I am Subject: On Writing My Memoir

I am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubject project http://www.iamsubject.com/the-iamsubject-project/. Here is my #iamsubject story.

ON WRITING MY MEMOIR

I forgot her.

I hadn’t intended it. I didn’t mean to forget, or to set her aside. I didn’t plan to consign her to the fog of some distant past, or to the blur of some hazy future. I had no plans for her at all. I didn’t even realize that she was missing. I did not know that she had been forgotten.

About a year ago, this young woman I had banished from my memory returned without warning. I know what prompted it. I found my mother’s obituary online. She had died, without my knowing it, six years before.

My mother was gone. Her insanity and the cruelty to which it drove her would lie forever buried, vanquished by the final failure of her physical being; she would never return. But that young woman would.

She came to me first in the guise of a story. Not a memory, but a story, a short piece of fiction that bore a striking resemblance to a vague recollection I had of her life. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t real. How could it have been?

A short time later, she came again, with another story to tell. To quiet her, once more I put her in fiction. But I didn’t examine her character closely. She couldn’t bear examination, and neither could I. Still, she kept coming. She appeared before me month after month, in story after story, until suddenly I realized that the stories were no longer fiction. They had diverged unexpectedly into other forms, into nonfiction and narratives, essays and vignettes. Short bursts of truth expunged onto paper.

They meant little at first. A memory here, an incident there. Never very personal, and never very real, at least not to me. Events that had indeed transpired, but in another woman’s life. Not in hers, and certainly not in mine.

I continued to write them down nonetheless. They were compelling, these bits and pieces of someone else’s past. Some of them sad. Some of them frightening. But after a time it hurt, telling her stories. It was no longer merely an exercise; I began to feel it, someplace inside. Someplace I had forgotten I still kept inside.

They were horrible stories. A mother’s psychosis. A daughter’s terror. Stories of pain and isolation, of threats and violence. Stories of a woman who needed help and never knew it; stories of a girl who cried for help and never received it. Stories of hunger and homelessness, of the ever-present fear of capture and the deathly slow torture of starvation. Stories of a runaway shivering through cold autumn nights filled with loneliness and desolation. It pained me to tell them so I stopped. I had forgotten that girl and her stories two decades before. What sense was there in bringing them back now?

I put them away. But I could not put her away. She would not go quietly, as she had twenty years before, when, more than anything, I had needed to leave her behind. This time she stayed; this time she waited. Until I was ready to tell the rest of her story.

It happened unexpectedly one spring afternoon, just a few weeks ago, when the sun was shining brightly and a stiff breeze was blowing across the rooftop where I like to do my writing. The last six thousand words, the ones I had been holding back, the ones that told the rest of her story. Not of what had happened to her. That I had told already, the factual version, a clinical history of severe mental illness. No, these words finally revealed how I felt about it, of what it meant to me, deep down in places I don’t care to explore. How sorry I am for her pain. How deeply I feel for her, that young woman whose life took such dreadful and devastating turns. How deeply I feel for me, for having to remember. For how much it hurts me to remember.

I found myself weeping as I typed, weeping over a long-distant past, the words blurring before my eyes as, for the first time in twenty-some years, she came sharply into focus, that girl that used to be me. How hard it is to hurt for someone else. How much harder still, to hurt for yourself.

I had tucked her away into the deepest recesses of my mind, into the darkest corners of my heart, that unfortunate young woman I once knew so well, so intimately, that I could not have distinguished between her and me. I thought I could leave her behind, as I had left my family behind; thought I could forget, get by without her.

But that day on the rooftop with the sun warming my face and the wind whipping away my tears, I knew this could not be. I had lost a vital piece of myself, of who I am and who I was. I had to reclaim her, to re-forge the connection between her and me, to integrate us, the former she and the current me.

The following day I added the final segment to my memoir. It depicts perhaps the most important part of our journey together because it’s the story of our transition, from her into me. The story of how a dauntless young woman somehow managed to dig her way out of a hole of despair, to hold onto hope in a sea of hopelessness, to fight a battle she had little to no chance of winning. Because what I discovered, when I opened the door to let her back into my life, was that much of my strength lies not with me, but with her. And as I find myself facing a new set of trials I finally understand how much I need her, how firmly I must grasp hold of the young woman I used to be, for she, more than I, has the power to persevere, to overcome, to survive.

Perhaps I do not like the memories she brings. Perhaps I would prefer to allow her to settle quietly into the dust of my personal history, to let her remain forever buried, as my mother is now. But with her inside me I need not shy away from fear, from pain. She copes with fear. She handles pain. She is, and always has been, subject.

