Saturday, February 5, 2011

Difficult memories and the art of conversation

Giving voice to one's life story can be a challenging exercise. Many of us have stories tucked away that we do not want to revisit because of the feelings of shame, guilt, pain or grief that they may resurrect. Yet for all the powerful attempts at 'tucking away', are these memories ever totally banished?

I enrolled in a memoir writing class last month. When I tried to answer why, I explained to myself that this would help me in my client interactions; help me better understand the process of remembering that I attempt to lead the people in front of the camera on. That was part of the answer but as another part of me frowned at this need to rationalize why I would want to write about my memories from childhood, I acknowledged that it was an attempt to get to know myself better. Many people whom I have been privileged to create video biographies of have commented on how the process of telling stories, retrieving memories and reflecting on the important people in their lives leads them to connect the dots between their perception of themselves and how they came to be this way. It's as if the answers were always there in their minds, only the words to articulate them had proven elusive. So talking about their memories during the video biography interview felt like someone had just added sub-titles to the reel running in their head, and had added all the background information and character motivations for it all to seem crystal clear!

That's the experience I had two days ago when writing a seemingly innocent account of the foods I remember from my childhood, and why I still hadn't purged them from my system. What was supposed to be 500 words flooded shamelessly onto 7 pages. I always knew I enjoyed food (!) but what really surprised me were the things I associated them with. And the memories I had forgotten I knew suddenly introduced themselves again. I waxed eloquent about potatoes and funerals, sweets and fasting, rice pudding and religion, and in this mish mash of ingredients, I got to know myself a little bit better. Someone else in my class commented on how this writing prompt brought some difficult memories to mind... memories about a hard childhood where food was difficult to come by. And the things that needed to be done for survival. At first it seemed impossible to produce words that would express the conflicting feelings of shame and maturity. Words that other people would read or hear about. Words that brought up memories locked away with the key swallowed for safety. But once they did start to trickle out letter by letter, it brought a sense of understanding. Forgiveness. And the opportunity for the entire family to open up about something they had all experienced but never discussed.

It was not easy. But sometimes, easy is not necessarily the order of the day.