I wrote my memoir out of a need to free feeling, but sweeping more broadly, I wrote out of loss: Because I grew up mostly overseas, moved from country to country—and lost worlds—the past is almost too precious to me. So, I wrote in order to grieve. Relatedly: in a sense, when it came down to it, I wrote a memoir in order to be real. To exist. When you leave so many places, and selves, across seas, you’re left not sure all that—all that you–existed. Sometimes it seems as though you have melted, like salt, disappeared into all those oceans you traversed. It is a deep comfort to see one’s life written, like the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone: Before did exist.
I recently discovered—during one of those browses on the Internet that turns up up a silver nugget—a snippet of a documentary about a confrontation between the Dutch and the Chinese during the summer of 1966.
The extract of documentary reports on, and reconstructs, a sinister episode that took place in The Hague, on July 16th, during which a Chinese “welder” was found wounded on the sidewalk of the third secretary of the Chinese diplomatic legation. The ensuing events—the severely wounded man was later kidnapped from the hospital where he’d been rushed by the Dutch for treatment, and whisked to the home of the Chinese chargé d’affaires, where he died—turned into a months-long stand-off between the Dutch security police and the Chinese. It was never clear whether Hsu Tzu-tsai had accidentally fallen from an upper story window, had met with foul play, or, whether, as the Chinese maintained, Hsu had been incited by “U.S. secret agents” to defect, and fallen from the building while trying to sneak away.
My father’s job as a covert CIA operative in The Hague was to serve as liaison to the Dutch intelligence service, and his portfolio included work with potential defectors. What his precise involvement in this tragedy and hot-point in East-West affairs might have been, I can’t know, but I ponder the episode in my book about my covert operative father, Born Under an Assumed Name. The short documentary-extract is, in any case, a fascinating lens into a moment—one of so many—in the Cold War. Here is the link:
Perhaps the most basic reason I wrote a memoir about my life was to release emotion. Strong feeling was the fuel that drove the memoir along. I wrote to record past joys, pleasures, and friendships, but, I have to say, it was often the darker emotions like shame, grief, and fury that most urged me to write. Sometimes I cried as I wrote. Other times, I snorted or fumed. And sometimes I wrote out of humiliation. Smarting and cringing, I forced myself to write a description of the Sadie Hawkins dance I attended in ninth grade—the one where the boy disappeared. Perhaps my motive was, initially, in some portion revenge (though I didn’t name names), but really—understanding now the selfishness of youth (my own included)—I wrote it to clean myself out: to expose my shame to the air, where it could be cleansed, where it could disperse out over the sea, sink into the deep ocean of humiliations experienced by all the people in the world. (It is true that we have a compulsion to return to the places of our greatest hurts, the scenes of crimes, in order to understand them, or try to re-do them. To roll back that tape and play it again, revised—or, best yet, to let the tape unfurl in the wind and sail away.)
Perhaps the keenest emotion that was present while I wrote was yearning. As heir, like all children, to my parents’ internal conflicts, I wrote with all the fullness of my covert father’s unspent yearning: his yearning—forced undercover by his job—for genuine feeling, for the complete story, for justice, for cleanness, for transparency, for truth. Beyond, I wrote to express the melting butter yearning of every young kid—the yearning for goodness, requited-love, and work-rewarded that moves through everyone on this fine and pulsing planet, the yearning of all the world.
And there was yet another kind of emotion that was pushing this writing of mine: my love for my family, and especially my father, who, not-long-ago, left this world. Upon my father’s death, up-wellings of love for him, and for my whole past, swirled into the surges of grief, forming a roaring tide of need—to write.
THE ROAR OF MEMORY
The Question of Motives:
Why write a memoir?
There I sat: a queen in her counting house, writing my memoir.
With the hum of the glorious world, and the trees bursting into flower outside the window, what an odd thing to do—to sit closeted away, writing about the past. But all the same, there I sat, contentedly alone, writing a book about my childhood.
I happened to grow up—we are all tossed into our lives like seeds into hay—moving about the globe as the daughter of a spy. I was born in beautiful, war-crumbled Japan, just after the Occupation. Then, as a girl, I moved from Japan to the green-shining padis of Taiwan; to Bermuda shorts-and-Lassie Washington D.C.; to The Netherlands—land of rain and cream puffs; back to a Washington now teeming with hippies; to the orchid jungles of Borneo; and then back to Japan, now re-built with sky-scrapers but still suffused with its gorgeous hush. I won’t say more, as you may read the whole story in my book, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter…
In many ways, in the end, mine was a quite ordinary girlhood, with all the usual trials and triumphs of growing up. There were the allures of my father’s unusual employment, the exotic cultures, and the keenness of transience and loss—spices sprinkled into the story of a girl—but these are insufficient to explain the countless hours spent summoning the past. (Most of my background don’t so engage themselves.) Yet there I was, at my desk, toiling away, tugging at all the strings of my life, fishing back all the little bits of experience and plinking them onto the page—as if I were a pirate greedily collecting gold coins for my secret leather pouch.
