Writing a Memoir – Finding your Voice (First posted on Krpooler.com blog)
My professional life has been defined by two major types of writing: scholarly art-history publications and assessment reports for my strategic-planning clients. Scholarly writing allows for a personal point of view in interpreting works of art but requires objectivity in its presentation of “evidence” to support a conclusion. The situational analysis report, based on confidential interviews, questionnaires, and extensive supplementary materials, is a sensitive and critical document that outlines issues, opportunities and challenges and presents a composite picture of the current state of an arts institution. It is written in clear, declarative prose with sensitivity and political acumen so that difficult information could be presented in a constructive way.
Writing a memoir was a completely new undertaking. I approached it without any preconception about how it should be structured, but with the desire to write something meaningful and with the hope that if I was fortunate it might even be recognized in some literary circles. Early on I read a few “how to” books and articles, which for the most part did not particularly resonate, except for underscoring the importance of being truthful. Initially, I undertook extensive research to develop the historical context of my grandparents’ lives in the shetals of Eastern Europe and later in New York City. But mainly I tried to remember, to find ways to pull back the veils of amnesia that clouded my memories of my parents and childhood and even the town where I grew up. I returned to the old family photographs I had discovered eight years earlier, grouping and regrouping them almost like a curator trying to see what story they told, to intuit meaning beneath the surface as I so often had done as an art historian with works of art.
I was aware it was important to find my voice, but I did not consciously try to construct it. I knew the voice had to be authentic and reflect who I am as a person, and I also knew I wanted to share may voyage of discovery, to allow the reader to join me as I journeyed back in time. I wanted it to reflect how I think and how I respond. I am unusually visually aware, and I came to see in writing this memoir that my great eye, my ability not only to look but “to see,” was linked to my empathetic and intuitive nature, to my inclination to be intensely attuned to peoples’ feelings and my own feelings, and in the process be psychologically aware. My son has often accused me of wearing my heart on my sleeve, which is true. But this openness, this candor and willingness to be vulnerable and intimate and to share my insights is who I am and became part of my voice in the book. I was still surprised, however when readers commented in their reviews of Unlocking that the book was “intensely personal,” “unflinchingly honest,” “searching and compassionate,” “a wrenchingly honest account.”
I also found my voice through the process itself as I let my story slowly unfold. There was no outline; it evolved organically; major themes changed midway. It was a slow journey, beginning with my retrieval of memories of the physical environment of my childhood, the smells of flowers in our yard, and musty piles of leaves, and slippery glacier rocks in the woods behind our house. It was only then that I could enter a more interior world of our home, the kitchen aromas, the cellar where our cat would have three litters a year, the holiday table, and finally, family dynamics. I had no idea where it would end up, but I trusted the journey and allowed myself to plummet deep, to stir the unconscious. Additionally, I am very visual and my pictorial recall, sometimes just details, helped lead me. When we travel, I often approach what is before me with what I call a hyper-real focus, like a slow-moving motion- picture camera capturing every detail of a cityscape or a panorama or work of art or archaeological site. I retain the visual as well as the emotional and intellectual experience with vivid clarity long afterwards. Some of the most engaging passages in the memoir are descriptions of travel.
I saw this as a journey and found inspiration in a new way of writing, mindful of how I had to lead the reader by visualizing my environment, evoking my feelings, and conveying what I was seeing, not just visually but also intuitively, bringing them along on my journey. It was liberating. Despite all the writing I had done professionally, the was the first time in my life I felt like a “real” writer.