Israelites and Other Mistakes: A Memoir

Last Shabbat I had a wonderful opportunity that I don’t get very often—a chance to be intellectually stimulated by a topic having nothing to do with Judaism. The opportunity arose as I attended (crashed?) a panel at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Seattle, an annual gathering of close to 12,000 authors, readers, teachers, and others involved in writing.

I was there first and foremost to visit with my friend Joanna, one of my oldest friends (we go back to elementary school) and a successful writer. When I learned she would be out here for the conference we made plans to meet for lunch, and when she told me she was on a panel in the morning, I decided to go up earlier in the day to attend.

The panel was about memoirs, and featured five authors reflecting on the work of writing a memoir. [Joanna has a memoir coming out in June about her time working in a literary agency answering J. D. Salinger’s mail. Very excited to read it.] The title of the panel was “Fighting Rise, Fall, Resolve: Strategies for the Anti-Memoir” and was about the craft of writing memoirs that don’t fit a traditional pattern (the “anti-memoir”), with the traditional formulation of memoir being a specific narrative arc ending with a story of redemption and resolution.MySalingerYear_byJoannaRakoff

All five of the panelists spoke of their take on the genre and their own personal work. Some, but not all, of their personal memoirs revolved around a trauma or loss. None of the memoirs end up neat and tidy, but rather leave room for the general confusion and unsettledness that comes from upheaval, struggle and transition. And while the authors are artists and not reporters, and thus do craft the events in a particular way—the panelists spent some time talking about “artifice”—the idea of the “happy ending” is not authentic to their experience, nor, as they pointed out, to the experience of life itself.

And this is sometimes in conflict with what is desired or expected. Panelist Robin Romm spoke of her work, The Mercy Papers, a documentation of her mother’s last three weeks of life. She recounted how, when she ended her manuscript with her mother’s death, her editors said that she shouldn’t end there because her readers are not going to like ending on such a sad note. But, she said, that is the story—that grief is a process, that there is no easy and pat ending. She did compromise and wrote more after the death, but in a way that was authentic to her true feelings of grief and loss.

One of the other panelists, David Stuart MacLean, whose memoir is based around his experience with amnesia in India, also noted that for a story like his—one involving trauma or loss—it is difficult to have a “third act” resolution. The third act, he noted, is the rest of his life, in which he will continually deal with and confront the trauma that he experienced.

As a rabbi grounded in spiritual teachings, I identify with these impulses. With life, there are no tidy endings. (Individual episodes may end cleanly, but not life itself). Our life is continually unresolved. There is no such thing as “closure.” I’m reminded by these words of the poet Linda Pastan, words I will often read at funerals or shiva minyans,

This is the place in books

Where part one ends, and

Part two begins,

And there is no part three.

We are constantly having to grapple with difficulties, and the path isn’t always clear.

Joanna and I had the chance to debrief over lunch. I had a bunch of questions, but as a “visitor” to the panel I was hesitant to ask. As I’ve thought about this panel more, I wonder if maybe the act of writing a memoir itself is the “third act,” or “part three”—the act of writing itself is redemptive because it allows for connection, meaning making and reflection. There may not be any easy answers or happy endings, but being able to articulate your life’s narrative—revisiting past significant events and the impact they have on you—is a first step to facing the future. This is not so much about “closure” as it is about “understanding,” not about “moving on from” but “moving on with.”

I can sympathize with the editors and publishers as well—we should be wary of happy endings, but on the other hand readers want to identify with and be transformed by a memoir. A memoir should have a healthy dose of humility, or “honesty” as the panelists said, but can’t it also have hope at the same time? In writing their books all of these authors engaged in a tremendous act of vulnerability. And it is this vulnerability that allows them—and their readers—to be transformed.

As we begin a new book this week in our weekly Torah reading cycle, what if we think of the Torah as the ultimate memoir? (The title of this column surmises what the title might be if it was a memoir written by God. If Moses had written it, the title could be Next Time, Don’t Listen to a Bush: A Memoir in Five Books) The Torah is the story of relationships formed and tested, strained and strengthened. It is a story of anger and love, confusion and clarity, commitment and betrayal. It follows the story of a people, through their earliest formation, through the trauma of slavery and the defining act of exodus and liberation. It follows them through the reorganization and promise of Sinai and the difficult maturation of the wilderness. And it tells the story of the covenant, with promise of a new start in a new land.

But, as I am wont to point out, the Torah ends without resolution. There is no new start in a new land. The covenant is unfulfilled in the end. After all this time of travelling through the wilderness to the Promised Land, the book of Deuteronomy ends with the Israelites on the western side of the Jordan River poised to enter Canaan. The book ends with Moses’ death (take that publishers!) and we start all over with Creation. There is no third act. There is no closure. The Torah is the original anti-memoir.

Maybe, though, we write the third act. The Torah ends on a note of uncertainty, but with that uncertainty comes possibility. It is our role—through our actions, through our deeds—to fulfill the hope and potential that is laid out before us. We seek transformation through vulnerability, meaning in the face of uncertainty. It’s not easy, but it is real. We pick up a pen and continually write and rewrite the story of our lives.

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