Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Writing A Legacy

When I began to write my autobiography I had no idea I would ever publish it in anything by a spiral bound book produced at our local copyshop. I began as a whim when a friend invited me to join her memoir writing group. It soon became, however, an exploration into writing things that only I knew about, things than I cared deeply about, that would die with me if I didn't record them.

I started out with my birth, all that had been told to me by my mother in a letter she wrote me on my 40th birthday. From there it seemed natural to move on to the story of my mother, which happily she had written out for me, as little had been related prior to her death. My father's story had been written in a family history published in one of those spiral bound books by the wife of a cousin. Again, happily, as I had not thought to question my father about his family's story before his death when I was just sixteen. However, it was not long before there was a story that was just pressing to be told. It just wouldn't wait. It almost screamed at me to get it down on paper. And that's how the first two chapters of It's an Ill Wind, Indeed... were born.

I wrote those two chapters, but then could not read them in writing group without crying. They slumbered quietly at home for weeks. But I was able then to go back to writing the stories of my earlier life, about my aunt Teedy, about life on the farm when I was young, and about WWII, high school journalism classes, and everything up to the beginning of the story that changed my life, what became two distinct books: ...Invisible to the Eye - the first forty years and It's an Ill Wind, Indeed...that blows no good.

At some point, I came to remember that I had speeches on file that I had written during the Bereavement Outreach era, speeches about grief and bereavement I had given as I was going around the State helping other counties develop programs like the one I'd helped to found in Davis. The writing of those speeches had helped me write my way through grief. My mind had been so cluttered I could hardly think, but I learned things as I wrote and discovered new things about myself. I now came to realize as I reread some of those speeches that I may have written them to change others' lives, but what I really accomplished was to change myself.

As months passed in that earlier time, giving speech after speech from city to city, county to county, I saw a new life emerging from the mourning mists. Writing had always been an easy way to express my feelings. It's an Ill Wind, Indeed.... Writing at this time, just a year or so after the death of my husband and young son, helped to clarify my thoughts, led to new feelings, discoveries and understanding. Helping others to work through their grief became a reason for my having survivied.

When I began to write, I didn't imagine the journey. To write a memoir means wrestling with the truth, to tell or not to tell. It means you have to travel back in time. It has the power to reveal deep secrets and to explose long-buried hidden truths, pain and bring them to the light of day. For instance, in Invisible to the Eye, I wrote a chapter I called "If I had Known Then What IKnow Now" in which I bared my soul and for the first time tole about my teenage feelings about a mother who wasn't there for me.

Although I've always written, it's been mostly about current events, politics, vignettes about people and places, and sadly, not about the day to day living. I highly recommend journal writing to anyone who thinks they might someday want to write a memoir or if you have experienced a loss. Write down your thoughts and moods. When you look back later, you will be surprised at the changes, the progress you've made.

As I think about why I wrote these two books, which are now on the bookshelves of all of my children and grandchildren - or so I might hope - I suppose it is to be remembered, to be known. I recently saw a play at Berkeley Rep Theatre, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, which speaks to that very thing. "The desire to remember and be remembers is a mark of our humanity, a constant refrain the cacophony of history and change. The profound fear of being forgotten after our deaths underpins the way that we choose to chronicle our lives. After all, of our stories are not kep by those who follow us, it means that our deaths are a meaningless exercise in suffering and loss. We long for some kind of afterlife, hoping that the end of our time in this world will be compensated by some kind of existence in the next. We carve our initials in trees and tourist attractions, tuck our grandmother's quilts into a child's crib, and fix fleeting memories to a scrap of celluloid."

Though it finds a new medium in every culture and era, the impulse to bear witness and leave a tangible record remains. And that is why so many of my generation can be found today writing their memoirs. This poem, penned in a bible by a woman named Abigail Torr (1781-1869) says it all:

Abigail Torr is my name

New England is my nation

Durham is my dwelling place

and Christ is my salvation

When I am dead and buried

and all my bones are rotten

When this you see remember me

that I may not be forgotten.