… or why I’m writing memoir these days.
I’ve lived an interesting life and have often been asked if I was planning to write a memoir. The events that seem to be of interest to others are sometimes personal (getting kicked out of high school, having an illegal abortion, delivering my son in a hotel room in Kabul Afghanistan, losing my best friend to AIDS), sometimes political (protesting the American war in Vietnam, being tear gassed by police at Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, running a feminist abortion clinic, being a member of ACT UP NY, co-founding a lesbian press). I always deflect the question. I’ve told the story of the birth of my son many times, but something always rang untrue in the telling. If you read memoir or listen to true stories as spoken on The Moth Radio Hour, there is always a central drama and some sort of resolution; it may be something learned or revealed; settled or accepted; reconciled or forgiven; avenged or rejected. The problem I faced was that I couldn’t name the central drama in my life’s story, so how could it possibly be reconciled? I write, but I’ve always hidden my sadness in poems, not in stories.
So, when it revealed itself, it was as if my entire life needed to be rewritten. The event that encumbered me, that I didn’t tell—or spoke of rarely—was losing custody of my son to his father when he was five. Facing that fact now, trying to undo the effects of the shame I have carried for decades, has made it possible for me to want to tell this story. A story with an omission in it is a story untold. And yet the omission itself, once revealed, is only a small part of the story.
A somewhat arbitrary date that I started working on this project was about a year ago, in February 2021. It picked up some momentum that August, when I knew that the kernel of the project was to write about losing custody of my son. But the seed was planted following a zoom conversation with Minnie Bruce Pratt in February. Perhaps the flame was lit but faltered, and then revived in September 2021 when I was in a zoom poetry workshop with a small group run by Mark Doty. I heard myself saying, in explanation of something I had written, I lost custody of my son when he was five. I felt disconnected, hearing myself state that fact. It stayed with me for days. I had said something that I usually avoid saying, and it burst through denial into hyper-reality, then plummeted to my feet as real. This happened to me. How much of my life since that event was shaped by that loss? Hard to know, but shortly after that, I became determined to write about it. I signed up for an eight-week asynchronous class with Sandra Beasley. We worked on creating an annotated outline for memoir, creating an organizing principle for the work. The writing became real at that point.
But I was still afraid of asking for help with the project. I wanted support, but I was still wary of talking about an event from fifty years ago that I rarely had talked about in decades. Wasn’t I over it? No, clearly, once I started writing, that was obvious. As I dug deeper, I knew I needed corroborating information from family and friends. I tentatively reached out first to a dear poetry friend who didn’t know the story at all. Her support was tantamount to a blessing.
Today I bought a 4-story stand and four cute storage baskets. When I was choosing the baskets at the store, putting them in the stand, taking them out, trying others—an aesthetic mission—a woman stopped and asked what I was going to do with it. I told her that I was sorting letters, pictures, clippings and oddments to give to family members. This was true. I’ve held on to things over many moves, including the move to Seattle in 2008, and including all of my journals, which I’ve sworn to burn (read, trash) before I die. A few weeks ago, I started gently going through things, creating piles and then losing all sense of organization. The first few stabs at it, I threw nothing away. Things moved from one room to another without any actual progress towards the goal of sorting what I would be able to use for this project, what I could throw out and be rid of, and what to save—mostly pictures—to give to others. I bought the stand and baskets for sorting the work of the project, one basket for each section of the book. I think—I’m hoping—this will prove another step in the project. Wish me luck!