Drawing the line in memoir: How far do you go?

A few months ago, I went searching for my teen years online. I dug through my AOL account, read a couple of AIM transcripts I’ve saved for a decade, and finally, googled my way to an old, old, old blog. Reading that blog, I was surprised that even then my naïve little brain was still conscious of just how much I wanted to share.

Like most teens, I thrived on status updates that were vague enough to be denied if I was cornered, but obvious enough for people in the know (aka my trio of friends and, I wished, my crushes and frenemies) to get the gist.

I’ve owned a series of blogs. There was a Xanga in middle school, then a Live Journal in tenth grade, then a string of WordPress blogs that carried me through my undergrad career, studying abroad, and my first job. Now, I’m here at Ingenue Diaries (and over at SeeBrittWrite), and I beg you not to go digging for the old stuff, which does still exist, much to my occasional embarrassment.

In the beginning, I depended on song lyrics and a peculiar array of pet names, code words, and initials to reference the characters that floated in and out of my not-terribly-angsty life. I cringe to think of what the subjects of my rants would have thought of what I wrote ten-plus years ago. Today, my strategy of choosing subjects to write about boils down to avoiding that cringe factor.

I’ve thought about this a fair amount, as I’m sure (or I hope) most memoirists and personal bloggers do. When it comes to writing about real life, the question is this: How much—and who—do we want to expose?

For me, it comes down to two points.

First: Do you remember when Lena Dunham’s memoir was released, and there was that controversy over whether or not she’d assaulted her young sister? There was a story (that I’ve not read) about Lena and her fascination with her sister’s vagina and, well, you can read all about that yourself. For me, it results in a flashing neon sign that reads “DO NOT WANT!” in obnoxiously large letters.

Second: In one of Grey’s Anatomy’s newest storylines about Hunt and Meredith and this whole dramatic thing, Mer makes an important, essential, foundational point: Whatever Hunt’s story is, it’s not hers to share.

Tangential though they may be, these are the two legs my storytelling strategy here rests upon.

The third thing (because tripods are sturdy and also, this is true): I don’t want to turn other people’s most essential, poignant, upsetting, affecting experiences into moments that are, on my blog, all about me. I have my selfish moments, many more than I would like, in fact, but I am endeavoring to limit them and to not give them life or spotlight or anything here.

So, there is a framework, then. There are stories I don’t want to share and may never share. There are stories that I could share, but won’t because they aren’t mine. And then there are moments that I could pretend are all about me, but I don’t want to do that.

The thing about memoir is that really, it’s your call. It’s your life, and it’s how you remember experiencing it—and then how you decide to relate those experiences. For me, this works. My framework makes me feel good about what I share here. It creates a cathartic space that I am comfortable with. Here, I feel honest and free, and those are two things I strive for in my writing. The other big thing is personality. And you get that in droves, regardless.

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On creating space in your brain

Since the week before Easter, my brain has been knocked off its orbit. Who would have known inheriting four musty old quilts could have packed such a punch?

Left: My great grandmother's quilt. Right: My first quilt, from cutting the blocks to quilted.
Left: My great grandmother’s quilt. Right: My first quilt, from cutting the blocks to quilted.

Since the week before Easter, my brain has been knocked off its orbit. Who would have known inheriting four musty old quilts could have packed such a punch?

I certainly didn’t. Neither did my aunt, who loaded her grandmother’s legacy—minus a dresser-full of crocheted doilies—into my arms. Nor did my mother, though she did look at me askance when I loaded the pile of bedding into her car. Where was I going to put my haul? In my closet, of course…and three of them made it up to the tippy top shelf. One stayed on my chair. For the last two and a half months, I’ve napped under it, fingered the still-tight stitches, marveled at the fabric that used to be my dad’s shirt or my grandpa’s shorts. And I decided I was going to make my own.

I did it, too, mostly (the binding isn’t done yet, but I designed, cut, pieced, sewed, sandwiched, and quilted it all by hand, by myself). It’s been an obsessive project, which suits my obsessive personality. I don’t think anyone in my family thought it would last. One of my great talents is picking up a craft, getting to the midpoint, and stashing it on my art cart. The cart is ready to mutiny, me thinks, least of all because the one project that stuck isn’t the easy sunglasses case or the multistrand bracelet or the sachet. It’s the six foot-long quilt.

When I look at what I’ve done, I am…honestly, kind of amazed. That I did it by hand astonishes me. That I persevered through cutting things wrong and sewing pieces wrong and measuring wrong and being imprecise humbles me. That it took my more than two months? And I’m still working on it—and happy to work on it? That’s unbelievable.

What’s more unbelievable, though, is how this quilt and the four heirlooms I inherited before starting it cracked open my psyche. Some activities (like baking and yoga) are things that I like to do. Others, like writing and sewing, are things that I feel are calling my name. I keep wanting to return to them. And, increasingly over the last few weeks, I’ve wanted to spend all my time sewing and none of it writing.

