I've been doing a fair amount of guest speaking lately. Since it's mostly for The Orchard, the art of memoir writing comes up again and again. I meet people who are working on their memoirs, and one thing I like to share is how surprised I was to find that through writing about my own life I came to a much deeper understanding of things I thought I understood through and through. I think the biggest surprise was finding out how much my father's abandonment impacted me, my mother, and my older brother. At the time, we all put on a brave face. We weren't crybabies. We didn't feel sorry for ourselves. Good riddance, you jerk. Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. You are dead to us. You aren't worthy of us.
But until I wrote the memoir, I didn't understand how my father's actions turned all of us into different people. Forever.
I can now see how that single action rerouted the course of our lives in a damaging way. We'd been strong rivers, moving in a solid direction toward the ocean. Now we were trickling streams, trying to find our way across a desert that led nowhere. His leaving forever changed us. Changed who we were. Changed our core and changed our hearts, making us bitter, jaded children. And once he left, the very act of his bold and crazy move made him bigger than life to me; made him some strange folk hero.
With his leaving, the focus of our lives shifted. Before, it had been about school, home, family. Now it was about absence, rejection, abandonment, and the daily struggles of extreme poverty.
His absence sculpted us. My mother, my older brother, and me. Cutting away clay to create these new people who looked at the world with bitter, wounded eyes. This is what I didn't realize until I wrote my second memoir.
When I was working on The Man Who Left, I sent the typical proposal to my agent. Three chapters and a synopsis. She liked the material, but she thought it needed a stronger story arc. We were in agreement about that, and I'd been struggling to find a solid theme. She saw two possible choices that would help make the book feel bigger. One was for me to move to Florida to care for my father, and the other choice was to work in an Alzheimer's care facility. I understood where she was coming from, but I had no interest in doing either. I finished the book, but she never read it and it wasn't submitted anywhere. Instead, I published it under Belfry Press. I've been surprised by the positive reader response even though the story still feels a bit incomplete to me. And many people have asked me to write a third memoir, but I don't know about that. Maybe someday, but right now I'm anxious to get back into fiction.
And just because I love this photo...