Not long ago in my creative nonfiction workshop, I found myself talking about the necessity of the generosity of the writer. I find this true, of course, no matter the genre, but I find it particularly true when we’re talking about memoir. We need to be generous enough to make room for the characters in our narratives. We need to make an earnest and sensitive attempt to see the world from their perspectives, to understand what they’ve lived through that shaped their personalities, and when those personalities are flawed, as of course we all are, we need to be generous enough to forgive those flaws, knowing that we’ll need to forgive our own as well. We need to be generous to ourselves, to admit how imperfect we are, to see ourselves from the perspective of others and from our vantage point in the here and now, so we can try to figure out who we are and why. Isn’t every narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, in some way about identity? We write and we read to know ourselves and others better.
Writing a memoir is an act of love, or should be, not an act of revenge or self-indulgence or self-loathing or justification. It’s an act of love because it requires empathy and compassion. An act of love because it strives to tell the truth in all its complexity. An act of love because it requires patience and sacrifice, because it honors the lived life, respects it, treats it with care. Writing a memoir is an act of love because it requires so much faith that words alone can take us down to that place where, as the poet Miller Williams says in his poem, “Compassion,” “the spirit meets the bone.”
Here in its entirety is that poem:
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
Sounds to me like good advice to live by. Sounds to me like good advice for the writer whose very job it is to figure out something about those wars going on inside people, the push and pull in the heart that makes our living noble for the strivings beneath the imperfections that mark us.