During my first years of serious writing, I labored under the conceit that I was writing a book. The thought was bracing; it motivated me to climb out of bed at 5:30 a.m. for half an hour of solitude before facing a classroom of seventh graders. Not until I entered my third and fourth years on the project, having given up public school teaching, did I find that my memoir was not a travel adventure about biking through Wales but rather a disconcerting reconciliation between my bisexuality and Christian upbringing; only after I revised the book multiple times did I begin to understand what was really happening: The book was writing me. The primary creation wasn’t a memoir but the self—a self humbled by my truth and yet less afraid to claim it, a self no longer blindly controlled by my past but rather an agent in comprehending and framing it, a self in conversation with community and culture and history. My commitment to the memoir pulled me out of the closet and into public discourse.
I’m hardly alone in this experience. “Painting myself for others,” Michel de Montaigne writes about his personal essays, “I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me.” When writers write to find out what we think, we’re changed. Bob Anderson describes it this way in his memoir, Out of Denial:
A hand holding a pencil is drawing on a piece of paper another hand holding a pencil. The two pencil points converge, forming an endless loop in one of those curious Escher puzzles: where does the action begin and end, what is reality and what is dream or intention, who is the drawer and who is the drawn? . . . I am writing, and I am written; I tell my story, and my story tells me. It’s an endless loop, this act of living and re-membering.
Within self-discovery is self-creation, the authoring of one’s being. This feedback loop is especially obvious in creative nonfiction, where the subject matter is personal experience. But all genres have the potential for this intimate connection between text and self, and the best writing emerges when the stakes are high—when the author writes what’s most pressing and heartfelt—because the potential for discovery is then correspondingly high.
from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by @Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew @Skinner House