Tonight I learned that there is a difference between the memory and the story, but in the writing of the story you should trust in the way the memory comes. I learned that the story of a memoir is never the one you think you want to tell. That a memoir is driven by a question, and to revisit the past as a means of seeking answers is to find something that’s useful to yourself and your reader.
These are the lessons that came from the mouth of my professor, whose energy I felt the moment he closed our classroom door and said “We will begin every class with a poem.” But this is a non-fiction writing workshop, I thought to myself. And as if seizing my thoughts he followed with, “Because poetry is the root of all creative writing.” He wasn’t even teaching us, just talking, and I was learning. We spent the next four hours taking turns, as a way of introduction each of the twelve students read aloud a selection of prose by our favorite author as well as a piece or segment we’d written ourselves. So now I don’t remember their names, but I remember a part of each of their stories and the way the stories sounded straight from their mouths.
I’d been fretting for a week over what to read, what impression to give on this first night, how to inflect, where to pause. I read second in the rotation with a voice that, I think, was only shaky in my own ears. Of course I was terrified, never having been in a workshop, never having been asked in a classroom to write any way other than academically. But I got through it, I recounted a (my) story to strangers.
Afterwards, my professors said, in a tone I still can’t identify, while stroking his gray beard, “Would you revisit this? Do you have any questions that need answers? Could you expand?” I reveled in his attention until I realized he wasn’t really saying he liked it, but rather that it was without. This realization solidified as the next ten classmates read their pieces and received nods of the head and ‘Impressive!’s. They were impressive, so much so I envied each of them for their capabilities. To be so precise and strong and confident in their ability to tell, it looked and sounded so good on them. There was no doubt that I was the runt of this artistic litter.
Could you expand? was his challenge to me. And sitting here now, I love and accept that challenge. Sure, he just meant that piece, could I flesh out that vignette and make it mean something? I don’t know, but I’ll surely try. And try to expand myself, and be more present in that room on Mondays on the fifth floor of a building overlooking the Boston Common than I have been in my life because there is so much to learn inside it, and I will sit at those large desks arranged like a massive dining room table with a posture that says I have questions, and a story to tell even though I don’t know what it is yet–just be ready the way that my classmates do, instead of sheepishly picking at a hangnail until it’s bloody and letting talent-envy turn me a mint tint of green.
So it’s with that promise that I end this evening, but it’s with this poem that my professor began it, in a strong but subtle voice that filled the room like a vapor:
Poem: “A Ritual To Read To Each Other,” by William Stafford from Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (Harper & Row).
A Ritual To Read To Each Other
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.