The Memoir and the Robin

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I sit in the living room, my laptop in front of me, open, alive, waiting for my fingers to type.

But I don’t. I can’t seem to think of one true word, let alone one true sentence. Papa Hemingway would not be impressed.

Thud… Thud…

My eyes follow the thud to the window that looks out to our chipped blue porch and the Japanese maple in the front yard. Within a month, leaves will bud. Eventually a glorious rust-colored blanket from the tree will shelter the porch.

Thud.

A robin flies into the window. She backs up, bewildered, and returns to her perch on a bare branch of the Japanese maple.

“Oh, you poor bird. I understand. I’ve hit my head against my reflection more than once in my life.”

The robin seems to catch her breath, and she’s off again, flying towards the window, searching for someone in the smudge filled glass. Herself? A lover? What does she want, and why doesn’t she learn her lesson? There’s nothing there for her but a hard, cold surface that will cause her pain.

And still, she flies into the window. Again and again and again.

Thud… Thud … Thud …

I watch her as I sit on our comfy, worn leather couch with a hole in the right seat cushion, the buzz of the laptop the only noise–that, and the recurring thud of the bird.

On writing memoir

As a memoirist, this happens, this hitting my head against a hard surface, when I get too introspective with my work. I am the writer, and the narrator, and the main character, and sometimes my roles mingle to the point of self-obsession and confusion. My desire to be perceived well, and to reach my personal predestined truth in the story turns me into a robin, fixated on my reflection, attempting time and again to break into something bigger than me, but really only hitting my head against a hard surface.

Annie Dillard says that you have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arms, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”

Thud.

The robin has banged her head against our window for three days. I’ve tried to deter her by closing the curtains and opening the window a bit, but to no avail. She returns every few moments, unaware that if she just shifts her focus there is a whole world to fly into and discover.

If a memoirist’s goal is for people to esteem her, to like her, to want to be like her, it will show in the work. The writing will fall flat, come across as inauthentic, and showy.

No, the memoirist should write for discovery. According to Andre Gide, a French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947, one doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.

A good memoirist is open to her story’s agenda. She participates with the reader, and diminishes the importance of her role for the sake of the universal truth found in her words.

“On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points,” says Virginia Woolf. I would add that every good memoir has a point outside the visceral domain of the writer starting out. Our job is to bring ourselves and our readers to that point. Instead of a writer playing tour guide, the memoirist should rather find herself on the journey in the words. Then she will be able to fly right and free for discovery, and most assuredly get herself and her readers somewhere she would not have found on her own.

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18 thoughts on “The Memoir and the Robin

  1. Beautiful Gillian. I love the image of a memoirist writing for discovery, diminishing her role for the sake of the universal truth to be found in her story.

    As human beings, I think we all hunger for the freedom to fly in our truest selves. If we can take a few others along as we journey, the adventure is even sweeter.

  2. Gillian, you write beautifully about your travail of birthing this memoir. People keep telling me I “have” to write one. They hear my story and think a book is the answer. Sometimes, when I read about the pain of your journey, I tell myself, “No, Melinda, don’t do it!” Today you make me feel I might.

  3. Gillian, I loved, loved this. Makes me want to read everything you write. Thoughtful, funny, beautifully supported with fascinating quotes. You are a writer’s writer.

  4. Pingback: The Memoir and the Robin at the WordServe Water Cooler today … | Gillian Marchenko

  5. I think this advice applies to more than just memoirists. Any writer puts so much of his or herself into their writing, and writing to impress people will never get you readers. People need to be able to connect to your story. Thanks for the great post!

  6. Gillian, interesting connection. However, lest you use this example again, I should point out that the robin was probably a “he.” During breeding season, the males are supercharged with testosterone and when they see their own reflection in the glass, they perceive it as a rival, intruding into their territory. So what do they do? They fight that intruder that simultaneously rises to battle them. Again and again, they fight their own reflection until, exhausted, they rest until they gain strength to do battle again.
    Besides the repetitive (and annoying) clunk, clunk, they regurgitate on the window, leaving a mess to clean up.
    There’s an application there; just not the one you chose.

  7. I love that visual picture from Annie Dillard: “… you have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arms, like a drunk, and say, ‘And then I did this and it was so interesting.'” Personally, I get stuck in my writing process, when I try to edit myself before I capture the story. I have to try to switch off my logic and introspection to freewrite. But that’s not always easy to do. In fact, it’s NEVER easy for me to do!

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