On May 14th I will graduate with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. The Robin’s Egg is near completion, though it will be a while before you see it in bookstores. Writing a memoir takes time and patience, but I promise it will be worth the wait. For now, I’ve been asked to talk about the process of writing this book and how it has impacted me as a person and as a writer.
In November 2012, I sat sipping tea in the kitchen of my friend’s family home.
“So what kind of book do you want to write,” her mother asked.
I told her I was preparing an application for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Program at the University of King’s College. In place of a thesis, I would write a nonfiction book.
“A memoir,” I responded.
“A memoir? What could you possibly have to say at thirty?”
We both laughed – her over the absurdity of a young adult having anything meaningful to say and me over the response I was crafting in my head but would never dare say.
“Nothing big really. Sexual abuse, child abduction – just run of the mill shit people experience before the age of thirty.”
It wasn’t her fault. I’d given her the impression I was from a nice, middle class family. I was still in the skeleton closet, trying to make sense of my past. I wanted to explain myself, I just wasn’t sure how. It was the reason I’d decided to write a memoir. I felt writing would give me an opportunity to explore my past and come to terms with my experiences. I was in search of truth and acceptance.
Writing this book has stretched me in ways I never thought possible. Waking up at 6:00 a.m., going to bed at 1:00 a.m., working forty plus hours a week to pay the bills while somehow making time for family and friends. To write this book, I knew I’d have to schedule my life down to the millisecond and I believed I could balance the demands. That’s how I got through my undergraduate degree.
As one would imagine, writing about personal experiences is different than writing about Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. For starters, it involves reliving and reconstructing your experiences, sometimes to the detriment of your mental health and emotional wellbeing. Depression and fear were not challenges I anticipated and so my schedule did not include pockets of time for therapists, antidepressants or lying on the floor weeping for hours on end.
I didn’t understand what I was getting into and found myself in the middle of my own personal hell. Regardless of how I felt or what it was doing to me, I had to write. The book was my master thesis. Inability to meet deadlines would result in academic failure – a threat I’d never encountered as a type A, conscientious student. My place of employment was making my academic pursuit possible by waiving part of my tuition; so taking a leave of absence to deal with my emotional issues was off the table. With no room to fall and no margin for error, some days it felt like I was writing with a gun to my head.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the process was a gift. I gave more of myself than I would have allowed if I had been mentally capable of poise and diplomacy. In a state of extreme exhaustion, I pursued truth with reckless abandon. I fought for self-discovery, I fought for sanity and I did it in a raw, primal way. I left myself open to undignified feelings of anger, disappointment and shame and discovered my past was far more complex than I’d anticipated. My feelings of fear were justified. Terrible things did happen and I had a right to question them.
Placing my need to control and manage everything aside, I traveled around Ontario and New Brunswick, interviewing everyone directly and indirectly related to my abduction. I let their versions of truth shatter and reconstruct my reality over and over and accepted their criticisms in exchange for cooperation. There are people who don’t believe I should burden the world with my issues and others who think my work is a masturbatory cry for attention or an exploitation of my family for professional or monetary gain. Keeping on in the face of these facts was a challenge. I kept questioning my own motives and in doing so, connected with my project on a deeper level. I was in search of truth so I could achieve closure. I had to keep telling myself that.
By interviewing everyone involved, I gained a sense of what happened from a variety of different angles. For events that happened before I was born or when I was too young to remember, I used interviews to reconstruct scenes and dialogue. I also used interviews to fact check scenes I wrote from memory. I refrained from sharing my own memories or the memories of other family members while interviewing subjects. I let them speak and accepted their versions as universal truths in the moment. By doing so, I got to see which facts were consistent between stories and which weren’t. Studying the inconsistencies taught me a lot about human nature. Everyone is the hero in his or her own story.
I learned early on, while interviewing two family members simultaneously, that people try and reach consensus when they discover differences in stories. They change and bend their accounts until their versions of truth are lost in compromise. Before I began interviewing, I wrote a 50-page document outlining my memories in great detail so my original thoughts would be preserved. Reading back over the document upon the completion of my interviews, I was shocked to learn how much my perspective had changed as a result of the influence of other people’s thoughts. The process taught me two important lessons: memory is flawed and subjective to the point of nonexistence.
At times, my memory is all I have to work with. There are details I can’t fact check, such as the details of my sexual abuse. These instances are highlighted throughout the book. I suspect some will question how I can remember traumatic experiences so vividly even though I was a small child when they occurred. It’s a valid question. The best I can offer is this: if you live through a traumatic event, you remember. It comes back to you in your dreams. It shapes the way you see the world and becomes a critical part of who you are in a way that cannot be forgotten.
Countless hours of research went into the creation of this book. I checked weather forecasts, specific dates of holidays, release dates of songs, television episodes and movies. I combed through court documents, interviewed lawyers and judges and consulted psychologists for insight into my own actions and the actions of others. I read philosophical works, magazine articles and websites. I had no idea a memoir could involve so much reading and reflecting. I did these things as a means of adding another layer of authenticity to the work. I wanted the scenes I created to be as meticulously reconstructed as the dialogue and the sequence of events. I felt it was my ethical duty to bring the story as close to the truth as I could.
With that said, there are bits I’ve withheld. Through the process of researching, I discovered secrets so profound they had the potential to destroy families and change lives. In those cases, I had to consider the facts carefully. How relevant were they to the advancement of my story? How damaging were they? Could I withhold certain facts and still call my work a piece of nonfiction? After careful consideration, I decided I wasn’t obliged to talk about everything. Some stories aren’t mine to tell. The facts and events pertaining to my circumstances have been disclosed, making this, in my opinion, an authentic work of nonfiction.
I thought about abandoning this project on a daily basis. I was afraid it would destroy my relationship with my family and in some cases it has. There are people who aren’t ready to come to terms with the decisions they made. In exposing myself, I am also exposing them. Seeing them hurt has been difficult. My desire to confront my own demons has forced others to confront theirs as well. I’m hoping that over time they’ll come to terms with their actions and forgive themselves the way I have forgiven them. I’m also hoping they’ll be able to forgive me. I’ve chosen to work through my issues in the best way I know how – through writing.
There are days I fear I’ve given too much of myself in this book. All of my shortcomings are present to be considered and judged. Sometimes I wonder if I have the emotional fortitude to handle the inevitable criticism. Other days I’m bold and strong, feeling as though this process will help me gain the strength I need to get through the rest of my life and, perhaps, lend strength to others who’ve lived through similar experiences.
If I had been happy and well adjusted, I may not have been a writer. I have to thank adversity for making me who I am today. I’ve been sharing my story with friends who’ve known me for years and had no idea. Their acceptance and encouragement have gotten me through. The support of my mentors and peers has given me the courage and the tools to write with honesty and compassion.
When I began this journey, I thought I was going to write a story about a kidnapping. That fact has since become a footnote in a greater narrative about the intricacies of truth and memory. This book is true to the extent that truth can be known. Everyone has a different understanding of what happened the night I was taken and why. To try and piece a universal truth together would be like building Frankenstein – something forced and unnatural. Instead, I let every version of the truth remain for your consideration. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What happened? Why?
What could I possibly have to say at thirty?