, for all my certainty that my memory has become “damaged,” even if that weren’t the case, memory is already a malleable and slippery thing.  What’s worse is that we can purposely, and perhaps even selfishly, mar the veracity of our memories in order to for them to fit the story we set out to write in our heads.

Everything becomes magnified in a way, sensationalized. While memoir strives for veracity and truth, it is, in some ways, melodrama. And often that melodrama focuses on the bad and ignores the good in order to appeal to emotions, or rather justify our own, the ones we feel have affected and shaped us on a deep and profound level.

In sorting through that melodrama, a writer may find that their deepest wounds are self-inflicted. Mary Karr talks about reversals, a sort of real-life plot twist in which a memoirist’s quest for the truth proves their long-held notions about certain events to be false. In talking about the reversal in Cherry, her second memoir, Karr writes:

All my life, I’d relied on the premise that Daddy had abandoned me a decade before I took off But could find no scene to exemplify his abandonment. I’d be at work, and he’d bring me a supper plate wrapped in foil. He’d offer to make me breakfast in the morning or to take me squirrel hunting or fishing; I’d say no. I was the one who shrugged his hand off my shoulder.” (emphasis mine)

The fact that Karr’s father was, especially towards the end, a heavy alcoholic who did little to shield Karr and her sister from the dangerous tendencies of their mother growing up, gives Karr every right to internalize his presence as something that negatively affected her psyche. But it also stands that while he was an alcoholic, Karr’s father cared for her and was there for her in his own way. She simply refused to see it at the time, and for years afterwards, until the benefit of hindsight afforded her the chance to correct her misconceptions.

It is amazing how easily we can forget how complex people can be. Instead, we tend to see them in extremes.

What is my reversal, you ask? Everything seems to always come back to Singapore, somehow. It was a turning point, perhaps even a breaking point, where the worse of my neuroses came to pass.

Now, I’m beginning to suspect that it wasn’t as bad as I make it out to be.

One point of contention: the panic attack. I’m not sure if what happened to me can rightly be referred to as one. Sure, I was stressed out and unhappy, and it all came out in a burst of emotion, but physically, I don’t think I was actually in any panic-inducing-can’t control-my-body danger.

Another point of contention: the way I left Singapore. I seem to have fed myself this story of how I was essentially shaken up so much by the ‘panic attack’ that I became this broken, withdrawn girl who decided to leave out of desperation. But the act of leaving was less driven by emotion or impulse—it was calculated and meticulously planned. If it was impulsive, I would’ve left in the middle of the night and hopped on a plane home.

“Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there is suffering involved.”

About a week after the panic attack, I somehow convinced myself to see the school counselor. I was actually taken out of my morning history class—which was very conspicuous when you go to a newly established school with a cohort of only 80 people—and soon found myself trying to articulate what had happened to me and what I was feeling. There were tears involved, real tears, and as I hastily wiped my eyes out in shame, my counselor told me that I was bottling up my feelings. As if pointing out the blatantly obvious wasn’t enough, she took out a piece of paper and drew me a fucking bottle and labeled it feelings.

While I realized she was just trying to help, something inside of me hardened. Maybe it was her sense of pity and misunderstanding, chalking up my woes to mere stress. Maybe it was her unintentionally talking down to me, talking to me as if I was some lost kid who needed a diagram to sort through her feelings. I decided then and there, that I was going to leave. Worse, I chalked everything up to everyone being idiots, morons who were too comfortable in their ignorance to see what I saw.  That I was unsatisfied with how ‘things worked’ in the education system. And it’s not that I was struggling, I was bored.

So horribly bored that I pulled a Sherlock, metaphorically cocked the gun and fired holes into the wall of the house I found myself in. Each shot was precisely aimed for and hit its mark, designed to get a kick out of me.

The counselor asked that I wait a month to see if things got better. I felt perfectly fine the minute I left her office, but I kept the charade up, kept pretending like I was struggling and trying to make things better then feigned that it wasn’t working. It could’ve worked, me staying in Singapore. I just didn’t care enough to try.

My Dad asked me to come up with a plan. I did have one in mind—lie to everyone convincingly enough then once I was home and the ruse was exposed, ignore their admonishments and do my own thing—but I didn’t tell him any of that. I told him what he wanted to hear: that I wasn’t giving up my education and applied to Universities in the States.

(I didn’t do this when I said I would. I said that I would apply and see if I got accepted. If I did then I’d leave Singapore, having a safety net and all. I did apply to Boston but that was much later, after came home. To think that I dropped out of school without any certainty that I could continue, boggles me. To think that my Dad, in some ways, let me.)

My friends would hear news of my departure and be taken aback, question me, my motives. What’s been going on with you? What led you to make this decision? The fact that we were so caught up in our own lives, made it easier to lie. Made it easier to paint myself as the courageous adventurer who is leaving the nest even farther to brave new uncharted waters. In a way, I liked the way people sounded impressed. I took their legitimate concerns and twisted everything into a narcissistic production of look at how cool I am.

To top it all off, the lies came easily to me. Not surprisingly, as I have a checkered history of compulsive lying. (By history, I refer to just one incident, one huge lie that went on for months. The details of which, perhaps, belong in another post.)

Who would ever want to admit that they dropped out of school because they thought they were above it and threw a hissy fit?

Not me, apparently.

Then again, I do have a tendency to be unnecessarily harsh on myself. Maybe my “reversal” is an artificial one, a reversal in itself. That I want to see myself as a sociopathic asshole is somehow a better story to me than the alternative.

