I have a galley of my upcoming memoir Devotion sitting on my desk, waiting to be put into an envelope and mailed to one of my relatives. It has replaced the bound manuscript which sat in the same place on my desk, which replaced the actual manuscript, which also occupied that spot for months and months. I have padded envelopes in my closet, stamps in my desk drawer. The post office just a five minute drive down the road. So what’s my problem? Why haven’t I sent my relative an advance copy of my book?
Because I’m anxious. Because I’m scared. Because this particular relative is an important character in my memoir, and I want her to love the way I’ve portrayed her. In writing about my own attempts to find meaning in my everyday life, I have written about a member of my deeply religious family who has lived her life with tremendous spiritual clarity, and for whom I have bottomless respect. There isn’t a single unkind word about her in the book. Not one. So why am I afraid?
Janet Malcolm once famously wrote that every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what’s going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. Many times, while writing a story, I have an awareness of the way I am seeing my subject, as if all my senses have at once become wider, deeper, more discerning, more KNOWING–as if a lens inside of me has opened to its greatest possibly clarity. At these moments I feel a touch of Malcolm’s moral indefensibility–because quite suddenly my subject has become a SUBJECT. No longer simply a human being, but part of the larger tapestry of a story. “Oh, that’s good,” I’ll think to myself about a bit of dialogue. “I can use that.” Use being the operative word. We writers do use stuff. We take what we see and hear and smell and taste and make it ours on the page. What else can we do? It’s all we’ve got. Whether we’re writing fiction or non-fiction, this is the case. It’s not always a purposeful thing, or even a conscious thing–but it invariably happens. In fact, we lie in wait for those moments. Those are our instances of grace. We come across something–an image, a phrase, a slant of light–and we take it. Immediately, we appropriate it, and make it ours.
In the two years I spent writing Devotion, I had experiences I thought I would write about, but didn’t–or tried to, but they didn’t work on the page. And at other times, as I went about living my life, I had experiences that I had no particular intention of including, but there I found myself, widening, deepening, becoming hyper-aware–no longer just a person having an experience, but instead a writer, gathering, hording, pruning. Voracious. Thrilled. Ah–a little voice would whisper. This–this is perfect.
I suppose this is why I have that bit of trepidation about sending an early copy of Devotion to my wonderful relative. Will she think that when I was sitting with her, walking with her, having coffee with her, that I was really just a machine, taking internal notes? Will she feel betrayed? Is what I did, in fact, a betrayal of sorts? Is it possible to live inside a moment and outside of it at the same time? Perhaps that’s the lot of the writer. Perhaps we’re always hovering just a bit away from the center of things–feeling everything, perched on the periphery, taking notes.