writer | college essay coach

Acceptance, Happiness, Letting Go

So, my wonderful friend who is a connector of people invited me to meet her friend Ava, an 84-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, a poet, painter, writer, and beauty. She was full of life and a sort of serenity that must come from a world she has watched turn itself inside out over and over again. She lost her family except for her mother in the camps. She was hidden with a family for four years who had little education so she had to pretend to be mute to not be detected as an outsider. She writes long hand and pays no attention to the Internet. "Why would I want that in my life," she said, smiling. I immediately thought of how much time, precious time, I squander on checking into the squalid lives of movie stars I have no connection with or looking at idiotic kitten videos on YouTube. But, I have always had this junk food side to my intellect. Ava is like my father, a true intellectual and can't appreciate the tacky side of life. But I started reading magazines in high school just as I read Dostoevsky and Yeats. I always followed gossip and loved the way my oldest sister was getting her PhD while still enjoying people magazine. But I do see the value in their clarity and their insistence on a standard many of us fail to maintain.

My agent loves the memoir. Her only advice is "The personal is the universal" which basically means I have to stay close, very, very close to the person I am writing about. This is a challenge. My parents taught us we should be better then everyone but pretend to be humble. We were not to "show off" or to "whine" or to "dominate" anyone's attention. This is a direct contradiction to writing about oneself.

photo by Aaron Burden

photo by Aaron Burden

How to Write a Memoir

First, don't do it. Write a number of novels that don't get published after the one that did and consider a new profession. Possibly you could start selling something. You like food. Sell food. Sell ice pops from a truck or homemade butternut squash soup that your husband loves. Or maybe fudge.

Next, start writing a trilogy of vampire novels and try to get them published. Be rejected over and over again, but have one editor write an encouraging three page letter that details all the ways your heroine (50% vampire) should be changed to become an "uber teen" or an "alpha undead" or a "powergirl blood sucker". Read any number of vampire novels and be horrified by their trite, puritanical badness. Recall your own sexual fantasies about Dracula and move on.

Recognize that anytime you relate stories from your childhood, people are fascinated. They are like deer caught in headlights. They ask for more details, to meet your parents to see photographic evidence of where you grew up. You resist their entries. You have been taught that people enjoy other people's humiliation. You have been taught to keep your mouth shut. You have been taught that your story is nothing but a bunch of poor decisions ending in a twelve-step program. You have been taught many things that turned out to be falsehood, outright lies, or gross distortions.

You were taught that life is about work and also about not getting properly recognized for your brilliance. You have been taught that you are stunningly beautiful but if you go up a size you should kill yourself. You have been taught that Harvard is the promised land and there is absolutely nothing after you die. You have been taught that if you defy certain authority figures your head will explode and you will never be forgiven. You have been taught to laugh and love and read wonderful books and poetry and never, ever forget that the poor must be given help. Some of the things you were taught had merit and you will teach them to your own son and try to convince him that he will never be banished for failing.

Call your parents and admit you are a terrible daughter. Silently. Your mother is losing her memory, your father has cancer. Their cell phones cause them to hang up on you spontaneously. You call back and realize that somehow she knows the terrible, thing you are contemplating.

"You were very loved," she says, sounding old and feeble. "Remember that. You had a very happy childhood. I never told you to hitchhike."

Your father, the writer, picks up the extension. "Go ahead," he tells you. "We don't matter." He understands because he is a writer, a real writer, unlike you who are nothing but a whiny little baby who wants to go on Oprah and talk about her feelings.

Just because you have failed to write a bestseller about a dog or about being held captive in an Eastern European brothel or finding spirituality in pasta, you have been reduced to trotting out your family's dirty laundry, your own dirty laundry which is so dirty your Irish Catholic grandmother who grew up in a convent and was in the trenches in World War One is looking down from that heaven your parents told you never existed and pointing her finger, and whispering, "Shame, shame on you Mary Ellen Moynahan for thinking anything in your life is worth documenting!"

But you never liked your grandmother and she's actually buried in Arlington Cemetery and by now her bones have turned to powder and really, really she'd probably be secretly proud of you for having the guts to tell the truth.

Molly Moynahan