In my youth, I was on a mission, and my writing was in service to that. I wrote journalism, political analysis and social theory, for newspapers, magazines and books. The purpose of the writing was to educate and to inform, to arouse and mobilize people on the Left to understand and to organize against the Right. On the education and information front, the work was a partial success. On the mission of arousing and mobilizing people to stop the Right, it was largely a flop. Witness the state of our country and world, now a logical extension of avalanches that were set in motion decades ago.
The writing, as writing, was always a delight. I loved doing it, and I missed it painfully in the years when I wrote only in my own journals.
I went back to writing publicly two years ago with this blog. Quickly, it morphed from a health and wellness blog to being, to a large extent, a workshop for the memoir that’s been brewing in me for a long time. In the 1990s, I took women’s memoir writing classes and wrote some short pieces. Since then, I’ve kept boxes of journals as archival material to use eventually for a book.
Over the winter solstice in December 2015, I had eleven days off from my job, and I used that time to establish a writer’s habit. I just dug in, first with a book of writing prompts to get the juice flowing, and then I started writing scenes and dialogue to piece together like a quilt. I’ve been writing every day this year, before sunrise. Sometimes during the week, I have just a few minutes if I have to go to work extra early. Weekends, I may have an hour or two.
In a bit over four months, I have produced about 200 double-spaced pages, about 60,000 words, and I’m about half way through a first draft.
I realized early on that I could benefit from hiring a professional editor, even at this early phase. She’s a “book doctor” who works in the publishing industry, mostly with fiction. She’s not going to buy or sell my book. She’s going to give me her views on what would make my writing cohere.
Last week was a milestone. I sent her my 200 pages. They’re not even chapters yet.
Now comes the scary part, waiting to see what she thinks.
This is a new experience.
When I wrote books and articles in the 80s and 90s, I was writing about who-does-what-and-why. My publishers and editors were people who had solicited me, who wanted me to write for them. They were inclined to indulge me, to see what I had produced as good, to give me minimal criticism. I was the expert and they were lucky to get my stuff. My writing was good but it did not need to be beautiful.
Now it’s way different.
I am writing not to change anyone’s mind, not to influence events. I have no deadline. I need no writer’s fee. I have no concern for an academic reputation.
Memoir is not autobiography, narrating a linear chronology of life. Mine will be organized thematically. I’m thinking of it as stories of resistance, survival, and healing.
After our introductory phone call, the editor I’ve hired asked me to tell her what my purpose is.
I had explained to her that this year, I am going through the astrological cycle called a second Saturn return, that time in one’s life when, for the second time, the weighty, stable, sober and mature energy represented in the sky by the planet Saturn reaches the exact same degree of the zodiac where it was at the time of one’s birth. It comes around for each of us for the first time between ages 28 and 30 and for the second time around the age of 58 or 59.
In this year of my second Saturn return, I am doing a life review.
What’s your purpose? she asked.
I wrote her back: “I’ve had a challenging life and I’ve been involved in some important things. I want to make some art out of that.”
That’s my purpose now, to make art. We’ll see how well I’ll do.
Along the writing way, there are unexpected surprises, the kinds of whispers that come during a focused life review.
Here’s an example.
In my late teens and early 20s, I had a spiritual teacher I loved. When I was 23 years old, she ditched me, and that profoundly changed the course of my life. I never heard from her again.
When I started writing in December, I realized that she must be about 87 years old now. I googled and found that she had recently published a short e-book about forgiveness. I downloaded and read it, and there, I found her email address.
I wrote her a New Year’s note. I told her how much I have missed having her in my life these past 35 years. I asked her if we could now, finally, have some closure and a connection, at the end of her life. I asked if she would forgive me for anything I had done to harm her.
We had not communicated since 1981. In 1979 and 1980, she had tried to pressure me to support her candidate, Ronald Reagan, and, of course, I did not. We had agreed to disagree. But once Reagan came into office and unleashed military aid for the death squad governments throughout Latin America, in one of my letters, I referred to her precious Ronald Reagan as a “mass murderer.”
There was silence from my teacher. She was angry. A few months later, when she came to the bay area for an event, she told me she would no longer be my teacher. It was because of politics. No discussion, no negotiation. The End.
I have never regretted calling Reagan a “mass murderer.” I would shout that fact from the rooftops even now. But I have regretted the loss of this particular teacher in my life.
She replied to my New Year’s note. She wrote that there was nothing between us that we needed to forgive, that she had continued to think of me and hold me in her heart.
Yet all these years, she had never sought me out and, to date, she does not see the results of what happened.
Now, as I have been writing about her for the first draft of my memoir, I have excavated and recalled some of the complexity of our relationship, long forgotten.
In 1977, when I and my ex-partner were only 19 years old, this teacher expelled him from our organization, under orders from her teacher to remove anyone who would not stop using marijuana. The teacher then tried to break up my relationship. She urged me, for several years, to leave my partner and marry another young man who was also her student. I declined her unsolicited advice, and other events transpired.
Writing this story this year, I am now, at almost 58, older than my teacher was in the 1970s. When I was a teenager, I idealized her as the mother figure that she was, while she could not see past her own prejudices. I forgive her for the shortsightedness she had then and for still not getting it now in her old age. In the 1970s, she was teaching me about forgiveness. She is still teaching me about forgiveness.
I can’t turn the clock back. Nor will I now have some kind of grand reunion with someone who has lived her life well without me. What I have found, though, through writing and reflecting, is the closure I have needed. I’m feeling more peace about this and other losses.
I think that’s what I mean by healing.
I think that’s what I mean when I say I want to make some art out of my life.
Will I be able to make art? I don’t know. That’s the scary part now.