Over my holiday break I read two very different personal narratives. Totally different writers, writing styles and stories, but I believe that they work the same way. Writing is a liberating act by creating order out of disparate experiences, but each story also carves out room in the conversation about human life. And by doing so, these writers open up possibilities for all of us, because they show different sides of the experience of what is true in this world. One book is The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, who writes, “Whether it was or it was not, there were words. Not just my own. I wrote stories, I wrote books, but the more I wrote the more I saw a door opening behind me, and I saw that if I jammed my motherfucking foot in it, more of us could get through. And we could make things. Together.” (p. 190) The Chronology of Water is about a girl from an abusive home and how she internalized her pain, acted it out, then wrote her way through it to a place of peace. The other book I read I picked up at the airport. Susannah Cahalan writes in Brain on Fire about how she went from being a conscientious, thoughtful and hardworking young journalist for the NY Post to being incapacitated by paranoid delusions, seizures, and a psychotic state. She writes that, “Because of the nature of my illness, and its effect on my brain, I remember only flashes of actual events, and brief but vivid hallucinations, from the months in which this story takes place. The vast majority of that time remains blank or capriciously hazy. Because I am physically unable of remembering that time, writing this book has been an exercise in comprehending what was lost.” (Author’s Note)
Many critics have stated that memoir is a navel-gazing, reflexive, self-aggrandizing, or a selfish act of narcissism. But between these two books I see the benefit of how writing can carve out more space for all of us. There is no single sickness memoir, abuse memoir, sad family memoir, divorce memoir, memoir of madness or redemption. They all provide a teaching that says, I went through something and now I can write about and share it so that those who find themselves in these words, even if it is only in the corner of one page, they know that they are not alone. The core message of The Chronology of Water is the liberation of the spirit from the pain of our mortal lives through art. The core story of Brain on Fire is how only through luck and care do we survive the mysterious dark curves in life.
I think that in order to make it though the difficulty of writing a book, you need a reason to keep up the fight. It is the crux and core that keeps you animated and aloft, something to provide the voice of protest. In Yuknavitch’s book she protests the lack of freedom and safety in her childhood by using words and art to open up and become the woman she wants to be. Cahalan uses her skills as a journalist to patch together the months she could not remember to show us how many times she could have fallen through the cracks if the right doctor hadn’t kept an interest in her case.
These books are not so much about what the world dished out to the protagonists but how they sought to put their stories together, and the process of finding and telling the truth. They are both called brave, and in our current culture, as it has been for ages, telling the truth is a brave act. Calling out the pain of fathers, mothers, birth, illness, and death is tough work. It creates an Achilles heel, a soft place; a bit of vulnerability, which we all know is the easiest way to get hurt. We have been shielding our soft underbellies since the beginning of time.
But it is worth it, and in the process of writing there accumulates a record of protest against popular opinion, the median feelings, and human nature. Protest is a way of adding your story to the amalgam of the truth, the greater voice of humanity. To share your story is a protest against the commercialization of the human spirit, the Hollywood ending, the pain of perfectionism. Your story may be messy, expose cruelty, and show your darkest secret but it shines as a note in this human chorus.