I’ve started writing a memoir. I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day (my writing group meets at night). It might be terrible. It might be boring. It might make my friends wish that I was illiterate. But in the process of writing, I find myself changing.
The memoir centers around a long-term relationship with a man I tremendously disliked: my old self. Of course, I didn’t like the other half of that relationship either, the blue-eyed bourgeois insecure liar, as I recalled him.
But writing the story challenged me to relate to my characters in the way that any author should. Writing about someone you hate just creates a flat figure with an arcless narrative, and I won’t have that. Authors should love their characters, every last one of them. Writing the memoir compelled me to exercise compassion towards my past, and towards my own self. I needed to love that old me.
I’ve had to try not to hate the other guy, too. We were once in love, until—so I’ve told myself for years—he kicked me to the curb when he decided he wanted something else. That narrative had come to color not just the end of the relationship, but its entirety. The five years we spent together, and all the memories within them, had become singular bits of a singular narrative. The “enlightened” me, the older “more mature” me insisted that the “good” parts of the relationship were parts about which I was mistaken, while the “bad” parts had taken on supreme importance.
Writing the story of the relationship forced me to dig into this superimposed narrative and explore the relationship as I experienced it at the time. My narrative demanded evidence, which meant digging through old emails and text messages.
The man I rediscovered through those artifacts was someone who could be genuinely caring and selfless and attentive to me. I saw the good reasons I had for relying on him and, for the first time since the break, remembered the light experience of falling in love. Of course, I discovered other things as well: flaws and problems I hadn’t noticed before, possible lies and deception, and other red flags. But what emerged was someone more human: complex, contradictory, and even aspiring towards goodness.
I discovered my own flaws, too. And as I read my own words, I found another narrative challenged: that I had distinctly moved beyond the person I was then and had entirely overcome the flaws that had sabotaged our relationship. To the contrary, I realized that I had carried through the years tendencies towards neediness, using my sexuality to gain affirmation, and treating chastity as a game of chutes and ladders (a game which, while sometimes fun, involves almost no skill or discipline, and thus no personal development). As I filled out the narrative, I was forced to confront myself and realized that those ignorant of history really are doomed to repeat it.
I also realized flaws in my history. Neuroscientists have found that, every time we recall a memory, we remake it, so that two people can, over time, develop very different perceptions of the same event and sincerely believe those differences. I saw that, over time, as I reframed past events to accommodate certain narratives, I had blurred and restructured the shape of those events.
My memory, like everyone’s memory, was deeply and inescapably flawed. This made me realize the need for both compassion and humility as a historical being. People were never as bad as I wanted them to be, though they often weren’t as good either. I needed to let people be who they were: mysterious beings capable of changing and only comprehensible insofar as they continuously disclose themselves to me. And I couldn’t dictate their motivations any more than I could dictate my own, something at which I kind of suck.
And ultimately, this pushed me to realize the real purpose for memoir. It’s not to dictate a past; such a task is beyond any human person. It’s to explore and share oneself so as to live more fully in the present.