I was talking with a friend the other day about revisiting the past—the often-painful past—when we write memoir. My friend admitted to having night terrors when her work with the story of her mother became too intense. Eventually the conversation swung around to the question of why we do this. Why do we keep going over our stories when often the act of telling them affects us so deeply?
I tried the usual answers. We write about the past in order to document it, to preserve it, to come to terms with it, to move beyond it. “Yes,” my friend said, “but why is all that important to you?”
It came to me, then, that the answers I’d given her all came from the part of me that’s a writer, that part that looks at the art of telling stories from a craft-centered perspective. She was looking for the answers that had to do with the person I am, not the writer I am. In other words, why would the act of retelling the past be important to me even if I eliminated all I know about the craft of memoir and never tried to publish the results? Why am I compelled to keep telling these stories? Why does the act of telling them matter to me in my day-to-day life?
That’s a more difficult question to answer because I have trouble separating out the writer part of me. That identity is so closely tied to all my other identities. But let’s imagine that I stopped publishing, or worse yet, that no one wanted to publish what I wrote. If I knew I’d never publish another word, why would I keep writing memoir?
I tell stories about my family because silence isn’t an option. Here on Mother’s Day, I think about the fact that I’m an only child who has no children. When I’m gone, the stories of my family will stop. Until then, though, I’m compelled to make them known as a way of saying we were here—we were all here—and this is what happened. If I don’t give these stories voice, it’s as if they never happened. It’s as if my mother and father never walked among us. I tell the stories to keep us all alive as long as I can.