What is it about memoir? – Carol E. Anderson

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By Carol E. Anderson

The toughest thing about writing a memoir is that you risk not only falling on your face, but falling on your heart. You are not telling a story about why you think weather patterns in the Arctic will lead to climate change – an opinion based on scientific fact. You are telling a story about something, usually painful, that has shaped your life in an unalterable way – a fact that only you can verify, but one about which many may argue. When you write memoir, you open yourself to people challenging the veracity of your life – rather than the validity of your ideas. Not that both aren’t painful, but the level of vulnerability is seismically different.♥

My desire to write a memoir about growing up gay in the sixties as a child of evangelical parents was to offer hope to young people today who are struggling with their sexual identity – to encourage them to believe in their fundamental goodness and to trust worthy friends with the truth about themselves. Having lived through decades of religious and societal angst about the prospect of gay people existing, let alone having rights, I have learned how to be happy and successful, in spite of warnings that I’m dangerous to society. I have also learned, in spite of my fear, that my mother’s love was more powerful than the religious dogma to which she subscribed.

Because of the era in which I was raised, when being gay was not only against religious doctrine, but also against the law, I have been trained to be fearful of the consequences of sharing that information. Today, there remains great rancor about gay rights from many fundamentalist groups; so, those fears also remain in me at various levels on different days. This makes it even more important to tell a positive story in which love and difference can live together with respect.

What has kept me going is the belief that my story could help young people of this generation who struggle with the complex invisible dynamics that still arise for gays — taught values of honesty and authenticity by society, but forced to violate these values daily, in order to survive. And because gay youth today are at a greater risk for suicide than any other group, it is important that I move beyond my comfort zone and take the risk that more good will come to others as a result of this work, than harm will come to me.

So, I write in spite of my fear, because I believe that personal stories are powerful vehicles for social change, and that my voice can contribute to that change in a positive way.

My hope in telling my truth is to help people see why what happened to me would have meaning to their life – how the struggle to be authentic while keeping a secret would be relevant to them, even though they might not be gay.

My biggest surprises were the raw, volcanic emotions that hijacked me each time I wrote a scene from my past. I was sure, after the fifty thousand dollars I had spent on therapy throughout my life, I had worked through all of my feelings about being gay, about keeping a secret, about the fear of rejection; and, now, I was merely telling the story of what had happened. I was wrong! Upon completing a chapter about my first real love of a woman, I realized I had never grieved the loss of her in my life. There was never a formal break-up, because there was never a formal beginning or an acknowledgment of the meaning of our relationship.

For a week, I hacked away at the overgrown shrubs in our yard with a machete, while watering the garden with my tears, screaming to the tune of Chely Wright’s song, It Was–, proclaiming that the love we had was “real and magic… cool as a breeze, warm to the touch – never enough, always too much – it did all the things love does – and that’s how I knew it was.”

I fell asleep singing those words in my head and woke up hearing them again, as though I was asserting to myself and to the world that this love was real and that it mattered; something I never admitted then – even to her. It was a Mount Vesuvius of the soul that went on for days, purging me of the sorrow that had been stored within me for forty-eight years. I had no idea it was there; but all of those tears were cleansing, and gave me back a part of myself I hadn’t known was stolen.

There have been many benefits in sticking with my book – the pleasure of watching people’s eyes light up when I mention I am writing a memoir, the feeling of accomplishment in completing one of my death-bed goals, requests by my book club to read a section, and, of course, the student discount I’ve received at conferences the last two years. But the most precious and unexpected payoff was in how the struggle to find my voice through this book magnified the respect and compassion I gained for myself in the last three years.

Writing about my life from an historical perspective allowed me to see more clearly the courage it took to choose the path that was true for me, regardless of the religious and social conventions of the day. I saw how being gay built my character, and gave me compassion for the “other,” whomever that other may be. It required me to trust my own voice and believe in my own value, regardless of what the outside world had to say.

Rereading the hundred and fifty letters my mother wrote to me in college also changed my relationship with her, even though she has been dead for twenty-three years. At the age of sixty-eight, I was able to hear the repeated messages of love and care in each letter that, in my twenties, had been overshadowed by religious references that made me fearful. The further discovery of love letters she wrote to my father before they were married offered a glimpse into my mother’s hopes and dreams as a young woman. As a child, it is hard to imagine your parents were ever children themselves, and that their life events also shaped them into the adults they became. This discovery was the doorway to greater benevolence and love for them as human beings. Writing my memoir brought me closer to them in spirit and has provided enduring comfort and appreciation for who they were.

Finally, spending three concerted years focused on this project, and completing five or six rewrites of each chapter, demanded a level of precision in speech that had never been asked of me before. Each word became important in my effort to express a deeper truth and with utmost accuracy, rather than rely on surface clichés. Had I stopped writing, I would have missed out on the gift of self-acceptance, self-love, and self-respect I garnered by living through the tempest, and finally committing to paper, the story that was mine alone to tell.

This essay was adapted from The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey, a collection of essays edited by Linda Joy Myers, PhD, and Brooke Warner and published by She Writes Press in 2016. Carol E. Anderson is a life coach and former organizational consultant. She is the founder of Rebellious Dreamers, an eighteen-year-strong non-profit organization that has helped women over thirty-five realize dreams they’d deferred and women of all ages come into their own. Anderson’s debut memoir, You Can’t Buy Love Like That: Growing Up Gay in the Sixties, is out now.

1 Comment

  1. Holly James

    December 4, 2017 at 1:57 am

    Carol, I love your comments about your mother’s letters. I discovered the letters my mother wrote to me in college, boot camp, and some of my duty stations more than 40 years ago while writing about my 30 year military career. I never realized she wrote to me every single day I was in boot camp. When she didn’t have much to say, she would clip Ann Landers from the newspaper and send those with a short note. Women who didn’t get mail would gather around for Ann’s inspiring advice!
    My mother passed away 25 years ago and these letters are such an important link to her now. If I had only heeded the advice that I overlooked so long ago. Handwritten letters are a lost art these days of Instantly disposable email. You and I are blessed to have a a link back to our mothers after all these years.

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