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.