Tonight I went to a reading with Jonathan Franzen (put on by the CCA Graduate Writing Program), who wrote a book of essays called How to Be Alone, which I've read from and really enjoyed. That particular book has some really beautiful passages about the science of memory woven into the context of Franzen's father, who suffered and passed away with Alzhiemers. Tonight he read from his memoir a woven analysis of global warming, birdwatching and his own failed marriage, which was funny and sad and relatable for me as someone who is also paralyzed and horrified by the environmental apocalypse looming within my lifetime, the nature it will inevitably erode, the personal relationships and understanding of my own purpose that get put into question in the face of such a disaster--- it hit some of my heartstrings.
During the Q&A, after some miserable attempts from the audience, someone asked one of the greatest questions, which asked Jonathan Franzen what he, as a memoirist who writes about extremely personal and incriminating subjects, would not write about (as in, where he draws the line). I mean, I guess his answer was sort of appropriately dodgy-- saying basically that he didn't write about whatever he didn't wind up writing about. The question, however, led him to talk about what issues he confronts as a storyteller, which I found really interesting. He told a story about how he once recieved a letter from the mother of a friend who has passed away, saying that she did not recognize her son in his description of that person, and the sadness it made him feel to think that his story had failed for someone.
This was the real heartstring for me of the evening, and something I think about a lot with my work, with my story telling, with my collection of anonymous photographs showcased in this blog. When my grandparents died I felt such a need to tell their story, to encapsulate them in my words, to record their presence, their stories, their mattering. Of course, through the drawings that materialized from this pursuit I realized that the stories I was telling about my grandparents were less about them and more about myself-- of their identity as my grandparents, as the parents of my parents, of the 20 years I knew them and not about the 60 that preexisted me. When I consider what I am really accomplishing with my work I feel panic and sadness over how inappropriately equipped I feel to be responsible to be telling their stories with all of the inevitable inaccuracies that are bound to happen. Franzen said it tonight-- the problem with being a storyteller is less that you are stealing someone elses story and more that you are stealing their ability to tell their own story.
I borrowed a recorder from the Media Lab today and scheduled separate telephone dates with each of my parents for tomorrow-- my mother at 8:00 am, while she is at work, my father at 3:00pm, after he has finished his Fed-Ex run. To some extent, their stories will always be told by me as if they were my own, but their own vocalization is also incredibly important to me too. Once I told my mother how I feared that I was warping their voices with my own and she told me that I had to remember that to some extent my voice was a product of theirs. This made me feel really good and less like the lying-theiving-good-for-nothing daughter that I had felt like before.
It was so nice to go to this reading tonight because even beyond the solemnity of Franzen's ideas and the lovely weft of his words was just the fact that it is so nice to hear someone tell their story, to have someone read to you, to have your heartstrings unexpectedly twanged, and to be reminded that stories, my friends, are important.