She’s right. It is similar to what I do, except I don’t have to just imagine. When I first meet my memoir clients, they are like those houses, and I might spend some time trying to imagine what lies within and what their lives are like, but in time I get to find out. Are they content with their lives? Introspective? Philosophical? Complacent? Disappointed? Proud?
I noticed that a client whose memoir I recently completed used one adjective more than any other when talking about her life: “wonderful.” She used lots of other words too, but more than anything else, the word she used to describe her life was “wonderful.” Would I have guessed that from looking at her?
Maybe. But sometimes I have no idea what kinds of pasts and stories people are harboring until we start talking. When I did a community memoir at a nearby retirement center, in which almost fifty different seniors each sat down for 20 minutes to tell me one story from their lives – it was kind of like Speed Dating, only it was Speed Narrative – I would sometimes watch them come in, study their names on the sign-up sheet, imagine what their story might be. “World War II, something about the Navy and seeing combat as a young man,” I imagined as I studied one elderly gentleman making his way into the conference room. And I was partly right – he was a combat veteran of the Navy. But that’s not the story he chose to tell me. He told me about making the decision after his military duty ended to go to music school and learn to play the drums. “Being a good wife and busy mother,” I imagined as a woman in her early eighties sat down across from me for her interview. But again, no – she told me about realizing the morning after her daughter died in a climbing accident that she herself needed to leave a long-time physically abusive marriage.
My client was right when she said my work is like looking at houses and trying to guess who lives within. And just as with houses, you can never be sure. You can look at a house, or a person, and make some guesses, even some inferences. And then they start talking, and you find out just how un-guessable each person’s story ultimately is.