January, 1995. “Today, I went for a walk. I was searching for something and I needed to release the tension that comes whenever I think about the abuse. I found what I was looking for in a scrubby, dense Palo Verde. Two saguaros, each a foot high, grew in its shade. It was a nurse tree.

In the desert, the shade provided by nurse trees gives moisture to germinating seeds. Desert soil is thin, rocky and sparse in nutrients. The debris from the trees and other plants which grow underneath their limbs enrich the soil. Those few, square feet of shade become a sanctuary, an entire microenvironment of plants and animals.

One of the saguaros was near the trunk of the palo verde. Years of slow growth from now it will push through an embrace of spiny branches to tower over the tree the way an adolescent boy, on his way to becoming a man, does his mother. At that time, the intimate arrangement of tree and cactus may seem haphazard unless the observer understands their history. It is the safety provided by the Palo Verde that enables the saguaro to grow.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

On the Perpetual Nature of Memoir

This morning a bright path of sun streams up the bark of the eucalyptus tree outside my window. The sky is blue, clean and cloudless. So I note this that spring is around the corner, that there is a quiet marshalling of botanical energy to make pollen and seeds and to propagate.

I am in Purgatory. It is the name attached to this room I write in because when we replaced the carpet with Pergo laminate flooring, my children intentionally morphed the word Pergo into “Pergotory” which immediately became “Purgatory”. Likewise has this roomed changed from a guest bedroom to a nether place, an existence between the reality outside my window and the flights of imagination and memory that work together in the creative process of writing.

But it was more than a decade ago our four sons declared this room to be Purgatory and through this window, I have seen many springs melt into the hot scorch of Arizona summers. The boys are grown now, yet I am still here, tapping on the keys of my laptop and working on an interminable memoir that I cling to with the stubborn belief it is worth writing and that it will also be worth reading.

The essence of memoir is an examined life, a muse on the whys of choice and lessons of experience, that hopefully resonate with the universal folly and wisdom of human nature. Judith Barrington, in Writing the Memoir, wrote “Rather than simply telling a story from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge. (pg.20)

As I look at my experience writing this memoir, it occurs to me there may be instability in the idea of “current knowledge.” Our current knowledge is subject to current change. It is malleable, expanding, and transient and therein lies my problem. I’ve stretched this project out over so much time I’m not the same person I was when I started.

To illustrate, a teacher gave the assignment of writing poetry to his class of high school freshmen. “You can work on the poems tonight,” he said. “And tomorrow each of you will read your poem in class.”

The following day the teacher, an elderly gentleman with bushy white hair and stooped shoulders, told the class they would read their poems in turn, starting with the first row. One by one, the students read their poems until finally it was a young man’s turn who sat at the back of the room. When he didn’t stand to read his poem, the teacher asked him why.

The student stared at his desk. “I’m not a poet and never will be a poet,” he said. “I can’t do this. I’ll never be able to write a poem.”

All eyes turned to the teacher. There was tense silence. His face red with anger, he strode to the front of the room. Standing straight and fierce and with a tight, controlled voice he said, “You don’t know that. You aren’t finished yet.”

Although I am almost 60, I have a sense of being unfinished, of having more to learn and do that dogs my effort to complete this memoir. Go ahead, try to stop time. Try to be mentally, emotionally and physically motionless, to freeze a window of growth and transition that are lifelong processes so that you look back at your life through a still-frame of knowledge and experience. At 60, I continue to be influenced by the earth, by its people, by the little patch of desert where I live, by my people.

How do I resolve this problem? I believe two things will be required. The first is to declare the story that I am writing finished. I go on, but the story stops. Period.

And second, from Barrington, “The writer must have done her work, made peace with the facts, and be telling the story for the story’s sake.” (pg. 72) There is emotional unrest about an experience sustainable enough to become a memoir. Doing the work and creating peace means in part finding emotional distance. Paradoxically, however, writing a memoir requires entry into all of the emotional currents of the story.

The solution is to get out of my own way. Rather than stopping time, I would do better to disregard the expectations and fears I have about my writing in general and particularly, this memoir, although remarkably, they haven’t changed, not an iota. I’m just as enamored with my own writing and as critical of it now as I was fifteen years ago. And I have the same unrealistic expectations for success and dire predictions of failure. Perhaps at 60, I am closer to being “finished” than I thought.

Fortunately, there is a self that is constant. It is deeper and more spiritual than all the other selves with which we interact with the world. This is the self that observes, best translates experience into meaning, and is connected to the sacred pulse of humanity. It is wise and resonates with truth. This is the voice that tells the story I want to tell because it speaks for all the others parts. It is the Truthsayer, the Wise One, the Author.

For this soul-self, “current knowledge” is merely postural, like the breeze that stirs the eucalyptus leaves outside my window so they flutter and wave but are, in their essence, unchanged.


  1. Welcome to bloggerland, Rene!! Well, I guess I should qualify that to your own blog ~ because you have been gracing us with wonderful posts on the ANWA Founder & Friends blog.

    I enjoyed this piece. Writing a personal history or even a journal is something I struggle with so thanks for being an example.

    Take care.
    Stephanie Abney

  2. Congratulations on getting your blog off the ground, Rene. Good message. And I liked the story of the student who didn't think he could write a poem. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Oh, Rene, that was so beautiful, so deep, so almost-a-poem! Believe it: your memoir will be read.

  4. Sheesh! Rene, you are a thinker! I need to read that again. You are a true sister, and I completely understand the need to write an essay about memoir writing before you actually begin memoir writing.

    I once thought I'd write a personal mission statement (Steven Covey style). I never made it past my pre-mortal existence: after about 7 paragraphs of pre-earth life and how it inform my view of myself, I became completely overwhelmed. (How long can a mission statement be?)

    I loved how you described that feeling of not being finished and having it foul up the writing process. And, I love the notion of giving voice to a deeper (in my case, more grounded)self.

    What a wonderful beginning! You're writing is lyrical. MORE, MORE, MORE . . .

  5. Rene, you're a wonder. Your description is something I'd love to have. And I ate up all you said about memoirs, because that's what I'm working on. I hadn't thought of it in the depths you mentioned, though, so I doubly enjoyed it. I usually don't look very deep. I enjoy the surface, but seldom think beyond. It's kind of like a scientist, especially a biologist, gets to know a frog better when he bisects it, but to me, it kills.

    But then, I'm neither a scientist nor an artist, so I'll just have to stumble along as I am -- until I change, which is always a possibility. It's what life is all about. If I hang around you, via internet, I'm thinking something good ought to rub off.

  6. Well, I'm just speechless. Your blog is so full of everything I need. What a talent! Thank you so much from a never have been but still striving to be published. Barbara Butler

  7. I love your site and as I browsed your blog I decided to award you the Powerful Woman Writer Award.
    Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.