In Defense of Surface Writing

Controversial-Content

In her new book, The Art of Memoir, author Mary Karr repeatedly urges readers to dig deep to discover their true story. As a disclaimer, I’m not digging back into the volume to discuss it. This post is based on what I perceived, understood, and remember, not her specific words. My perception is my reality, my truth. If that varies from literal words in the book, that’s how memory works, and that’s part of my point.

Karr, along with countless others, myself included, have continually made the point that as you begin to edit and refine your initial story and reflect about what really did happen, how else you might look at the past, how else might you tell it, your story changes. In fact, you reconstruct history. Some give the impression that this reconstruction conveys our true essence and is truer than our initial understanding or viewpoint, no matter how long we held it.

As I read Karr’s thoughts on this reconstruction, I was overwhelmed with the certainty that these “deeper truths” are no truer than the ones we’ve lived with, perhaps for decades. Our lives may be richer for reaching them, but they NOT MORE TRUE.

What you remember on the surface is your story, the story that made you who you are. You may derive enormous personal benefit and change your life by digging, archeologist-style, into your past, but that does not diminish the personal validity of your original insights and belief, your original truth.

Early drafts of your story convey a sense of who you have been. When you begin crafting and editing that story, it remains true, but continues to develop. You continue to develop and grow. Deep reflection and insight can shape and reflect who you become. New information can change how we view the past, but it can’t change how we thought and felt before we turned that corner. We are, after all, works in progress, continually evolving as we travel life’s path, and stories change even for those who never write.

Memories do tend to morph over time. Read an old journal if you need examples. Just keep in mind that their initial form is as true and valid as whatever form they eventually take.

I bring this up in the hope that nobody will be deterred from writing or sharing stories for fear they have not dug deeply enough or their story may not be true enough on the first or second draft to be deemed “worthy” of writing or being read. I hope nobody will be deterred from writing at least a few stories from the certainty they’ll never have the time, skill or motivation to polish it to perfection.

Enough of that Inner Critic talk! All stories are worthy of writing and sharing. Furthermore, no matter how well-developed and polished, or how loudly your supporters cheer, not all will appeal to a million people. So whatever your level of skill, motivation and resources, don’t hesitate to write yours.

Do you find this concept startling, that truth can be defined on multiple levels? Do you agree? What are your thoughts and experiences? I welcome and encourage comments on all facets of this topic. Please join the discussion.

12 comments :

jzr said...

I agree, Sharon. We change every day and what I know about myself now, I did not know before I wrote my memoir. The writing of the memoir changed me for the better. But i was still who I was and more true and honest about myself in my memories and before I wrote my memoir.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for chiming in JZR. I think you're saying that your new insights expand your story rather than rewriting it. Old experiences and understanding formed the basis for shaping the "new, improved you," thus they remain part of your story. Bravo for writing and for sharing!

CMSmith said...

Good post. I'm just wondering why you think it is controversial.

Herm said...

This is timely for me as I attempt to compile some short stories to tell a much larger story. Thinking I'm now more adept at coloring within the lines with my words, I sought to rewrite a few in order to make them a smoother read. After revisiting one of them, I decided the rough edges made the truth of the content more actual. The style of the writing was as essential to my truth as what the words themselves said. I want to be a good writer, but if I fret less, I can write more. I thank you.

lourdes herold said...

Very reassuring for one who doubts his or her talent to write. Also nothing is absolute even truth. Memoir writing is personal versus hisory writing.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Good question CM. I didn't stop to think that I should have pulled that graphic when I took out material that blurred the focus. I'll use that other material in a later post. Stay tuned.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Herm, thanks for making the point that precise editing can enhance meaning. So, so true!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Lourdes, as with anything, skill grows with practice. I had not thought of the relationship between talent and skill. Perhaps talent is a natural inclination to excel, also described as a "gift," but even with that gift, skill improves with practice. So send that Inner Critic outside for the day, and write your brains out!

Marian Beaman said...

I found this quote on Kathy Pooler's post yesterday as she writes of memory and memoir: "He who believes that the past cannot be changed has not yet written his memoirs." ~Torvald Gahlin

Your thesis is very encouraging and stress relieving to me now as I'm taking a course entitled "All in the Family: Uncovering your Family History" which urges us to dig deeply excavating truth. But I'm with you: those original memories are valuable - and true!

Stephanie Faris said...

If I tried to write a personal story, I know I'd feel tempted to reinvent the past. I wrote a fictional story about something that happened to me. Because it was fiction, I was able to take some liberties, but I actually found that in writing it, I remembered things I hadn't thought about in years. That must be why memoir writing is such a healing experience. Maybe I should try it, even if it's never published. My real life story probably wouldn't interest most people!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Marian, I also noticed that quote and thought, "Write on!" Glad to have had some small part in reducing stress, and wish you lots of learning fun with that class.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Stephanie, we all reinvent the past to some extent, because memory is stored in a leaky bag and absorbs some essence from the present each time we haul it out for replay. Memoir writing does give you the chance to re-examine and redefine and perhaps correct your future course. Journaling about memories is a great way to start a memoir and worth doing if you never do take that next step. So do give it a try. Go as far as you get. When you feel finished, move on to something else.

As far as others being interested, one of the best ways to know about that is to join a lifestory writing group. If you don't have one locally, email me for a free leader's guide that explains everything you need to know to get one started and keep it going.