We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives.
Probably one of the most interesting things–to me–about getting older is discovering for myself how differently I remember things in my past than other people do. I used to think about writing personal essays–“I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” is probably the best one I’ve ever done, and one of the few that have ever been published–because I love them, and the way some of my favorite writers can produce the most insightful and touching ones. But then I always have that doubtful voice in the back of my head–who cares about your personal experiences? Why do you think your insights are more valuable than anyone else’s? Who would be the audience for these?–and you know, FUCK that voice. I fucking hate that voice, and it’s always there, whispering, not sweet nothings, but vicious you’re nothing’s in my head.
And for the record, I’m pretty damned proud of “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet.”
But perhaps the worst part of that snide, hateful voice is that it’s always there, you know? When I think to myself, hey, you should write a personal essay about this and then…yeah. My friend Laura, whose amazing personal essay collection My Life as a Villainess will drop soon–buy it buy it buy it–and I were talking about this very thing once over drinks (always over drinks) several years ago; I was telling her how much I loved her essays and that I wished I could write personal essays, with my usual “I can’t do anything” default, and she replied, “You write one every day. What do you think your blog is?”
Touche, as it were.
But….I can never seem to silence that voice.
Another reason why I back away from writing personal essays or the occasional thought that I might want to write a memoir–or a lengthy series of personal essays about my life which can then be stitched together into a memoir–is because my memory is so faulty, and the older I get, I find–when checking actual facts against my memory–inevitably I remembered wrong. For years, I believed we left the city of Chicago for the suburbs in the winter of 1969; why that winter, I don’t know–even though intellectually, after thinking about it some more, I realized my memories were lying to me. I was ten when we moved, I turned ten in 1971, so we moved in the winter of 1971–and we only lived there for four and a half years–which seemed so much longer than it actually was! Just as how I thought, after Katrina, I’d sheltered at my parents’ for months, when it was actually just a little over two weeks. I was only gone from New Orleans for about six weeks in total, actually; it seemed like I was gone for an eternity. My memory lies to me, all the time.
And how I remember things is different from how other people remember the same things. I think we tend to make ourselves the heroes in the story of our own lives, and so we rewrite our histories a little, so we look better than we actually were. Our memories are also seen through the haze of our collective other experiences, emotions, and perceptions; I might remember someone as being distant and cold, why they remember the encounter as two strangers being polite to one another. I used to think my first impressions of people were always the correct ones and evidence of my remarkable perception; but that is also demonstrably false. After all, once you’ve closed your mind to someone it’s terribly easy to interpret their behavior and the things they say through the filter of that initial observation, thereby turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve taken to not entirely trusting my first impressions of people the older I’ve gotten, and people who put me off when we first met have turned out to be lovely; and lovely people I instantly liked have turned out to be horrible.
So, how could I trust my memories enough to write them down? Joan Didion said we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but I think we tell ourselves lies in order to live with ourselves is actually a more accurate statement.
So, what is real and true in our pasts? How does one examine the truth of your own memories?
I am regularly amazed at the lies I tell myself about my past, and how I’ve told myself those lies so many times that I’ve become convinced they are truth. How can I ever write any kind of memoir when I already don’t trust my memories–all of which I would have been willing to swear at some point were honest-to-God truths?
This blog is, in some ways, a remembrance project for me; to remember events in my life, and career, and how things actually were. I kept a diary for years–I still carry a journal around with me, but I don’t record my thoughts and feelings in it; it’s mostly for ideas about books I’m reading or movies I’m watching or for working through issues with things I’m writing or for writing down ideas for stories or books or essays; hoarder Greg has kept most of those journals from the days before blogging, when I used to record things down in a book so I could process emotions and anger and other things I was going to do; to talk about my dreams and my ambitions; as a way to escape whatever misery was going on in my life. I rarely revisit them; perhaps some weekend when I am bored and don’t want to write I should start going through them again–but in all honesty, the self-absorption can be a bit much to take.
I also don’t like to revisit my past that much, which is yet another reason for me not to write a memoir. I wasn’t a person I liked very much until I was in my mid-thirties, and even then I was still a work in progress. My friend Jeffrey Ricker said to me the other day on Twitter: “I always forget you weren’t born full formed in New Orleans, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead.” A lot of it had to do with being miserably unhappy with my life, of just kind of drifting, of having no self-confidence (I may have issues with that still–particularly when it comes to my writing–but it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be, so I have made progress; I don’t let it ruin my life anymore, which is a good way to go), and not having the slightest idea of how to go about making my dreams come true. I always wrote–I wrote short stories in high school, I wrote a novel while in college, and then wrote three more, and of course was writing short stories the entire time–but it was very easy to give up after getting some rejections; to assume that becoming a publisher writer was something outside of my particular skillset, and to just give up and go back to being miserable. There’s really nothing from that period of my life I think would even be interesting enough to write about.
So, I generally shy away from the idea of writing a memoir, despite the enormous temptation. I don’t remember things the way they actually happened, but rather, how they happened through the prism and fun-house mirrors of my own mind. Whenever we tell stories about ourselves, we inevitably make ourselves sound better than we may have actually been. Look at the carefully curated lives we see of friends and acquaintances and relatives on social media.
My blog served me well for remembering things during the Time of Troubles; it actually began as a way to start writing again, of making myself sit down and write something every day. It has evolved over the years into something else, something different; I’m not even really sure how to classify it. I talk about television shows and movies and books I enjoy; I talk about my day to day life and experiences; the way I view things and my hopes and dreams, and my struggles with my writing. It is, of course, much more carefully curated now than it was in the beginning–more lies of omission, I suppose, is how it would best be described. It’s now a habit; on those rare days when I don’t have the time, or can’t find the time, to write an entry it bothers me all day–in fact, it’s been awhile since I have missed a day, and usually it’s because I’m out of town.
I guess this entry counts as a personal essay, doesn’t it?