I cannot be subject without her. But together, we can be.

***

Update: I am thrilled to announce that my essay “On Writing My Memoir” has been selected for inclusion in Diane DeBella’s I Am Subject anthology! Please click the image below or visit iamsubject.com to learn more.

For more information about my memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness – available November 7th in paperback and audiobook, and available now for Kindle pre-order – please click the image below or visit the book’s webpage.

37 thoughts on “I am Subject: On Writing My Memoir

  1. Pingback: I Am Subject: Women Awakening | Lori Schafer's Short Subjects I Feel Like Writing About

  2. Patricia Mann

    What a beautiful post. I was drawn in, wondering who this person you forgot could be. Then to learn that she is actually you, the younger you, was quite profound. I would love to read your memoir and I hope that reliving so many difficult memories was cathartic, though I can imagine it must have also been painful.

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Thank you so much, Patricia – that’s exactly what I was going for! I’m still struggling to figure out which outweighs which in the painful vs. cathartic balance – I’m of a mixed mind as to whether it’s healthier to remember or to forget. But every so often, it seems you’re left with little choice, which is exactly how this book was born.

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  3. Julie Valerie @Julie_Valerie

    Such an amazing, moving, powerful story, Lori. Thank you so much for sharing it with us on the Hump Day Blog Hop and congratulations on the news that “On Writing My Memoir” was selected for inclusion in Diane DeBella’s I Am Subject anthology. I would love to read that anthology when it’s finished. I just had a short story published in A Kind of Mad Courage – an anthology about mothers that this story would fit nicely with. It’s already published (the anthology), but still, yours would have been a great addition to the collection!

    So great to connect with you again, my friend. Keep writing!!

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    1. paulinewiles

      I agree with Julie – Courage is a strong theme in this piece. I do admire you sharing this and I’m glad others connected with it too.

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  4. ceejaedevine

    Hi! I’ve got an entry in the #iamsubject project and stopped by to read your entry. I also thought I needed to forget “who I was when I was younger,” but found that some of the most powerful parts of my writing have surfaced through “reconnection.” When our stories are so challenging, it seems a little odd to say “beautiful story,” but I feel certain you’ll know what I mean when I say I found it very much so.

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Thank you, Ceejae. I read your essay, too. It amazes me what an incredible variety of stories this project has yielded. All completely different, yet in some ways, all the same.

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      That’s how I went, too – fiction first, then the memoir. I think starting with fiction really helped – it prompts you to seek a story structure inside your nonfiction, too. Bipolar disorder is supposed to be pretty tough to deal with, too – glad your mother has found her balance.

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  5. Annecdotist

    I also enjoyed this piece, Lori, but I’m still curious about what draws people to memoir rather than fiction. As a writer of both, you are presumably clearish about which memories to put where. In the discussion on my blog, I’m wondering what people mean by “owning the experience” and whether that relates to the distinction you make in your writing http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/annecdotal/the-stories-we-choose-high-jinks-and-travel-horrors

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      I don’t think it’s about “owning the experience” for me. There are certain things that just don’t seem to work in fiction, truth being stranger than, I suppose. I’ve used memories as inspiration for fiction, but the resulting stories often don’t come out well, perhaps because real life just doesn’t have the arc that fiction does. I find that I can only make good fiction out of a memory if I really let it go where it needs to go, not where my memory tells me it did go. And also, what fiction does is to allow me to take paths I wouldn’t otherwise travel (or wouldn’t necessarily care to), whereas memoir is about exploring where I’ve already been. I know that for a lot of people, memoir is deeply personal, and it is, but for me there’s a giant disconnect once I put something down on a page. I rarely feel as if I’ve shared too much if I’ve put it in writing – whereas you would never catch me actually talking about those same thoughts and feelings to anyone, ever.

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      1. Sarah Brentyn

        First of all, I love this essay. (And am honored to have my essay included in an anthology with amazing writers like you.)

        Second, I have to barge in to your conversation with Anne. You make an interesting point. Real life doesn’t have the arc that fiction does. Not all the time, anyway. Fiction definitely allows us to go places we normally would not.

        It’s fascinating that, for you, memoir is a disconnect instead of a reconnect. Do you think writing it down allows you to let it go or do you just feel a sense of relief once it’s on paper? I’ve blogged about how writing is a release for me and that is one of the reasons I do it. I think others do it to connect with themselves.

