Monday, January 20, 2014

Confessions of a Memoirist

Mike Welch is back with us as a guest blogger. We both studied with Marion Roach Smith of the Troy Arts Center, whom he describes as his mentor and whom I know as an extraordinary teacher of Memoir and a superb writer. Her latest is The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non Standardized Text for Writing & Life. I like Mike's candid meditation on Craft. And so would Marion.
—Robert Knightly

I’ve been writing the same book for fifteen years. A memoir. Fifteen years is a long time to stay with anything, and I suppose it demonstrates a kind of endurance to have done so, although one might say it also demonstrates a lack of faith in ever being able to get it just right. And I am not out of my twenties yet, in the narrative, and so, at this rate, if I die in my real life at 90, I will still only be in middle age on the page.

I am a pretty run-of-the mill kind of guy. I am not famous, and have no kind of special claim on the imagination—certainly not the kinds of claims a lot of memoirists make, claims to the bizarre and the grotesque, the abject and the pitiful, or even the heroic and the saintly. Even if the claim is to be grounding universal human experience in the particularities of my life, and even if I believe that all writing is autobiographical, even fiction—even then it is an audacious act, or at least one of great faith, to write about oneself.

It has the quality of mystery, does it not? I mean, I know what happened to me, or at least I know what I remember, and how I remember it, but what did it all mean? I wonder if my existence means all that much.

There were two big obstacles in my way when I started writing about myself: I didn’t have much faith in my ability to do so, and I had lived an unexamined life. I had not thought much about my life, had not reflected on where I had been, and certainly not on where I was going. Oh, I had ruminated a lot on my faults, especially those I felt shameful, but mostly I had lived an emotional and psychological hand-to-mouth existence, striving with all my might to hold on to whatever peace and sanity I could find. Being a depressive and writing a memoir are two things that don’t go readily together, at least for me.

Depressives are insecure, uncertain, or at least that is the way I have experienced depression. And growing up in a household where I was vigorously ridiculed or rigorously ignored didn’t help my self-esteem. So I habitually second-guess myself, and can become so self-conscious that I feel like I am floating above myself, giving commentary on all that I do, the kind of running commentary a drill sergeant might give a raw recruit who can’t grunt out the push-ups or hit the target on the rifle range. So I worry all the time that what I write is bullshit, and should be burned.

On the other hand, there is something about writing that is safer than real-time, face to face social interaction, the kind I find so excruciating and that I so often feel like I have made a terrible hash of. When you write, you can keep going until you get it right. I can go up to a beautiful girl and captivate her on the page, or imagine I am, and if I am writing fiction, I can have the kind of conversation and relationship I want vicariously, through some character that is at least partially me. A textual relationship, which may not be as satisfying as a sexual one, but doesn’t transmit anxiety or guilt.

I don’t feel the urge to write, and yet I do write, just like I exercise and brush my teeth, finding it sometimes exhilarating, sometimes agonizing, and most of the time just plain hard work. I enjoy having written more than I enjoy writing, enjoy the satisfaction of having created something pleasing. Making some kind of connection, and perhaps having done it exceptionally well, proven that there is something-- this one thing-- at which I have talent.

I have no illusion that my memoir is going to illuminate some great truth, or that it will somehow make the depression itself fade away as I become more “in-touch” with myself. Depressives are painfully self-aware, painfully alive to the real miseries that existence has to offer, and contemplating the self can just be a way to drive yourself deeper into your cave. I don’t think it will make me a better person. I’m not going to become like Scrooge on Christmas morning; indeed, in my version , Scrooge pays for little Tiny Tim to get fixed up at some fancy clinic, and as the boy is leaving, stepping out into the bright sunlight with two good legs for the first time, a truck hops the curb and runs him over. A Memoir should entertain and instruct, I think, but find some practitioners of the form write primarily to prop up their self-delusions.

I guess if we were going to take the Freudian approach to things, you might say I write to make my father less suicidal and my mother less homicidal. To make them both realize that, yes, I am in the fucking metaphorical room, that attention must be paid me, like to Willy Loman, yes, attention must be paid.

Words are always bouncing around in my head. Bits of lyric, lines from movies, poems, novels, and I am always struck by the way that something as evanescent as words can have such an everlasting effect. I love to go out and wrangle a bunch of words and pen them together into a sentence. Did you ever hear that Bob Dylan song Subterranean Homesick Blues? Legend has it that when asked what it meant, Dylan said “I don’t know, I just wrote it.” I know what he means.

