On re-visioning our truth

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The biggest challenge for me in writing memoir is that my view of the past is constantly being rewritten by the present.

As soon as I think I know what an essay is really about, life has a way of introducing new circumstances that make me reconsider my perspective. The truth the story is meant to illuminate is suddenly no longer true. Not the who, what, where, and when — though those do sometimes prove inaccurate when memory and research are laid side by side. It’s the why that refuses to stay put, always wandering onto the page with an invisible asterisk attached. The implied footnotes are the conditions, the qualifications that allow this truth to remain, for now.

When I left Iowa to begin my thesis year away from campus, my committee’s advice on structure unsettled me. But I set my proposed outline aside and tried to let the ideas come more organically. It turns out my plan would have become irrelevant even if I had started the work where I’d intended. The medical diagnosis serving as the through-line for the narrative began to unravel: new symptoms emerged within the month of my homecoming.

Before that point, I had envisioned the medical work-up to my initial diagnosis as the frame for the deeper story — the enmeshments of illness and family dynamics surrounding my childhood. But now, as the investigation into my condition reopened with no end in sight, the frame didn’t fit and the story was changing. I was no longer sure how I felt about the subjects I had intended to explore when one of them — my health — continued to shift.

In strange synchrony, new information and events surrounding the other subjects of my work — my family, its history, its entanglements in my own marriage — also began to appear in ways I could never have anticipated. Writing about any of it felt like trying to build a sand castle at high tide. Even as I struggled to anchor my thoughts on the page, the ground washed out from beneath them with each fresh revelation. I e-mailed my advisor in embarrassment and disbelief each time one of these erosions occurred. I seemed to be caught in a sinkhole I couldn’t escape from — forced over and over to reevaluate my perspective, my why, my truth, as writing deadlines came and went.

In the absence of actual manuscript pages, I wrote long process notes to show my advisor where my thinking had had to shift. I was afraid that it all looked as if I were making excuses for my lack of progress, but to my surprise, she understood. This is useful and necessary, she wrote back, even as my thesis year extended into two. And it takes everything out of you to understand where the vitality and honesty is within the muck.

This is what I remind myself of now when I’m wrestling with an essay whose truth feels especially hard to pin down. That realigning how a story is told in order to reflect the present-day truth in my past experience is inherent to the creative process. That it is on some days exhausting, but getting at what is vital and honest in an ever-shifting life is what makes the work of the telling worthwhile.

Above all else, my advisor held me to that task because she knew I could not write organically, honestly, intuitively, if I remained bound to a predetermined structure and the truths whose evolution it would suspend. Because the search for truth is also a quest to understand the self that believes it — and in memoir, that is everything.

When has your vision for your creative work required refocusing because of new information or experience? What is your process for realigning your intentions for the work when your circumstances shift and evolve? Share your story with me by clicking the button below or check out this offering if you would like 1:1 support re-visioning a project undergoing change.