I have been struggling to write a memoir of my days in graduate school for almost a year now. The struggle is not in the writing so much as the remembering (and now, the editing). I pumped out 30,000 words on a fairly quick timeline, and have added some since, but now I’m chopping it up, chipping away at the stone to find the statue underneath. The structure keeps changing, but now it looks like it’s going to be a series of essays based loosely on the fact that I was in graduate school when they happened. Some will be about teaching, some about learning. Some will be about drugs, or meditation, or money. Some might be about love. Maybe one or two will be about sex.
The structure will find itself. As I continue to write and edit, though, I begin to doubt my own memory. I know my memory is not great, and this project has really brought that home. Luckily, I have been, at times, an avid journal-keeper. For much of my grad school life, I have kept a journal, detailing classes I’m taking, how I’m feeling about whatever is going on…well, that’s a diary, isn’t it? Going back through these diaries, I see a lot of repetition, and a lot of emo crap about how I’m not writing or how no one understands me, about doubts about my profession, but there’s also a lot of useful material.
The problem, though, is in what’s not there. I am writing about some things that happened a decade ago, and I begin to worry that I am not remembering things accurately, that I am forgetting huge chunks, that I have distorted things. In the end, maybe I shouldn’t care about that. This is, after all, a subjective account of my experiences during a particular period of my life. I am tempted, however, to call people and get their perspectives, to jog my memory. I am resisting that impulse for now.
That’s what’s tricky about the memoir. The mem part. I want everything to be true, of course, but one starts wondering what constitutes truth? For example, I have been trying not to talk too much about my marriage and all the drama that led to and from it, but without that context, how true can the rest of it be? How complete must I be? Is something true even if I remembered it incompletely?
Here’s an example. I went on a ten-day meditation retreat several years ago. I have no notes from that period, in part because we weren’t allowed to write. I am now reconstructing my experience there, but I have forgotten key elements, like the exact schedule, how large the meditation hall was, how many people were there. I also want to talk about specific people there, but I want to be careful not to be a jerk. I have changed some names and fudged some of the schedule stuff, but have done the best I could, because, after all, the reader doesn’t care about that minutiae, but about how the experience affected me, how it changed me, and all that. Who cares if the mealtime was 11am and not noon? I found myself doing much more research on that piece than I have on anything else. I’ve looked up the retreat, researched the tenets of Vipassana Buddhism, watched some videos. I even took a trip to the grounds of the retreat to walk around and reacquaint myself with the terrain. Why? I want this to be as accurate as possible, even as I acknowledge that some of it is uncheckable, even unknowable.
Ultimately, I guess I don’t care that much, but the fact that this memoir deals with other people makes me want to be careful, precise, and complete, as impossible as completeness can be. But there has to be a limit. After all, I’m not writing Tristram Shandy here.
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