Memoir writing is dreaming backwards.
Eleven years ago, my father became one hundred years old. When Dad turned one hundred, my wife and I had no grandchildren yet. We hoped we might have grandchildren someday—after all, we had produced four children, so the prospect of grandchildren was bright. However, whenever our grandchildren did come along, they would not be able to sit with this man, my father, the poet, who was one hundred years old. Dad would be gone by then. Our grandchildren could read his poetry, they could view him in pictures, but they would not be able to know him as I knew him.
So I sat down at my desk, and I began writing stories about my dad, and about my mom, and about how it all was. In order to write these stories, I discovered, also I needed to write stories about Dad’s and Mom’s own parents, and about how it all was for them, too. The more stories I wrote down, the more stories I remembered, and the more stories I remembered, the more dangerous this process became. I was dreaming backwards, with emphasis on the word dreaming.
You see, I am a writing sort of a fellow. In order to understand my life as I live it, I objectify it. This is not a choice of mine; it’s the way I’m wired. My psyche places me outside my life, while I live my life fully. From outside, I observe the themes of my life, upon which I mull. And as I mull the themes, I order my memories so that they illustrate and they dramatize the themes. It’s a circle—it’s what I mean by dreaming backwards. When we dream, we are both receiving something from our outside and creating something from our inside at the same time. That’s why dreams fascinate, though they are not real.
As I wrote my stories down about my parents and about their parents, I was dreaming backwards. My father, the poet, was called “Dreamy Dick” when he was a boy, and the apple does not fall far from the tree.
Dreaming backwards is dangerous because it may fool the dreamer. It may make the dreamer believe that the created story of the past is the past. However, that is not so. The past is ungraspable—it is past. If you are writing a memoir, the people of the past are unable to tell you, now, if you are wrong in your memory. The people of the past are unable to chide you when you order your memories for the purpose of dramatizing your themes…at their expense.
To the casual observer, writing a memoir probably seems easy enough. After all, you know the stories—just write them down. But memoir writing is a razor-edged endeavor. The writer of a memoir has a responsibility which is weighty. If the writer fails to balance precisely between self-enhancement and self-abnegation there is a danger of falling and of being cut. A memoir—this is what I have concluded—a memoir should be a kind of prayer by which the writer expresses, highest among all things, humility.
As an example of my desire to live in a past which I did not possess myself, here’s a memory. I loved my father partly because of the past he had lived in before me. I could dream my way into his experiences when something of his experience touched mine; I was ten-years-old and a warrior.
Dad had been a naval officer during World War II. His principle responsibility was training young gunners on navy bombers the necessary marksmanship, with their .50-caliber double-barrel machine guns, to survive strafing attacks by Japanese Zeros, and to shoot the Zeros down instead. After the war was won, Dad kept his target kites.
Choose any summer day, when I was ten. Maybe on that day we’d take Dad’s elegant old cabin cruiser out onto the ocean in Maine, and we’d go to Pond Island, along with a swarm of smaller craft, some fifty of our closest friends and us. We’d have a boatload of clams, lobsters, and cod fish, also corn, potatoes, salads, pies. (I’d be especially proud if I’d caught the cod the day before while drop-lining near Saddleback Ledge.) The hour would be early, still cool, with a light air from the south, no fog. I’d handle the anchor at the island, following Dad’s directions. Several trips would be needed in the launch to ferry all our equipment to the shore.
Then, on the south side of the island, we’d dig a deep clambake pit in the sand, line it with stones, fill it with drift wood, and set a bonfire ablaze to heat the rocks. We kids would fill a dingy with fresh rockweed, torn from its roots below tide line. When the fire burned down to glowing coals, we’d layer the pit with the seaweed—instantly bright green on the seething rocks, and popping—and we’d toss on the food, layering it with seaweed and topping the whole bake with a thicker, final layer of seaweed. Finally, we’d cover everything with an old sail and bank the sand up around the sail’s edges to hold in the heat.
Then, finally, there’d be nothing to do but to wait while the bake baked, to stroll, to run, to explore, to lie in the strengthening sun, to philosophize vigorously—or meanderingly, as the mood suited. Perry and Craig would lead us all in singing The Sinking of the Titanic, and we would all take a delicious, ghoulish pleasure in the line “husbands and wives, little children lost their lives….” Beer and wine for the grown-ups; orange Nehi for us kids.
Then it would be early afternoon, and the breeze would have come up. It would be a good, strong, summer sou’wester—good sailing weather…kite sailing.
Dad and I would rig a kite. It was an act of shared and minute technical specificity that I adored since it was so uncharacteristic of my father; Dad was not a tool guy. But kites, I realized at age ten, were really poems, and therefore they deserved his intensity of attention to their every nuance. Sometimes Dad would agree to fly the huge 10-foot-high kite, but usually it would be one of the 6s or the 8s, which are plenty big enough when you are yourself about four-and-a-half feet high.
Dad and I would work for half an hour, threading the lines, re-screwing a thimble, guying the rudder straighter. Then it would be time, and I’d carry the kite sixty or seventy feet downwind along the beach, carefully playing out the four lines it took to control these monsters, while Dad made final adjustments to his reels and his control arms and his harness. He’d attach the controls to his chest, a “front pack” of great drums of line controlled by hurdy-gurdy handles, with arms that stuck out two-and-a-half feet from each shoulder, through which the lines ran before heading for the kite. Distance was controlled by grinding the drums with the handles; yaw and lift and plane were controlled by the rudder, which in turn was controlled by shifting one’s shoulders backwards and forwards, thus pulling the rudder one way or the other.
It was my job to hold the kite upright, buffeted by its weightiness in the wind, and to await Dad’s command to thrust it into the sky. Before I thrust the kite into the air, knowing the fun we were about to have, I would stare at the silhouette of a Zero that was painted on the kite with the big red target circles over the gas tanks in its wings. So that was where to hit ‘em! And especially I would stare at the carefully stitched .50-caliber bullet holes in the kite that riddled those very wings. How close I was then, dreaming backwards, in that numinous moment, to the howl of the bullets themselves!
As hard as I could, I’d launch the kite up into the wind. In a second the kite would catch the wind and zoom high. In my mind, the stream of bullets would follow it, and the thudding of the guns would buffet me, and the hot brass would rain all around.
In a steady wind, Dad could fly the kite up to three hundred feet, make it hover there for the longest time, and then make it dive straight down into the sea—straight down into the sea!—only to pull back on his controls at the very last instant so that the kite tore through the top of a wave and rose again, streaming shining droplets from its wings and from its lines, like some raptor on a string!
This was jam at a clambake.
The past was mythic. My father was mythic. I was mythic—and ten.
I dreamed backwards of the Golden Time—when lived the Old Ones, who fleeted among the ancient trees, and knew.