I’ve noticed over the past few months that I’ve had trouble getting back to memoir (or personal essay) writing. I’ve been playing with fiction, because the muse that visited me so often during the years in which I was writing Message From a Blue Jay seems to have flown off.
Part of the reason for this change is that I went through some tough times over the past six months, and although difficult moments can be great fodder for writing (the proverbial silver lining) and for finding and examining both strength and revelation, I’ve found it hard to approach those themes in anything new I write.
One of the reasons, to be honest, is that I’ve read some of the responses to Message From a Blue Jay on Amazon and Goodreads. Although a majority of the responses have been thankfully (in the sense that I’m truly grateful) positive, a percentage of readers have noted that the book wasn’t what they expected (I discuss that aspect of the response in a blog post titled, “Is it a Memoir, an Essay Collection, or a Memoir-in-Essays?“). There have also been a number of comments noting that the book was “depressing.” (By the way, your review of the book on either of these sites or at Barnes and Noble would be much appreciated, no matter what you thought, if you haven’t posted it yet.)
These reviews calling the book “depressing” gave me pause. I never thought about Message From a Blue Jay as depressing. In fact, I have been thrilled when readers write to tell me they felt inspired by certain essays in the book or less alone because they could relate to some of the events I described. Some readers even felt empowered. Others just felt touched, or enjoyed the descriptions of different places and animals in the book, or the opportunity to learn more about my experiences.
The truth is, however, I did write about some tough times in that book. My life has been full of many wonderful things: a strong family, great friends, interesting relationships, fascinating travels. I’m lucky, and I feel grateful for the many advantages I’ve had. I never had to worry about food or basic survival, the way my father did as a child growing up in World War II Europe. I was able to afford luxuries like a private college with help from my parents, who both attended free city colleges when they were young.
Still, in addition to the many advantages I’ve had over the years, I’ve faced some serious challenges, as most people do. There’s no way around it; life isn’t always easy. Some of the obstacles I’ve climbed over have been beyond my control — growing up with the psychological impacts of being the child of a Holocaust survivor, for example, and facing my own major health battle at the age of 29. My mother-in-law was diagnosed with a brain tumor weeks after I got married, and her journey after that wasn’t pretty. I’m also in tune with some of the challenges faced by others — friends and neighbors, for example, and the domestic and wild animals I’ve loved all my life.
In writing a book that chronicled a decade of my life, I couldn’t avoid facing and talking about these subjects. They’re part of who I am and my life experience, but I didn’t write about them because I think I’m particularly interesting. My goal was to find meaning in some of the aspects of being human in this time and place, which includes, for most of us at least, coping with loss and hard times. But it also includes learning to find joy in small moments and to see beauty in life when you can grab even a piece of it.
Part of the reason I think I’m having trouble writing memoir pieces now is that I don’t want to depress anyone anymore. Yet I can’t be anything but who I really am on the page — unless I write fiction. I could write about my more recent experiences, perhaps, especially since everything ended up just fine. But sometimes life sucks, and sometimes I can’t couch that in pretty words. When I try to, I’m being told by some highly perceptive mentors that my writing comes off as too soft and easy, too distant from reality. I’m not “going for the jugular” because I want to pet the tiger. I don’t want to wake it up and hear it roar.
And frankly, that’s not that interesting.
I’m curious about your thoughts, either on my Facebook page, if we’re friends there, or in the comment section here. Do you find memoirs and personal essays (in general) too depressing? Are you tired of hearing about the tough stuff?