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      2. lorilschafer Post author

        Oh my gosh, I had no idea you had an I Am Subject essay, too! I read a ton of them back during the submission period, but I may not have known you then – or maybe that’s how I came to know you. Do you have a link you could send me? I confess I haven’t bought the anthology yet – that’s a purchase for after I’ve sold some books :)

        I don’t think I feel either a sense of relief or of letting go – not with memoir, anyway. I think it’s just that I’m not really a terribly emotional person – I tend to connect with my feelings on an analytical rather than a sentimental level. Writing things down lets me examine how I feel – or how I don’t feel – almost as if it’s a puzzle, a problem to be solved rather than an emotion to be experienced. Does that make sense? It allows me to look at a situation with a greater sense of objectivity; to see myself and my place within it from a larger perspective. And I guess that’s why it’s so shocking to me to actually find myself getting upset over something I’ve written – I’m never really prepared to have an emotional response to what I generally perceive as an objective exercise.

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      3. Sarah Brentyn

        Well, then, I must tell you (if you weren’t already aware) that yours is the first essay in the book. :-)

        Analytical vs sentimental is not something I consciously thought about while writing memoir. It makes sense, though.

        Your statement, “I’m never really prepared to have an emotional response to what I generally perceive as an objective exercise.”, is fascinating. I can see how that could happen but it’s interesting to think about. I hope this ‘response’ is a positive one. xo

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  6. Charli Mills

    While the entire piece is insightful, this line really nails it: “Because what I discovered, when I opened the door to let her back into my life, was that much of my strength lies not with me, but with her.” That’s such a stunning revelation. One, I’m sure that is powerful for you, but also something that can help others when facing painful pasts.

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      You know, I actually hadn’t thought of it quite that way, Charli, but you’re absolutely right – that is powerful! All of us have someone inside who has already suffered through something painful or tragic and managed to survive. And if they could do it – why can’t we? Thanks for the insight! :)

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  7. Lisa Reiter

    It is so very hard to hurt for yourself when you’re also the one who put up the protective shell – you have to take it down to let the hurt. I’m a little ‘younger’ in my process of doing that for it’s 14 not 21 years, (and easier in many ways I am sure) but I think time has to pass before you can look back at some stuff. A bit like most of the writing (poetry excepted) about the horrors of the First World War – came after ten years or more. No-one could process it in the same version of themselves as it happened in – but you have to listen to them when the time is right.
    This is a beautiful piece Lori. Can’t wait to read the whole.
    Lisa xx

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      You’re absolutely right, Lisa – I think it does take time to get to a place in which you can actually let yourself start to feel something when it comes to a severe trauma. It’s as if your mind knows that you just can’t handle the emotional stress at the time of the event on top of dealing with the event itself, so it shuts a part of it away until you’re ready to think about it. Of course, I’m not sure how well that works for a story like yours, in which you must have been overwhelmed with a horrible sense of “time running out.” Interesting, though, what you say about memory and how your recollections are worse than your journals seem to suggest – perhaps somewhere inside you did know you needed to postpone the incredibly painful emotions you must have been feeling.

      Thanks for sharing :)

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      1. Lisa Reiter

        For me – it was exactly that – There was no point dwelling on or wallowing in the misery at the time because that would have robbed me of any chance of enjoying the small moments I managed to. I was quite successful at compartmentalising it for a lot of the time – Amazing to look back on – Do you think we can only muster that kind of strength once in a lifetime?!

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      2. lorilschafer Post author

        Oh, I don’t know about that. For some people it’s probably easier the second time around because they’ve already done it once before – maybe you’re better mentally prepared. But others may feel tempted to simply give up – there must be an element of thinking, Haven’t I been through enough already? I guess you just have to hope that if that time does roll around again that you’ll somehow find the strength to handle it.

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  8. Norah

    Lori, this is so powerfully told, so heartrending. I can identify with so much of what you say. I often think I would rather never remember those parts I try to keep buried inside, but as yours did they do keep pushing their way up, wanting attention that I don’t want to give. But I too, remind myself, that all those things have combined to place me where I am and make me me. Ignorance (or perhaps ignoring) is not always bliss!

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Yes, it’s impossible to know which is better, isn’t it? We’re all carrying around these terrible weights that we’re never quite able to unload. Most of the time I think I’m better off not remembering, or at least not thinking about certain things. On the other hand, then I suspect that causes those buried emotions to fester, and perhaps eventually emerge in unpleasant ways. But you’re right – those painful life events have just as great a hand in determining who we become as the happy ones do, perhaps even more so. Funny how they can be the source of both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness.

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