Tuesday, August 26, 2014

RECOVERING FROM MEMOIR ANGST

guest post by Mary Beth Baptiste 

After reading my book, Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons, people often ask me, “Has your ex read it? What about those guys you worked with? What was their reaction?”

We memoir writers struggle with privacy issues. As human beings, we’re concerned about the reactions of others. When I write, I want to project a personal truth that represents a universal human condition. But I also realize that people close to me may not relate to my personal truth in a positive way, particularly if it involves behaviors or personality traits they themselves have struggled with in the past. My earliest decisions about how to write my book revolved around other people.

I knew I had a strong story that would strike at the hearts of many readers. But how could I tell it while keeping my family, ex-husband, coworkers, and former lovers from recognizing themselves and getting upset, and God forbid, suing me?

First I thought I’d fictionalize the story and write a novel. Sure. That would do it. A novel about a woman of Portuguese descent from Massachusetts who followed her lifelong dream and moved to Grand Teton National Park to work as a wildlife biologist. Complete protection. Total anonymity. Yeah, right.

I was suffering from what I call memoir angst: the disabling fear of facing the truth about one’s life and the roles others played in it.

After years of soul-searching, I decided, “Okay. I’ve got an unusual story with universal themes. I’m going to write it as memoir.”

I first wrote the book like someone else’s true confessions: no holds barred. I’ll show them and everybody else what jerks I was dealing with. My readers will see what I went through, how persecuted I was. They’ll get it.

Then I went back and read it. It was awful. That’s not real life, I realized. No one is that bad. This is how time lends perspective to life: Had I written this story soon after the events occurred, it would have been nothing but whiny drivel, what counselors call “emotional diarrhea.” And, thank goodness, no reputable publishing company would have touched it.

So I got off the pity pot, gathered my wits, and grew up. I took more time and delved deeper. As I perused old journals and photos, poignant details surfaced. The deep-gut horror I felt when my ex-husband’s birthdate came out so high in the Vietnam War draft lottery. My parents’ love and devotion, even after I turned my back on everything they held dear in life. My boss’s restrained laugh, and how I could, just by being my own goofy self, coax it into a full guffaw. My confused lover’s bumbling but sincere attempts to help me through a rough time.

These are the things that give substance and depth to life, that strike harmonic chords in the human soul. These are the complications, the ‘yes buts,’ the messy things that infuse commonness with inspiration and beauty.

I still don’t know if my ex or my Grand Teton coworkers have read the book, or what they think of it, and I’m a little uncomfortable about that. While I did my best to change names, physical descriptions, and other details, the characters will know who they are and wonder if others will recognize them. My friend “Rachel” in the book, told me she enjoyed reading an account of parts of her life. When I expressed concern about the reactions of my ex and my other coworkers, she said, “I doubt any of them could read the book without it bringing a smile to their faces.”

If they do read the book, I hope they can see it merely as my personal journey. I hope they understand how our interactions strengthened me and made the story possible. I feel only gratitude and affection for all of them now, and wish them all good things in life.

Sure it would be great to receive a surprise email from my former boss or ex-husband, singing the book’s praises and congratulating me as others have. It would bring the work full-circle and wrap things up neatly. But real life seldom comes in neatly-wrapped packages.

Mary Beth Baptiste is the author of a memoir, Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons, published this year by TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press. A winner of a 2014 Wyoming Arts Council literary fellowship, Mary Beth has published her creative nonfiction in a number of periodicals and anthologies. She lives in southeast Wyoming with her husband, Richard. 

Lynn chimes in…

In Altitude Adjustment, Mary Beth Baptiste battles inertia as well as family, ethnic, and religious tradition to pursue her dream of becoming a woodswoman in the Rocky Mountains. She takes the reader along for the bumpy ride as she recreates her life and herself.

I finished reading Altitude Adjustment while on a camping trip at Vedauwoo. The book read like a novel, the questions tugging me along: Will she be able to stay in the Tetons? Will she find her match? Will her family reconcile themselves to the new Mary Beth? I squeezed chapters in between hikes, throwing the tennis ball for Luna, and cooking chili.

When I read the last page at dusk, I leaned back in my chair, watched the bats plunge through the pines, and felt, well, satisfied. And why not? I’d been educated (so that’s what wildlife biologists do--I never knew!), entertained (with a romance-novel-worthy description of copulating boreal toads, for one), and inspired (what dreams have I been postponing?)-- all in one memoir.

This book is a good reminder that some of us were born where we belong, and some of us have to bushwhack our way there. I’m glad Mary Beth found her way to Wyoming, the home of her heart. I’m happier still that she shared her story with us, goading us to stop kicking our own dreams down the road and get on with the business of making them happen.


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