The Gift of the Ordinary
I consider myself a lucky memoirist in that my life, on the surface, has not been particularly interesting. I have never climbed a mountain; I have never been captured by Somali pirates; I was never a head of state or a spy or a professional boxer. It might have been easier to sell my story if I had done or been any of these things, but this does not mean it would have made my job as a writer any easier. In fact, it might have made it harder. During my conversation with Cheryl Strayed (author of the wonderful memoir Wild) in this month’s issue, we discussed how tempting it is, when writing about one’s own life – especially when that life has been marked by extraordinary events – to simply described what happened. After all if what happened was interesting, then the story would be interesting, wouldn’t it? I was captured by pirates, for God’s sake. What more do you need?
As it turns out, much more. The story is never about what happened. Even if you were captured by Somali pirates, your job as a writer is not to report on the fact of your capture, internment, and escape, but to reveal what it felt like to be captured by Somali pirates. Your job as a writer is to trace the emotional journey from shock, to fear, to boredom, to acceptance, to fear again, and then finally to relief. What happens is relevant only insofar as it puts what you are feeling into some kind of physical, spatial, and temporal context.
Which is why I am glad my life has not been very interesting. I don’t really have the option of simply telling you what happened. I have no choice but to dig beneath my rather mundane surface. And why am I confident this digging will yield any narrative gold? Because I know what it felt like to be me. I know that I loved and was afraid and was relieved and learned and yearned. As a writer, that’s all I’ll ever need.
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