Why on earth, you may fairly ask, does a person expend the months and months of toil required to write a memoir? Upon reflection, I have unearthed twelve reasons I, myself, engaged in this odd activity. My hope is that this list of reasons may help you—if you wish to write a memoir of your own—to understand and legitimize your own impulse. And, for those who have no such impulse and scratch their heads at those of us who do, I hope this list may help you to have compassion for us who do feel compelled to shut ourselves away in closets with boxes of memories. Here is the list of reasons—to be elaborated in the posts to come.
Why Write a Memoir? Twelve Reasons:
Reason 1 To release emotion
Reason 2 Out of loss
Reason 3 As a hymn to the past—and in order to go home again
Reason 4 To make sense of the past—in a quest for resolution
Reason 5 Out of longing and love
Reason 6 To find out who one is—to assemble a self
Reason 7 To unload—so as to live more fully in the present
Reason 8 For one’s own pleasure—and in celebration
Reason 9 To extend a hand—to offer a mirror to oneself and others
Reason 10 To release secrets
Reason 11 To record history and one individual’s history
Reason 12 To claim one’s own small portion of the globe
Over the following weeks and months I am going to post a collection of entries on memoir writing. Specifically, I will be addressing the basic issues that, in my experience as a teacher, editor, and writer of memoirs, confound and worry the memoir writer, and sometimes stop the writer in his or her tracks. I offer these posts—which, compiled, make a small book—in the spirit of collaboration, companionship, and commiseration, for memoir writing is a rugged road with troublesome imps waiting in ambush at every turn.
I begin here with a Title page, Introduction, and Table of Contents. The posts will then accumulate, one by one, as I put forth my thoughts on each issue or conundrum faced by the memoirist.
Please do comment on the posts, if you wish. I’d like this to be a place where readers may shed further light on the subjects at hand, help one another, and also enlighten me.
Now for a title page, as with a book, so as to clarify what I’m up to:
TO WRITE THE PAST:
A Memoir Writer’s Companion
The Philosophical, Personal, and Artistic Questions
faced by the Autobiographical Writer
Why write a memoir at all?
Who am I to write a memoir?
What is the truth?
Which story, of the many, should I tell?
Why is the act of writing so trying…and rewarding?
What makes a piece of writing about an ordinary life un-ordinary?
One is always at home in one’s past.
Seated at one’s desk trying to compose a memoir—I know, from students, other writers, and myself—one is assailed with dilemma after dilemma, conundrum after conundrum: Why write a memoir at all? Is it worth one’s while to spend hours and years sealed away writing about one’s life? Who am I to do such a thing? Isn’t this self-centered, narcissistic self-promotion at its worst? And, after all, who cares? And, for heaven’s sake, what on earth is the truth? Truth is multiple—and contradictory! And: which story, of the many, should I tell? How do I make the jumble of my life into a single story? And why is the act of writing so trying…and, always the contrarian, rewarding? And what, in the end, makes a piece of writing about an ordinary or extraordinary life un-ordinary—something that others might want to read?
As soon as one question is quelled, one finds, while seated at one’s desk tackling the task of setting down one’s life, another arises to take its place. Endlessly, questions and doubts revolve in one’s head, in a continuous loop.
In this blog series, I set out some replies to the questions that plague the memoirist: answers I discovered as I wrote my own memoir about my childhood as the daughter of a spy—a life that needed sorting if ever one did. I offer my thoughts here, in six chunked-out essays, as an offering of companionship and solace as the reader takes on the writing of his or her life story. It is my hope that this little collection may put to rest, or at least quell, for the writer the doubts he or she has, so that he or she may tackle the important task of comprehending his or her life—and thus Life–with all the zest, and freedom, and play of sorrow and joy it deserves.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Roar of Memory
The Question of Motives: Why write a memoir? Why might a person
spend months closeted away summoning the past?
- Skinny Dipping with Missionaries
The Question of Legitimacy: Who am I, an ordinary person, to write a
story of my life? Isn’t memoir-writing self-centered, whorish naval-gazing?
- White Cat-Black Cat
The Question of Truth: Finding the Truth…What is the truth about my life?
A Roomful of Babies
The Question of Story: My life could tell so many stories…
Which story should my life tell?
- A Private Mist
The Memoir-Writing Process: Why is memoir writing so trying…and rewarding?
To be Carried Away
The Memoir-Writer’s Craft: What qualities make a memoir
of an ordinary, or not-so-ordinary life un-ordinary and engaging?