Thea Lim is an MFA candidate at the University of Houston and a nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast. She has terrible taste in music.
Once I stopped being a teenager, I had very little interaction with teenagers for about seven years, until I got a job making beds at a hippie island retreat in the Pacific. We worked in pairs and most of my co-workers were 17. I was amazed by how enthusiastic and invested they were in things that seemed small and trivial to me. They were determined to perfect the hospital corner. They were excited that they got paid for training. And even though we hardly ever worked together longer than a day, each of them laboured to remember my name, furrowing their brows and asking me to say it again, and again, until they got it right. My name mattered to them, and they wanted me to know it.
This puzzled me. This was not the memory I’d had of teenagers, from when I was one. I remembered teenagers as being grubby, rude, thoughtless and maudlin. I figured it must just be the Pacific Island bed-making hippie teenagers who displayed delight in life. But three years later, when I began teaching essay writing to a broad mix of Texan teenagers, it happened again. When I asked my students to write a personal essay, they were extravagant in disclosure—even the students who seemed glum, gruff or wan. They told me stories of drug addictions, adoption histories, military disasters, underground motorcycle clubs, families without papers. Telling a true story is an act of immense good will. No matter what I thought of their grammar, their generosity stunned and moved me. Why did they trust me—a randomly assigned, shifty comp teacher—with their lives? It was as if no one had ever told them that it was dangerous to be so open to the world.
Around this time, I was at the end of my twenties, and I too had to write a memoir piece for a class. This wasn’t some mandatory comp class for me: it was a nonfiction class that I had looked forward to for years. After we read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory our instructor asked us to think of our first memory of the first person we’d ever loved, and write down as many sensory details about it as possible. I wrote about going to the bakery to get beef patties in the winter with my mother. My instructor asked us to share what we’d written with the class. I happily described the reflection of my white woolly bobble hat in the bakery window. Okay that’s a good image, my instructor said, but give us the details about your mother. I sputtered and asked what he meant. He began pushing me to talk about my mother. I choked. And strangely, the rush of emotions I was feeling in this most inconvenient of places turned into anger. I snapped at him. The room went quiet. My instructor asked, Why are you being so weird?
Why was I being so weird? This worried me for a few days, and then I promptly forgot about it. A year and a half later, I subbed in for a friend who was teaching a memoir class. The students were mixed in age, probably mostly between 45 and 60. The topic for that night was “Writing from the Senses” so I had the bright idea to give them the sensory exercise that had given me trouble. But as soon as I gave them their instructions, they groaned and pushed back from the table. Up until this point they had been friendly and willing. They sighed. They doodled. They stared at the ceiling. At the end of ten minutes, I asked them to share. A lot of them couldn’t bring themselves to. Those who read easily had elided the emotional parts. Some of the really brave ones hadn’t, but as they read their voices caught and they struggled through the words. The teacher part of me was distressed that this exercise had gone so wrong. The human part of me was vindicated and pleased to see that I didn’t have a freakish emotional problem, and that they were just as surprised and alarmed by the upsurge of emotion this exercise brought on. I decided to tell the class how much I had hated the exercise too. But then why did you make us do this, they asked me mournfully.
As writers, we often comfort ourselves with the knowledge that, unlike athletes or pop stars, our best years are yet to come. We love hearing about writers who had to wait till their 40s (like Thom Jones) or even their 60s (like José Saramago) to hit the big time. We don’t like to talk about Jonathan Safran Foer.
But after all this field research, should I be antsy about the rate at which I produce nonfiction? It seems like the ease with which we can tell stories and secrets diminishes. It stings more each time we try to write down a moment in our memories, as it moves farther away from us with every passing year. Or maybe it’s not so much the distance of time that makes us angry-emotional, as it is the fact that the longer we are alive, the more crucial our past becomes to us. We want to treat it gingerly. We lack the faith of my composition students. We want to demand that our readers handle our lives with care because our lives have become so important to us, even as we are brutal readers ourselves.
However. It must be worth remembering that no matter how old we get, no matter how snappy we get with our writing teachers, no matter how profoundly irritated we get when our throats get tight and pressure builds behind our eyes: if we had the capacity once to trust strangers and care about their names1, we have that capacity still.
Because oddly enough, I think it is our terrible resistance to telling true stories that gives them their torque. And as brutal as readers can be, if you can tell your whole story, your reader feels how much you struggled, and is grateful that you fought.
Plus, who wants to read a memoir by a 30-year-old?
1. And really, no matter how curmudgeonly you are now, you once were trusting. My field research is incontrovertible.