My mission when I began writing my memoir Nightfall in Verona–sample chapter here–– was not to write the kind of coming-to-terms personal narrative that is in vogue today, but to tell a good story and write that story beautifully and meaningfully. My book has an ostensibly simple and inherently poetic subject: it chronicles my relationship with an Italian man when I was 23. I had gone to Europe on the spur of the moment in rough shape over an affair gone wildly awry, traveled with my friends having misadventures and then “fallen in love” around a chance meeting in Verona with all of about five weeks to live out my new relationship before I had to come home to St. Paul.
I am well aware that I am far from being the only woman who has ever had this experience and lived to write about it; I just hope I’ve done it outrageously well.
The intervening years have brought this experience to my attention for the extraordinary time in my life that it truly was. Still, I merely wanted to tell a rich story for the joy of story telling, hoping it would make whoever reads it laugh, cry and wonder with me. I was astounded when I began to realize that with every line I wrote, the story was telling itself to me in all of its dimension. I was, quite literally, being infused and transfused by my past, reconnected to it, having the reality of what it was divulged to me.
Such an experience obviously lends itself to memoir because it is about a journey, it is romantic and rich, and also because the whole thing was so compressed and intense. Through the writing of it I confirmed that I had been through something that informs who I am. In terms of the value of this story to others, I would hope that like a good novel or a fine book of poetry, I have made literature.
But there is something else that I think is germaine to the discussion of memoir. In order to live such an overwhelming experience, which involved being far away from the familiar, alone with someone whose language I did not speak, abruptly becoming lovers and an equally abrupt immersion into southern Italian culture, I had to disassociate from the experience to a great degree. It was a shock to my system and somewhat traumatic in its own way. Therefore, on its heels, I had to suppress and repress a variety of things and to put out the fire between us almost immediately so that I could function.
Little did I know that the whole thing simply went into hibernation until I was ready!
If the book never sees print, writing it will have helped me understand that rather than divorce myself from my past, I should embrace and claim it. It is part of me. I belong to it and it to me. This is true of the other elements that are leaching themselves out of me onto the page, such as other things lived across six decades I am not yet ready to write about beyond the poems that have given voice to what I experienced, and may never “memoirize” about. For example, I think that perhaps to explore my relationship with my mother in memoir might indeed reconnect us and give her back to me. Because our relationship was so hard and everyone in our family was in so much pain, I have done everything in my power to divorce myself from my childhood and girlhood, when perhaps that orphans me and tells me a lie: I wasn’t loved, I was rejected, I was abused.
I was abused, but I was also loved. And the question then becomes, what about the love? What if I dig our relationship back up and discover that we loved each other and that I did have a mother after all? Does not time soften the sharp edges of what we endure? She died thirty years ago. Am I willing to forgive her to have her back, am I brave enough to admit how much I loved her, love her still, miss her, and wish I could take her into my arms? Or am I still sticking pins in her for her many imperfections, that she let psychiatrists rob her of a sense of herself as an artist, that she devalued herself and imparted self-devaluation unto me? What has it done to me to attempt to kill our relationship by ignoring it. Inside me is a small girl still grieving, who won’t tell me, yet, why she is so sad. Is this why? Must I give her back her mother by revivifying our relationship on the page? These questions and that I am asking them overwhelm me.
In any event, out of the purpose in vogue of having as one’s mission writing to heal comes again a central question for me regarding the self-revelatory nature of the memoirs on every book list in this country. I have touched on this before, but memoir that is not pure poetry on the page is not literature to me. Memoir is a genre, a kind of literature with uniform characteristics, a tradition and canon. But the genre has been appropriated and changed– somewhat tragically, I feel, and have elsewhere stated.
