Lately people have been asking me what I’m working on. A perfectly reasonable question, though one that strikes terror and dread in the hearts of most writers. If we’re not in the midst of a book, the question makes us feel guilty and fretful. If we are in the midst of a book, we need to find ways of answering in a way that doesn’t take away from the work itself. I’ve come to think of this as a sentence that doesn’t cost me much – if anything at all. But part of the problem, in my case, is that I’ve grown slightly allergic to the word memoir. After all, I’ve written two, no, three, if you include Still Writing, which is a memoir at least in part. So: three memoirs. And now that I am well into a new book, and it is decidedly not a novel, I have been searching for another word for what I’m doing, a word that doesn’t drag along quite so much baggage in its wake.
I’ve tried: I’m writing a book-length lyric essay.
I’ve tried: I’m writing a work of creative non-fiction.
Both of these sound pretentious to me.
I’ve tried: I’m writing a memoirish-type thing.
I’ve tried mumbling incoherently and hoping the subject will miraculously be changed.
But finally what I’ve arrived at is this: I’m writing an Inquiry.
Everything I’ve ever written might be described as an inquiry. My novels all begin with questions – though these questions may not be ones I can articulate when I begin. My novel Family History circled around the question of what it might take to shake a happy contented marriage to its core. My novel Black & White centered on questions about motherhood and art. Devotion was a spiritual inquiry. The memoir aspects of Still Writing were an inquiry into what was formative for me as a writer. And now my questions have evolved into ones about marriage and time.
It wasn’t what I wanted to write about it.
To be honest, it scares the living shit out of me.
But this is the book that has been banging against my ribcage, insisting.
I write in order to discover what I don’t yet know. To peel back the layers and see what has been previously hidden from view. I don’t choose the form this discovery takes. When I have tried to force the form, it turns around and bites me. And so I have learned to pay attention to what the work itself wants to be. If we’re quiet, the work announces itself. When it makes itself known, we had best pay attention.
And so, when I’m asked, I now respond that I’m writing an inquiry into marriage and time.
How do we find the right words to describe what we’re doing? Because when we land on them, we know they’re true.