I am still married. My friend is still my friend. My lover is still my lover, and then he is not. Scroll back, and we are paying bills, or shopping, or sneaking around. Scroll down, we are fighting, or consoling each other on unhappy affairs, or breaking up over another woman. Zoom out, past the glow of the screen and my fingers on the keyboard, and all of it’s gone. I am in another life.
Now I sort out themes and move incidents for a better sense of tension—tension! My God, there was tension!—temporal continuity notes highlighted yellow and in all-caps. I stall on a section for days, I don’t want to go there. I write forward and discover what should be in the past, and put it there.
Memoir is a rare country. Making the map of personal experience, writing the guide that says, This was five stars and everyone should do it. Don’t waste your time on that, is not unlike rappelling. The more control you have, the less compelling it becomes. The straight guidebook, detached, evaluative, arranged by area or chronology, is a dry thing. (I snorted once, “‘Enjoy Chowpatty’s sights but don’t eat the vendors’ food?’ What is this, Fodor’s Travel For Scared Old White People?”). The ramblings of a diary are indecipherable, plotless, sans perspective. Only your little sister wants to break the lock and see.
The middle trail is perilous. Step here, where you cannot see the path. Let go of the safety tether. Pack thoroughly, by all means, but remember that the beginning of the Appalachian Trail is scattered with cast-iron frying pans, winter-weight parkas, packets of extra food. Too heavy. Unneeded on the journey—until crisis, when the memory of your preparations must buoy you through the tangle of knowing not what happened, but how you felt about it.
You must grudge to write memoir. If things had turned out exactly right, as your due, there would be no story to tell. You must know that you grudge, and that here, unlike your diary, you are probably not the hero. (If you are the hero, let someone else write you). You earn the right to write the pettiness, the silliness, the nasty selfishness of others, as you write your own.
My ex-lover calls, out of the blue. I do not want to talk to him. But as the end of the draft approaches, I know, I have to say what was good about you.