Writing a memoir presents a particular narrative challenge if you are not, say, a C. I. A. agent, an arctic explorer, or the Secretary of State. If you are only writing a memoir about your relationship with your son who was diagnosed on the Autism spectrum, what exactly happens? On the surface, not a lot. On the surface, it usually looks like a father talking to his son. How is that compelling? It is compelling because all stories happen beneath the surface. If I were walking through the mall one afternoon and witnessed a woman being chased from a lingerie store by a security guard, this would appear compelling on its surface. The surface questions are, will he catch her, and, perhaps, what did she steal? But very quickly our questions take us beneath the surface. Why did she steal something? Is she a kleptomaniac? Is she poor, and if so, why bother shoplifting lingerie? Was it a dare, and if so, is it insecurity that drove her to take this dare? Where did this insecurity come from?
In this way, the drama being acted out on the surfaces is only a physical manifestation, a culmination, really, of the deeper drama running continuously beneath the surface. What’s more, the deeper beneath the surface we go, the more compelling become the questions, until we are led, almost inevitably, to: “Am I worthy of love?”
When I choose stories from my own life to tell, I am usually presented with a single moment: My son telling me crackers are treats, or watching my son build something with LEGOS. These moments are predictably ordinary on their surface. And yet when they are presented I feel at once their full poignancy. I try from time to time to write these scenes on the surface in the hope that this alone will translate the depth of the poignancy, but the results are always as shallow as my effort. Written in this way, life appears flat and meaningless.
For a moment I despair. For a moment I question my ability or my instincts. But when I think again of what I wish to share I feel the same poignancy as before. And so I take a breath, become very still, and like a swimmer ceasing his thrashing amongst the waves, I sink. Seen from the shore I might look like I am drowning, when in fact, if I am lucky, the very opposite will have occurred.
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