Recreating Ourselves Through Memoir

I opened the I Ching at random this morning and came up with #38, K’uei / Opposition. The commentary says it is common for two opposites to exist together, needing to find relationship. I realize an opposition is being set up just in the act of writing a memoir, which I’m currently working on. My inner writer will be observing everything I do closely and recording what she finds valuable. I’m reminded of a review of Journey into the Dark: The Tunnel by William Gass that appeared in The New York Times Book Review:

Writers double themselves all the time in their fictions, of course. That’s one of the reasons for writing them: to clone yourself and set yourself out on a different path, or to reconfigure yourself as a marginal observer of your own childhood, as Lawrence does with Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, and as Woolf does with Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse; or to split yourself in two and reimagine one side of yourself through the eyes of the other, as Joyce does in Ulysses, and as Nabokov does in Pale Fire…..The reason for this is that making copies of ourselves and setting them in motion in imaginary space is built in to the way minds work. We do it all the time—when we plan for a future event, when we relive the past, when we daydream. (July 13, 1995)

I like the idea that I’m daydreaming myself into existence, that day and night dreams, which can be in opposition, work together to make a creative entity. I’m actually making a fiction in my memoir, just as we all are fictions, walking around. I can’t possibly capture my whole life in these pages, so in making the choices I do and recording them, I’m altering my experience, describing a fictional “I,” transforming my life and my experiences. They are both mine and not mine.

In fact, the act of writing these things and reflecting back on them alters that period, transforms it, just as the moon’s reflection changes what it touches, causing us to see a landscape differently at night than in the day time, under the sun’s glare. The moon softens surfaces, embraces them. The sun brings out an object’s hard edges and distances us from it. It makes an object seem farther away than the moon’s light does.

In a way, I’m creating a character named Lily, just as other writers recreate themselves when writing memoir. By organizing our pasts as we do, we eliminate a good deal, including only what fits the page limitation and what we’re willing to reveal. Of course, this is how we give shape to a self anyway, by uncovering/discovering it, bit by bit. All of our personality doesn’t show at any one time. Over a long period, the different parts of ourselves come forward and are exposed. But we are always selecting, choosing.

It’s similar to what happens when we photograph someone. So much is left out, and we end up with an idealized (or sometimes extremely revealing) image. If we took a dozen photographs of the person, while there would be a recognizable self in each picture, what’s captured in celluloid changes. Usually, we only see a posed image, not a full-blown experience of another caught in natural motion. I suppose it’s why many people prefer to choose a photograph of themselves that projects their best features, leaving the viewer with a romanticized picture of someone.

I think Proust was pointing to a similar phenomenon when he claimed that the narrative “I” is much different from the writer’s self/I. The writer is creating another fictional self to speak through, and it isn’t exactly the same as the writer’s self. I believe this happens in all writers. Proust ideas about memory are instructive: we’re so caught up in the moment that it’s difficult to understand our experiences. But by revisiting them in memory, we make sense of our lives. I feel that’s what I’m doing here, trying to sort through inner and outer experiences, to understand them, to uncover their meaning.

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