Or maybe, there was a schism inside Singapore Karin that cannot be resolved. Maybe both sides existed at once. At times, when I let myself fall apart, I am withdrawn and broken. And other times, perhaps out of self-preservation I detached myself, so much so that I became hardened and callous and gave little fucks about the opinions and feelings of everyone else involved. “Saving myself” was both an act of courage and cowardice, cruelty and compassion.

Such is the loop I find myself in. It’s dizzying, this internal shadowboxing match against what I think and what actually was. ‘Round and ’round we go.

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On Narratives and Self-Condemnation. Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed.

In a similar vein to maybe things weren’t as bad as I made them out to be, digging into my childhood has unearthed another reversal.” As I said before, I don’t remember much about my childhood, the happy times I experienced growing up in the Philippines. But I’ve realized the way I sectioned off my childhood—pre-The Big Move™, only in the Philippines—was actually odd. I was nine when I moved to Indonesia, yet everything after the move was never a part of my childhood to me, even though I was still technically a child.

I came to this breakthrough in therapy. Talking about my past, I stumbled upon those gaps in my memory and eventually it became apparent that when it came to those early years in Indonesia, those gaps were self-inflicted. I repressed some things out of self-preservation, but though the memories of the events were ‘forgotten,’ they were still there to affect my psyche.

And while some of these things were in fact, harrowing and not good for my developing-child mind (I have flashbacks of entering a darkened bedroom and a shaking figure in the shadows, wrapped underneath blankets, being unresponsive as I call out to them, then turn limp. My au pair calling someone in a panic, the sirens of an ambulance. Bits and pieces), most of them were, objectively, minor (my parents fighting, being chastised for crying when I cannot help it, my brother ignoring my existence in the school hallways).

It was me reliving in retrospect that pinpointed those moments as “causes” that shaped me to be who I am today. They where embedded in my mind almost subconsciously, festered in my mind for years until I recognized them as an automatic thought process brought out by habit.

But if I were to actually crawl into the skin of my younger self and look at the world through her eyes, I would be greeted with an unbounding sense of innocence and optimism. I bounced back quickly, I realized, perhaps as only a child can. I’d bawl my eyes out, scared shitless as I was too young to comprehend what the ‘bad thing’ that I was witnessing actually was one day, to bouncing off the walls of my tiny house and playing pretend with my imagination the next.

I still find it hard to wrap my head around the idea, that there was a time where I was young, carefree, innocent and practically invincible. Immune to all hardship and heartache the “real world” had to offer. That despite my family falling apart around me, I’d still pose and smile for silly photos, hold up a fencing sword and pretend to duel with my brother in the middle of a shoe store.

It hurts in a way. Sometimes, when I’ve fallen into a vortex of nostalgia, I scroll way back into the archives of this blog, and re-read the posts I wrote back when I was 14/15. There’s so much… optimism in the words I set down. So much hope and fearless expression with every “LOL” and “xD.” If you read them in chronological order, you can practically chart out how my writing turns more cynical and cold. It takes a dip around the time I was in Singapore, but it shoots up sometimes, me fighting the bitterness, trying to hold on to some of that early naiveté. The contrast of then and now is so stark, I can’t help but ask what happened? Who hurt me? How did I fall so far?

If I am to write about my past, I need to acknowledge that there were moments like that, in between all the Big Bads. Moments of naiveté and happiness and fun and good. It might make me cringe (look at how young and stupid I was), especially with the hindsight I have now, knowing how badly things often ended, but it was there and it was true. Trying to play it cool does not undo any of that. It shouldn’t, anyway.

“Dumb hope is what it hurts most to write, occupying the foolish schemes we pursued for decades, the blind alleys, the cliffs we stepped off. If you find yourself blocked for a period, maybe goad yourself in the direction of how you hoped at the time. Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”

Though I often joke about how emotionally stunted I am, I like to think that I’m an emotionally intelligent person. I’ve dealt with enough of my own emotions and thought processes to see the value in being honest about my emotions and expressing them in healthy ways. Going to therapy, initiating difficult conversations and all that. I’ve struggled and dealt with it for so long, that being open about my feelings has become almost second-nature to me.

And I realized not everyone deals with emotions the way that I do, pushes through the icky-ness of vulnerability because they see it as vital and necessary. It baffled me how some people could keep such important feelings to themselves, feelings that ought to have been shared sooner, feelings that they only felt comfortable finally saying aloud under certain (arguably forced) circumstances.

“Sometimes people just need permission,” my coach observed. “And I think that’s what makes you so good at writing, it’s your permission.”

I like the idea of that. That my working through my life in writing—on this blog, on this soon-to-be memoir—is me giving myself permission to feel things and feel vulnerable, say what I feel needs to be said. To get that damn monster out of my chest.

The crux of my writer’s block then is simply that I forgot to give myself that permission. Forgot to not only let myself think and rethink, feel and revise what I think and/or feel, but to see the reconciliation of those two sides as valid, no matter what conclusion I come to. That conclusion is mine alone to forge.

Here’s to giving myself permission to write through things, and hopefully, coming out the other side feeling better.

“To watch someone scrutinize a painful history in depth—which I’ve done as teacher and editor and while working with former drunks trying to clear up ancient crimes—is to witness not inconsiderable pain. You have to lance a boil and suffer its stench as infection drains off. Yet all the scrupulous self examination over time I’ve been witness to—whether on the page or off—always ended with acceptance and relief. For the more haunted among us, only looking back at the past can permit it finally to become past.”

–Karin Novelia, “Publishing the book was a way to reclaim ‘what was left of me.'”

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