A few days ago, I was telling my cousin that I used to have problems managing my anger. She asked me what I’d done to help me let that anger go. Without thinking, I said I wrote a book called From Our House. It’s true. Writing that memoir about my father’s farming accident, the angry man he became, the violence he brought into our home, our difficult relationship, and our eventual journey toward reconciliation allowed me to gain a measure of control over the temper that living with my father’s rage instilled in me.
I wrote From Our House on a laptop while sitting in my La-Z-Boy recliner in my study. Day by day, I dramatized the story of my family, often recreating moments that made me uncomfortable to recall. I didn’t hold back. I did the necessary work, and, as I did, I simultaneously lived inside the drama the way I had as a child and also stood to the side and looked at that drama with a more interpretative eye, one that explored the question of how my family came to be the family that it was.
I told myself to be honest and fair. I challenged myself to see the good parts of my father and my relationship with him while at the same time dramatizing all that had been ugly and painful. When I finished the first draft with the moment of when I knew my mother’s faith and endurance and love would finally pay off for my family, I wept. I felt something lift from me, and I knew it was the anger that I thought I’d put aside all those years ago when my father and I somehow silently agreed to live a more congenial life. I didn’t know, then, that it would stay with me for years and years thereafter, or that it would take a journey back to the past through the art of memoir to finally release it. I’ll say it plain: writing From Our House saved me.
Which leads me to some thoughts about how that happened:
- Dramatizing our experiences makes it impossible for us to avoid them. When we put them on the page, we fully own them. We make “public” (even if we never publish what we’ve written) what we’ve previously kept secret.
- Once we’ve dramatized these previously secret moments, we have to make sure not to look away. As we leave one scene, we’d be smart to spend some time reflecting on the experience we’ve just rendered, interrogating it if necessary to see what we couldn’t see at the time we were living it. Writing a memoir requires us to think, question, and interpret in ways we usually don’t when we’re inside the moments of our lives.
- The more reflective voice of memoir invites us to practice the art of empathy. When I opened From Our House with imagining the moment of my father’s accident from his perspective, I saw the source of his anger. I lived inside his skin. At that point, it became possible for me to understand in some measure what it was like for him to live his life. Understanding doesn’t have to lead to forgiveness, but it can. . .
4 . . .and if it doesn’t, it can at least allow us to stop obsessing, stop reliving those hurtful moments from our pasts. We can let them go. We can see that we have power over the way we choose to allow our past experiences to affect our present lives. We can contain the past on the pages of a memoir. We can close the book. We can become different people. We can move forward, without resentment or embarrassment, into the future.