Shelf Life Essay
The Process of Finding Words
Life-writing is about life, but it is also about selection and shaping the story of a life.
It raises important questions about focus, privacy, and truth.
When I began writing Finding Words: A Writers Memoir, I had written novels with autobiographical elements,
and a fictional biography of a long-dead duchess. I had begun work on a non-fiction biography, and for
decades I had written a journal. All of them had taught me some of what I needed to know, but still I faced
large questions: What precisely, in the clutter of sixty years of living , is the story? Faced by constantly
changing moods and perspectives, and the layers of new living that constantly alter the past, is there such
a thing as "the truth"? How can I write about myself without invading other peoples' privacy? How can I be
honest and yet also considerate of my own and other peoples' privacy and sensitivities?
None of these questions were in my mind when I began writing; they emerged as I worked, and even now that
the book is completed and published, I do not have clear-cut answers for them. But the asking was the
In my memoir, I realized, outer events would have to be linked at every point to inner ones. My life was
full of outer eventfulness: I was a child in Holland during the Second World War, and after the war I was
part of the stream of immigrants that came from war-ravaged Europe to Canada. I lived on a pioneer farm in
Terrace, B.C., experiencing at first hand something very like the pioneer life in Ontario in the nineteenth
century, and the prairies in the early twentieth. I lived in other parts of Canada, west and east, in
cities and suburbs and small towns, on university campuses and in high-rise apartment buildings. Everywhere
I shared or at least observed how people lived, what they thought and talked about, what their attitudes
and assumptions were. Being a newcomer and an outsider, I saw all this objectively as well as subjectively.
And then internalized it.
Brooding on it, I began to see patterns, threads running through the complex weave. I was an immigrant and
a woman, never married and with no children; in my fifties I had discovered that I was lesbian. I was a
teacher and a writer, a researcher, a perpetual student. Patterns provide meaning: this is who I am, what
I've achieved. But meaning is also in the clutter, the innumerable odds and ends that don't fit into the
patterns, in the formlessness, the (real or apparent) lack of purpose. Truth itself, whatever that is,
is in the clutter as well as in the patterns. Especially is this the case in womens' lives. I haven't had
a conventional woman's life, but I've had and seen and read enough to know this.
Life-writing is always about recreating the past; it is a form of history. My experience in writing
historical fiction helped. There was research to be done into the actual events of the Second World War,
for instance, so that I could put my experience into a historical context. I read the journal my mother
kept during the war, and other writings of my parents, for information about the family. I reread portions
of my own journal, and I reread my own earlier books for what they revealed when approached from this angle:
who was I when I was writing them? What attitudes and assumptions did I hold then? What do my 1985 or 1990
portrayals of young people living in the early nineteenth century reveal about me and my perception of my
own childhood? I read other memoirs and autobiographies, and books about the theory of life-writing, to
get ideas about form and style.
Finding a suitable form was as big a question as the ones about focus and truth and privacy. The memoir
began as a pile of forty or fifty short essays and reflections and memories on any topic whatever, anything
that became sufficiently clear and focussed in my mind or sufficiently painful so that I wanted to write
it down. Some of them emerged accidentally in letters that I wrote, or in journal entries, or while teaching
creative writing groups or giving talks and readings. There were memories about my younger years, reflections
or ideas provoked by the books I was reading, issues raised by therapy. Writing these short essays that
were not nearly as focussed and finished as the word suggests had begun before I started thinking about
writing a memoir: I had them on the computer and on paper and in notebooks.
But how were they going to be turned into a book? I considered a narrative, chronological autobiography and
then rejected the idea. I was interested in the patterns and the clutter. The patterns demanded that there
be some narrative of the outer events of my life, so I wrote one chapter (it became Chapter Two, following
a brief introduction) dealing with that but including lots of digressions and commentary to leaven the
narrative lump. After that I grouped those short pieces (not all of them) into chapters with a theme, a
focus still, at every point, interweaving inner and outer lives and, everywhere, including at least
samplings of the clutter.
Inevitably this meant selection, emphasizing some things and slighting others. The need to protect other
peoples' privacy and at least some of my own made this necessary. The sheer quantity of material also made
it necessary to select. I realized that it was not only a question of outer and inner but of which parts of
each could or could not be told.
I realized as I worked that this was only one of several possible stories I could have written: turn the
kaleidoscope and the same chips would make a different pattern. This made nonsense of the issue of "truth"
in the large sense, but there were many smaller truths. I tried never to falsify fact (which is not the same
as truth) but inevitably there had to be selection, occasionally oversimplification, as well as a great deal
of omission. Other people who shared certain experiences with me will have their different memories, their
different perceptions and truths.
The other part of the equation is the reader, reading my words through her or his mesh of attitudes,
experience, perception, understanding. The reader will bring his or her own memories to the reading of my
book. My experiences of the Second World War will stir memories in some readers and arouse grief, perhaps,
or anger. Because memoirs tap the readers' memories, the reading of them is likely to be stimulating, or
disturbing, or offensive: even dangerous. How readers react says much about them, about how they see and
experience and remember their lives.
My memoir will be read differently by people who know me than by strangers: the former will probably have
to revise their image and experience of me. That marks the difference between inner and outer, public and
For every reader, perhaps the most disturbing thing is that my pointing out that I have a public persona
that does not very closely reflect the inner self draws attention to the fact that this is how everyone is.
I recognize the need for a public persona but am aware that it is one; social life generally prefers to
ignore the "play-acting" element.
Life-writing, if it is to be of any value, must be something more than amusing or scandalous anecdotes.
Whatever its form or content or focus, it should aim for honesty and try to provide insight. Every writer
will achieve these things differently; because no two lives are the same, no two memoirs will have the same