She confessed that she had always envied her husband – who has told her countless stories about his world travels from the years before he met her – for the many places he’s been.
But she’s a world traveler as well. She just never really took the long view on it until she started recounting various trips and treks and journeys for her memoir. Paris at the age of sixteen. Most of Western Europe’s other capitals while in college. Later in adulthood, New Zealand, Moorea, Kenya, Tanzania, Hong Kong, Nepal, Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, southern Spain, northern Italy, Australia, Sweden.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has been to all of these places didn’t realize until she listed them out how well-traveled she was, and yet in one respect it reflects the whole memoir process. Not until we lay the pieces out do we fully see who we are.
Many of my clients, especially women in their eighties and nineties, feel that they’ve lived fairly traditional and staid lives. “There isn’t anything very interesting about me,” they protest when they learn that their children or grandchildren have asked me to do a memoir project with them. “Nothing that anyone would want to read about.”
“Oh, but there is,” I say with certainty. How do I know this? Because I’ve never run across a boring client yet. It’s just a matter of laying out all the pieces of their life on the table like tiles and gazing at the mosaic formed therein.
A mosaic is perhaps one appropriate metaphor for what we do when we write memoir. Put the disparate multicolored pieces together in a particular arrangement to an effect that is inevitably dazzling – not for any one of its individual tiles but for the way the pieces arranged together become luminous.
Years ago, when I used to write my dreams in a journal, I had a dream in which I went dress-shopping. But once I arrived at the store that I was sure would have the perfect dress for me, I discovered I’d been mistaken: the store didn’t sell clothing at all, only patterns with which to make dresses. I needed one perfect outfit; instead I was gazing at rack upon rack of patterns.
Perhaps that long-ago dream presaged my memoir work, so much of which involves seeing the way that patterns emerge from people’s stories. My clients don’t envision their lives as perfectly finished artifacts. They worry that they are not interesting or adventurous or well-traveled enough to make for an interesting book.
Then we lay out the pieces. We start to see the patterns, the multi-faceted glimmering mosaics formed by all the small beautiful tiles. And then the magnificence of the life lived, no matter what that life included, begins to take shape as the luminous artifact it is.