Segue: the matter of art versus mining a personal past without art. We hopefully all agree that art and life are not the same thing, which suggests that we can only “write down the bones” to a certain degree, and this goes to the heart of the contradiction inherent to memoir. When I write the scene in which I am kissed under the Romeo/Juliet balcony in Verona, my account of that moment and the moment itself will never be identical. They cannot possibly be. I was not standing twenty feet away watching myself receive a first kiss from the man who was to become my lover, I was in his arms. When I wrote the scene, I became the witness, charged with the task of not only describing this moment but setting it in the context of time, place and circumstance and illuminating the beauty and meaning it possessed.
I think of the David, the most arresting sculpture other than the Pieta, perhaps, in the world. Michelangelo relentlessly brought the vital and beautiful male form to life out of stone. The piece is entirely unified– it is itself; it is a work of art that embodies vulnerability, virility, humanity, thereby evoking that which is universal. The David is so beautiful that it stops time and feeds the soul. A living man is beautiful, and we want to taste him, to fulfill ourselves with him– carpe diem vs. immortality.
I think of the new artisanship giving rise to exquisitely realistic and detailed dolls that are so realistic they have been mistaken for real infants. These are fascinatingly beautifull but no matter what anyone does to make them more real, they remain themselves: objects to nurture in sublimation or to adorn an antique bed, upon which to project the longing for a child or to grieve the loss of a child. They terrify some people and are just the ticket for others. As a childless woman I admit that holding one of these assuages me. But, they remain replicas of that which exists. They do not live in the sense that they breathe and cry. They may be said to embody the beauty of the infant, but they can go no further.
In any event, art’s great gift is that it imparts meaning to experience. Memoir should do the same thing. The person writing draws not only on memory but on craft– skill informed by passion for the subject. Crafting memory involves poetry and narrative , deploying evocative language, using some phrases and words and not others, choosing to bring one moment into relief and not others.
If I want to convey the tender eroticism of lovemaking as opposed to the raw hunger of sex, I try to write with a light hand. Anyone can write a description of intercourse, the physical act: it is the artist, the poet who writes, as I did with all of the effusiveness of youth, “You put into me like a mariner, covering me like the dawn surf over the stones.” This problematic line is not in my memoir, but in an early poem about the same subject, written over thirty years ago, from a poem in my first collection, In Pursuit of the Family.
What differentiates art from mere statement? Perhaps too effusively, and lugubriously, just as the line itself is effusive, I can say that it gives the moment a mythical and dream-like dimension and conveys passion in the idea of the mariner and the sea, the surging of the surf, the surrendering, slick bareness of the stones. Art imbues life with meaning, and it is, I believe, the highest form of living
Memoir–narrative of the personal-cultural past– re-members, resurrects, and recasts. It is a homage to the past; the past has its own patina, throws off its own light as we travel away from it and then look back at it. We then see that the kiss in the Garden of Eden or under the Juliet balcony is the kiss of all lovers; love and desire are incarnate in the kiss and further incarnate in the body of the work that tells of the kiss. Because we have arrested this moment in time– also the dominion of art–if it is something that has happened to us, we have made it part of us. We have reclaimed and taken into our very souls that which took place, that which transcended the ordinary, revealing its extraordinariness. In art, a fox is not merely a fox. A cry in the night is more, much more than a cry. The David is not simply a man carved in stone.
Art creates referents for the soul. The Brahms Requiem is fabled for its tenderness and the comfort it gives to the living with its ebbing and flowing emotion, so beautiful to the ear and heart that it forces a transcendance of grief and sense that we are together in the body of God; music is the cris de coeur of the soul.
I have come far afield from writing about writing my memoir. I meant to simply say, at 2 a.m. listening to jazz on NPR, that I hadn’t realized that he was so generous, gentle and beautiful, that it was so beautiful and sad, that I loved him back, that I was afraid, that he was so devastated, or that we were so lucky. Thank you, the art of memoir, for stranding me on a white beach in the moonlight where I am holding a piece of my past in my arms, remembering it mind, body, heart and soul.
N.B. Since writing this draft I was made aware of the new film Letters to Juliette, based on a collection of letters sent to Verona by the same name. Despite stunning coincidence, I press on. Jenne’ Andrews