Conscience Soothing

“Start with your childhood…. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.… Now branch out a little…. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul…. Scratch around for details: what people ate, listened to, wore…. what they revealed and what they covered up…. Remember that you own what happened to you…. Just put down on paper everything you can remember … and we will deal with libel later on.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird)

I’ve done a lot of this. Except maybe not all the stuff we weren’t supposed to tell. Well, we had a pretty decent family, so maybe there was not too much stuff like that, or maybe I just learned the denial lessons really well. Of course there’s still myself, my embarrassing moments, the stuff I wrote in my diary when I was a young teen and am still embarrassed to even go back and read.

I’ve written down loads of stuff, following the exercises in Writing Life Stories (Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler). And I’ve written memories from the 18,000 slides my dad left us. But sometimes I wonder how accurate they are — not the pictures, but the memories they tend to arouse. Did it really happen that way? Am I imagining? Does that matter? I’ve been putting these family stories into “binder” format and sending them out to our kids and grandkids. Poor things. I wonder if my stories are sometimes as overwhelming as all those slides?

I’ve probably included some of those “embellishments” I’m so prone to. But hey, my uncle told me a few years back that embellishing family stories is a family trait. Perhaps, I wonder, a way to enliven memories of a pretty straight-laced religiously-oriented cultural life-style? Or wonder why certain things aren’t to be discussed?

See, that’s another thing I do: ponder the possible reasons for the way things happened, for why I/we did things in certain ways, for why I think the way I think to this day. And pretty soon I find myself integrating those ponderings into my story-telling even though I’m not sure if they’re accurate. Is that a kind of lying? Story-tellers, especially memoir writers, are supposed to be truthful. Right? At least as truthful as personal perspectives and faulty memory allow (I like that “at least.” It’s conscience-soothing, don’t you think?).

So much I’ve already written down, but I’m afraid to really and truly hit “publish.” Some of the stories have found their way into magazines and blog posts and anthologies. But putting them together into a book? Yikes! So I edit other people’s memoirs and help help them to publish instead. And I tell myself I have to do that because editing for and helping other writers is a good way to make money, and I have to do that, don’t I, to pay the bills? Of course I do. More conscience soothing behavior?