As a professional writer, that’s problematic. As a professional writer who has, ‘til the last few weeks, really, assumed her calling was writing and that was all she did and all she would do, that’s mind boggling. So, with my mind thoroughly boggled, I woke up Thursday, answered as much email as I needed to get through the weekend, pushed back a few deadlines, and declared a four-day weekend.

It was glorious. Every time I started worrying about this shift in my brain, I pushed those thoughts away. I did what I wanted—sewing machine hunting, fabric hunting, finished a pattern for a new quilt, sewing up blocks for another new quilt—and then, as I sewed, I started listening to a new podcast. Elise Gets Crafty has been running for about a year now. It’s the brainchild of Elise Blaha Cripe, a creative person, longtime blogger, and big-time motivational small business owner. I stepped back to 2014, back to her first episode. And I found someone giving advice to me.

By the time I hit publish on this post, it’ll have been about 24 hours since I started listening to the podcast. This morning, I had a meeting with myself and I was honest about what I love to do and what I don’t love to do and where I was want to be today and tomorrow and three months from now and six months from now. I think I’ve found a way to spend time nurturing all of my love sand making them all work for me, as well. I am in such a good headspace. I am mellow and calm. I’m not worried. I’m not stressed about deadlines. I’m not thinking about what I should have done when I was frolicking over the last four days. I’m moving forward.

So, what can you expect here, as I do? I’ll be talking more about my projects (writing and making) and what my brain is up to while I’m working on them. I’ll be sharing some of my favorite finds from around the Web. And I want to start a new series that’s all about people like me who enjoy making things, especially those based in traditional arts and crafts forms. I’m thinking about interviews, link-ups, history—all sorts of things. If and when that happens, you’ll be the first to know.

And if you really want to see lots of pictures of mostly my quilts and fabrics and sewing process, then please follow me on Instagram @missbrittinlove.

Pondering possessives and possession

I haven’t gotten to possessives just yet, but a heaping dose of Spanish during primary and secondary school has helped me fill in the holes. And I dwell on those possessives. El gato de Clara. The cat of Clara, Clara’s cat. It’s all about ownership—of course, that’s what a possessive is. But we do seem to define our world in terms of its relationship to us. My mother, my boyfriend, my best friend’s cousin Clara’s cat.

I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately. Until last week, the only sentence I could confidently say in French was Je suis la jeune fille*. Truthfully, that’s still my most carefree sentence, but I could also tell you that the apple is red and that I have a black cat and you have a white dress and she likes the boy and the boy eats oranges. I shall be a scintillating conversationalist en francaise, don’t you think?

I haven’t gotten to possessives just yet, but a heaping dose of Spanish during primary and secondary school has helped me fill in the holes. And I dwell on those possessives. El gato de Clara. The cat of Clara, Clara’s cat. It’s all about ownership—of course, that’s what a possessive is. But we do seem to define our world in terms of its relationship to us. My mother, my boyfriend, my best friend’s cousin Clara’s cat.

When do we learn possessives, do you think? I think it must happen right around the time people start talking about sharing, to counter-balance the desire to claim our new grammar skills (and everything else in sight). So then you have a toddler in preschool who has learned that his father has given him a ball and that ball of his must be shared with that other snotty-nosed boy because…well, even though it’s his ball, we must share our toys. Because it’s the nice thing to do.

Fast forward fifteen years, when that same boy is at a party, only he’s a young man now and he has a girlfriend (has—see, there it is again). And this young man has to walk a very fine line between the natural desire to hoard his sweetheart’s time and favors and to share her with the world. He must let her spend time with her friends and family, lest he be called a cad. And he must let her hang out with his friends, lest he be accused of not trusting her or not liking her enough to introduce her to his social circle. And hugs are OK, but no kissing, unless you’ve agreed to it beforehand. Monogamy is the default—and monogamy is not sharing, taking full possession, my girlfriend, not yours, buddy, so back off. And polygamy or polyamory—sharing, what’s mine is yours, free love, baby—is the elephant in the room, the weird thing to do.

And what about children? They come out of the womb as the mother’s child, the father’s child, and then they demand to be their own person and then they are so-and-so’s lover and so-and-so’s spouse, but don’t worry, mom, I’ll always be your baby. That is such a conundrum. No wonder humanism—personhood, freedom of thought—brought on revolutions. The ways we think of ourselves and others in relation to ourselves is mindboggling.

I just finished The Forsyte Saga on Netflix this afternoon, and I was struck by this one moment. Soames has just visited Irene to speak about Jon and Fleur’s intended engagement, and Soames is struck by jealousy and regret. He grips Irene and yells that if she had only done what she was supposed to do, as his wife, as his property, the pair might be siblings and they might not be dealing with any of this. And then Jon comes in and hollers something about Irene being his mother. And then Irene retakes control. She tells the men that she is no one’s.

There is something there, in that thought, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I’ll let you know once I think it out.

*I just Google translated this to make sure it means what I think it means. It doesn’t. For 15 years, I thought I’d been saying, “I am the happy girl” when all this time, Muzzy was reciting, “I am the young girl.” Damn it.