We sit on wooden benches in a South London café with a view of Brockley station. On the other side of the glass trains slide by, their noise squeezed out by the aroma of coffee and baked bread. We equip ourselves with lattes and sandwiches and ‘kids’ hot chocolate. My friend chooses spiced roasted pumpkin, while I tuck into blue cheese and rocket. He also lends his iphone to my daughter. She is scowling because she is ten years old and her sandwich contains artichokes. She is not old enough for artichoke to be food. Fortunately the iphone works. She finds vegetable-free entertainment on YouTube and leaves us to talk.
That’s when he asks the question I don’t want to answer
“So what’s happening with the writing?”
What’s happening is this; I write stuff. Then I don’t write stuff. Then I write some more stuff. Then I don’t. I haven’t blogged or added to the collected pieces of memoir for more than six months. Instead I’ve wasted time seesawing over a single persistent question: Who cares?
Who cares about my life, about how I felt about being in care, or being adopted, or discovering that a brown skin made me different? Who cares about my prolonged and various family searches and my African sojourns? Given that I’m not famous (or infamous) or fabulously rich or successful, or a high-flyer in world politics or a warlord or an architect of genocide, what possible interest could my (ordinary) life hold for others? Why would anyone want to read it, and if no one wants to read it, why would I write it?
My friend, lover of iphones, off-the-beaten-track cafes and relational psychotherapy is preparing for a seminar on memoir. He is going to interview Jackie Kay and Gillian Slovo on the writing of their own memoirs. He practices on me.
“Why write memoir?”
My first answer – ‘it’s therapeutic’ is perfunctory, automatic, ultimately neither edifying nor satisfying. He graces it with a nod and continues – Why do I write? What need does it serve? How do I feel when I’m writing? How do I feel when I’m not? Do I hope my children will read it? What do I imagine their responses will be? He enquires in the manner of someone uncovering precious things. Gently he scrapes away at the impacted earth within which are buried my less conscious motives. From here on in we shall call him the archaeologist.
The archaeologist helps me to see that memoir can of course, be thought of as therapeutic in as much as it involves remembering events and the joys, desires, pains and losses that go with them. Memoir must be in some way therapeutic if you accept the idea that the hidden, and the repressed and the un-fully remembered sit like stones in your pockets as you wade unsuspecting through life’s many rivers. There are those who will scoff at this – who believe in soldiering on whatever the cost and who view things ‘therapeutic’ – memoir or otherwise as self-indulgent wastes of time and money and ultimately pointless activities. Sometimes I wish I could think this myself. I wish that I could ignore the clank of rocks and just keep on trucking, the problem being that you mostly don’t feel just quite how heavy they are until the water gets deep. Sometimes in life the water level rises without warning. In my case it happened a long time before I discovered artichokes.
Perhaps memoir also has a value as legacy – as the process of collecting and packaging memories for the enlightenment and edification of others – in particular the children who are born heirs to our histories whether or not we wish it for them, or they for themselves. The way I see it, as I watch my daughter watching X-factor auditions on Youtube, dreaming, no doubt, of her own future contributions to this particular phenomenon, since the baggage she’s destined to carry will include lines, scenes and possibly even whole acts of the life I lived before she was even born, the least I can do for her is to provide her with some of the detail. It might not be enough to win her a sympathetic audience on a TV talent show but it could just save her some investigative time in future therapy. Which begs the question of whether it wouldn’t be simpler to just tell her – to sit her and her siblings down and run through the whole shebang from the beginning? If nothing else it would save considerable time and effort spent sweating over a keyboard.
Sadly I am not sufficiently evolved for that, and even if my children had the patience to listen there has been much in my life that I have been reluctant, if not totally unwilling to talk about. To be fair to myself it’s less of an unwillingness to talk than a failure to find a way to do so without a) falling apart b) having other people fall apart or c) being suspected of insanity. I wish I could talk it all out. I love people who can talk. My best friends are some of the greatest storytellers, my husband among them. When he and my in-laws get together, their childhood tales can roll on through the night and into morning. As well as giving us all some good belly laughs these oral family histories furnish my children with a rich picture of their father’s childhood – with all its dramas and heartbreaks, characters, its unfathomable relics (telephones with dials? Paraffin heaters?) And of course its shocking mischief (Yes your Dad really did set fire to his bedroom). I on the other hand, am not in touch with the characters of my childhood. There is nobody around off of whom I can bounce my remembering and nobody to help me flesh out memories, correct inaccuracies, or piece the threads of memory together. My stories are disjointed and infuriatingly inconclusive. They meander. They are independent travellers, walking their own paths without a mind to whether I had them planned as tragedy or triumph, as stories of love or redemption. I don’t know where they will lead. They embarrass me when I am seeking affirmation and make me cry when I have my heart set on celebration. They don’t behave themselves in public and leave me unravelling on stage. Hence it’s probably not surprising that my childhood tales don’t always work as material for light humoured discussion. Even if I manage to steer the telling in the right direction, the humour I can find in my various crises of identity and failed attempts at suicide appears to be personal. It isn’t always shared, and especially not on social occasions. Frank Carson had a point when he said ‘it’s the way you tell ‘em’. That’s why he was a stand-up comedian and I am not.
The excavation in the café progresses. The archaeologist says that he is going to send some of my work to Jackie Kay, who I admire greatly and who is speaking at the memoir event. My reaction is to snap at him and then to take it back. I am afraid of his belief in me and of this dig, of what it will reveal. We order a second round of lattes and cake to see us through. My daughter cheers up and joins the conversation for a few minutes. Cake, no matter from what it is constituted, will always be food.
One of the things I love about the archaeologist is that he hears what I don’t say alongside what I do. I am a better (or possibly just more practiced) listener than I am a teller. When other people tell stories I am absorbed. I find great reward, as well as comfort and safety in the silence required of the listener. In listener role I am appreciated for my focused attention and seen by others as someone who is ‘together’. The archaeologist sees this and more. He sees the stones in my pockets and the unravelling that is hidden in the dark of silence. Listening lets me know the stones of others and feel less alone. Memoir helps me to know the stones that are mine and to feel more connected. As I write I lift them out and into the light. After a while I put them back. It’s rare that I get to drop one into the water, but it does happen. Memoir is the freedom to unravel.
For now, the dig is over. We finish our coffee and pay the bill. We miss a train accidently on purpose because rushing doesn’t fit the mood and because there’s enjoyment to be had on the station platform, huddled against the November cold. We get a small groove on, watching Azalia Banks on the iphone, the depth of her profanity expunged by the breadth of her creativity. The archaeologist and I are separated, too often, by oceans. We may not see each other for some time after this.
“So send me the next instalment soon,” he says as we part.
The best I can manage is
In making writing public, there are only two possibilities. Possibility 1 – people will be interested in what I have to say. Possibility 2 – they won’t. There are however, many more reasons to write.
I have large pockets and stones and I live on a seesaw. I will write and then I won’t and then I will again.