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“Can You Say More About This?”

When I was writing the memoir chapter for Writing Without a Parachute: The Art of Freefall, I spent a lot of time crying and yelling at my husband. It went like this:

Painfully, I would dredge up something about, say, the “opening” experience I had while I was at Cambridge, forcing out each word. I’d send it to my editor in England. Back would come her email: “Can you say more about this?”

Meltdown. Icannotpossiblysayonemorewordaboutanyofthis! Ihavesaideverythingeverything! (tears)

My husband was always sympathetic. How can she say that? What does she want from you? Exactly! But after a couple of days, he’d say quietly, “You know, I think I kind of see what she means…”

“How can you say that? How?” (yelling, tears).

Clearly, he’d gone over to the dark side. Over the next few days I’d manage to calm down and write a bit more about it. And so it went if not now whenon.

Now I look at that chapter and think, “Unh-huh, that’s fine, that’s how it happened.” So what was my problem? Veteran of thousands of pages of autobiographical Freefall, I had thought I could pretty much say anything about anything, any time.

At first I thought the problem was that I didn’t quite know what the truth was, and I didn’t want to say what wasn’t true. Sure, I knew that in a certain way, all memoirists have to “lie.” I’ve always loved André Aciman’s statement:

We alter the truth on paper so as to alter it in fact; we lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours.”

But perhaps some experiences were too precious to be “lied” about – too precious to be written about, in fact. Was I afraid that if I “made sense” of whatever happened in words, I’d start believing them and lose what really took place?

Perhaps. And it may be that now, when I look back at what I wrote, my life does make “better sense,” and I like that. Yet strangely, since I wrote that chapter, I have felt changed as a person, too. I feel calmer and less muddled, more capable of coping with what life throws my way. Clearly, that question must have brought me to some edge of myself – and past it.

What I suspect is that I was afraid of defining such experiences in case I lost the magic. I kept them vague and inchoate in my mind as a way of staying under my own radar. I think I must have learned, somewhere along the line, to hide my most precious experiences even from myself, as I imagine many of us must do.

But what I discovered is that the magic isn’t going to go away, even though any attempt we make to define it will always be inadequate. And the struggle to articulate anything about it is worthwhile. Don’t try to hide, I realized. “Do not stoop to strategies like this,” as Leonard Cohen says.

My editor’s question forced me to discover that hidden taboo – and I’m grateful. But when someone says I made it look “easy” to be “vulnerable,” I have to shake my head in wonder. Just ask my husband how easy it was, I’m thinking. Fortunately, he survived to tell the tale.


Barbara Turner Vesselago is an author and writing teacher. Her most recent books is Writing without a Parachute: The Art of Freefall.