And reading—there is something so benign, so safe, about reading. If I can read, or watch TV, I feel safe, because these are solitary activities, where I found safety as a kid. They take you away to a better world, and they are partaken of in this world often in a hiding place, or at least a solitary one. One of my favorite times was when I woke up deep in the night and couldn’t go back to sleep. I would go downstairs and turn on the TV really low, and I would be safe, all the dangers in my house asleep, and I would drift off into other times and places, worlds I could observe from a safe remove. I thought if stories could be my oases, why not write them myself, create my own? My own writing has to be something I would want to read, or it’s no good.
The process? I find I don’t spend all that much time at the blank screen, but I do a lot of thinking, a lot of gathering of scraps of dialogue or observation, a lot of research. When I am writing about a topic, it is much on my mind, and I hope that whatever goes on in my conscious mind is occurring because my unconscious is trying to wrestle the topic to ground. I also carry a notebook in which I am forever scribbling.

Sometimes, though, I just have to sit and write. . Even if I don’t bring anything with me to the blank page, I find that writing begets writing. You sit and put something down , anything, and then see what it connects to. And what that new thing connects to. Because it is true, I believe, that everything is connected. You may start someplace far away from the territory you want to visit, but never fear, you will eventually get to where you should go.

I don’t, however, like to edit. I am not one of those geniuses for whom pages and pages of sterling prose come immediately off the pen., but I find the process of editing exhausting, no fun. What I enjoy is flying along, seeing if the next thing I put down really sings, hoping to play my keyboard like Johnny B Goode plays his guitar—just like ringin’ a bell.

I’m not a rock star or former President. Nothing amazing has happened to me. My mentor, my writing teacher Marion Roach Smith, says that there is no such thing as an ordinary life, that all lives are extraordinary, and that you have to write extraordinarily well in order to relate that to your readers. Your particular story should partake in the universally human, so that your readers will recognize you as another player in our human drama. And there needs to be change, even transcendence or epiphany in your story, for another to want to read you.

The public has a fascination with the spectacular, and so James Frey lied about his addiction and jail time. Dirty pool to be sure, but I know the impulse that drove him. Maybe Marion is right (I hope she is) and the ordinary life can be rendered in ways that are compelling. I hang on to that when I am tempted to dramatize and exaggerate my tale. It’s funny, this impulse to write a Song of Myself that will keep readers up nights reading, that shows an ordinary guy like myself can have a life worth reading about. But I want to write it in a way that shows I am an exceptional writer, an exceptional thinker, an exceptional poet. Even funnier, this urge to be special is quite ordinary.

© 2014 Mike Welch


  1. Mike, you have given us a great deal to think about. I need to ponder over this piece and let it sink in my little grey cells before I can give you a proper reply. Except, for now, thank you for sharing! Thelma Straw

  2. Mike, This is a warm and honest piece. I loved the phrase "psychological hand-to-mouth" and "floating above myself." And I think writers who don't worry that what they write is bullshit and should be burned are probably missing something. Keep up your saga! Sharon R

  3. I enjoyed your honesty Mike. I can relate to the writing and the hating to edit, and the struggle with it as it is work, and wanting to write something of value, but always second guessing if it has value. I especially loved the last two sentences here.I have taken Marion's class with you and I can assure you, you are an exceptional thinker, quick and direct. Your writing offers a different enjoyable perspective.

  4. Oh Mike, this is a such sweet and honest description of you and how your struggle with life and the writing of it can give rise to a truly authentic self. So many people will get comfort and inspiration from it. Hope it is shared widely.

  5. Mike: So delightful (don't scoff at me! I hear youse!) to read not just your memoir writing, as I have (tons of it, some of it yummy indulgence and some of it bitter and not fun to taste)--but now to take in these ruminations as well. I've been worrying about the same damn things in my own writing: Is this trash? the harshest judgment. The flirtation with words, romantic pursuit of their honest and proper relationship, yeah, that too. Down to editing my own freakin' comment right here. Memoir ain't easy and tempts us to sin intellectually and emotionally. Thanks for putting it down so well, and clearly. --DKB

  6. Nice job, Mike. Your mind works well and it translates as the written word bringing to life your interior. Intimacy is the essence of a memoir writer's efforts and you are a fine memoirist.
    Dan, 2nd row, Wednesday evenings.

  7. Mike's excellent blog post reminds me of a series on CBS News. Reporter Steve Hartman throws a dart at a map of the United States. Then he travels to that location and calls random people from the local phone book until he finds someone who's willing to be interviewed. The series is called, "Everyone Has a Story", and it's quite interesting.