Memoir Writers – Hold it Close, Toss it Away: Writing Your Heart Out

by Pamela Jane on March 4, 2014

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #111 – Memoir Writing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Why Not Write Your Heart Out. Thoughts for Memoir Writers

Pamela Jane BellBy Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.

LQH“A writer needs to know death is at her back, otherwise the writing becomes brittle, full of fear.” Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway

I learned about death in 1953, when I went to see the movie Titanic, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb.  I’ve seen the film many times since and though it lacks the dazzling special effects and over-wrought storyline that characterize the 1997 Titanic, the earlier version still packs a punch.

I was five when I first saw Titanic.  Before we left for the theater day, my mom explained that we were going to see a movie about a boat that hits an iceberg.

“What’s an iceberg?” I asked.

“Its an ice cube as big as a house,” my mom answered.  My mom believed in simple explanations.

I went outside and looked up at our little ice cube-shaped house, one of hundreds of identical houses in our post-WWII housing development in Madison, Wisconsin.

“Now that,” I thought, “is one big ice cube.”

Of course the iceberg that hit the Titanic was a lot bigger than our house, but that’s not what impressed me about the film.   What impressed me, and has stayed with me all my life, was how happy and carefree everyone was on the first night of the voyage – friends and families singing and dancing – and how suddenly they were plunged into darkness and death.

I’m sure my mom had no idea that the movie made any impression on me at all.  To her I was aTitanic1 little girl with curly blond hair and a ribbon taped to her head, not a highly impressionable person with a rich and complex inner life (adults rarely get this about kids).  It wasn’t that my mom didn’t care – she just had no idea what was going on inside me.

I was never the same after seeing Titanic.  But in spite of the shock, I’m glad I saw it.  Like other dark movies I watched as a small child, Titanic animated my imagination, enlarged my perspective, and encouraged me to reflect.  It made me more me.

Karen Pendleton on "The Mickey Mouse Club"

Karen Pendleton on "The Mickey Mouse Club"

Once I found out about death, I started worrying about my own death and the frightening specter of non-existence.  It seemed to me that if you wanted to be 100% certain that you existed now and forever (anything else was unthinkable), you had to exist for other people – lots of other people.  In other words, you had to be famous like Nancy Drew or Karen on the Mickey Mouse Club, (I didn’t distinguish fantasy from reality), to become a living presence in the minds of others.  Being famous not only safe-guarded and secured your existence, in a sense it also created it.  Everyone thinks I am, therefore I am – and will always be.

Feeling the way I did about death and non-existence (and still do, from a different perspective), why do I find comfort and aid in Natalie Goldberg’s quote about writing with death at your back?  Maybe it’s because the shadow of death is something I’m always aware of peripherally, so it is a relief to acknowledge it openly.  Anything that relaxes you is good for your writing.  Paradoxically, an awareness of death can lighten the burden of weighty expectations and keep you from taking yourself and your writing too seriously.  What the heck, you’re going to die anyway so why not write your heart out?

In her novel Middlemarch George Eliot writes of the scholarly cleric, Edward Casaubon.  Her portrait of a dying man entangled in a web of bitterness, ambition, and nagging self-doubt was as chilling to me at twenty-one as it is to me now more than forty years later:

Poor Casaubon had a sneaking suspicion he might not be the brilliant scholar he posed as

Poor Casaubon had a sneaking suspicion he might not be the brilliant scholar he posed as

“Having made his clerical toilet with due care in the morning, he was prepared only for those amenities of life which were suited to the well-adjusted stiff cravat of the period, and to a mind weighted with unpublished matter.”

George Eliot herself knew well the weight of unpublished matter.  She was fifty when she wrote her masterpiece and, like Casaubon, she was tormented by the thought that she might never write it at all.  Casaubon labored with death at his back in the worst possible sense; he was paralyzed by it.  George Eliot felt the awareness of death as an imperative.  Just do it.

I remember the morning of 9/11; I was sitting at my desk struggling to plot a children’s book.  I had a contract and a deadline but the plot was going nowhere. Then a neighbor called and told me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers.  Events unfolded swiftly after that, but in between watching TV, calling my husband, John, to make sure his bus to New York turned around, and trying to reach friends who lived near the World Trade Center, I sat down ­and plotted my book. I did it effortlessly, if numbly, because in light of what was happening, it didn’t matter anymore.  My book wasn’t important in the larger scheme of things.

sailboat-1If you make a deep commitment to your writing while accepting that you and it (most likely) will vanish one day, you will successfully strike the balance between “nothing matters” and “everything matters,” between holding it close and tossing it all away.   Then you will write freely, with your sails full and the wind at your back.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kay. Winters March 4, 2014 at

Very provocative… Lots to think about!

Pat March 4, 2014 at

Such good advice and so beautifully put. Thanks, Pamela.

David Widelock March 5, 2014 at

thanks, Pamie-enjoyed rading this

Becky Povich March 6, 2014 at

Very interesting, Pamela. You had a much more vivid imagination and way of thinking, than I did at five years old! I saw that version of Titanic on TV when I was about ten years old, I think. It’s still the best one in my opinion.

Pamela Jane March 7, 2014 at

Becky; thanks for your comment. I was first in line on the first night of the first showing of Titanic 1997, but I agree the 1953 film is very compelling. It’s somewhat comforting to know you don’t necessarily need all the “high tech” stuff to tell a really great story!

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