Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Someone left me a comment and for the life of me I can't find it now to respond, so I'll respond here. I should have done the sort by post thing, but I wasn't thinking. The comment said something to the effect of that my constant BS and embellishing my stories is annoying and that there are many inconsistencies in my stories because at one point I said I was a good kid who never got less than a B in math class and then somewhere else I said I was really rebellious. That is the general theme of the comment.

First, there are probably inconsistencies in all memoir writing, especially the informal kind I do here. This is because memory is, by nature, inconsistent, skewed, biased and dreamlike. I try my best to remember things accurately. There have been a few times where I've messed up and a relative or friend pointed out my error and I've had to fix it. In grad school we had endless discussions about truth in creative non-fiction and it's generally believed by non-fiction writers that it's impossible to ever retell the exact truth. We have to do our best to recreate the truth as accurately as possible without any intent to lie. There is a scene in Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty where she recounts attending a reading given by her best friend Lucy Grealy who has just written a book that became a massive success (Autobiography of a Face). Grealy was approached by a fan who asked her how she remembered conversations so accurately that she could write them down in her memoir word for word. Grealy responded that she didn't have that great of a memory and she didn't remember the conversations word for word. She was a writer and she wrote the conversations. I can relate. My memory is great. I can remember sensory details and I can really remember how moments felt, sometimes with an accuracy that feels to me like I've stepped into a time machine. Other times I check with friends and relatives on events I'm fuzzy about. Then I recreate and I never have the intention to lie or embellish. (By the way these two books are amazing, but I liked Patchett's better and would read that first. Grealy's memoir is grueling and intense and harder to read, but I don't think you can just read only one without the other.)

But I don't think that's the real issue here. I think what the commenter really responded to, whether he or she realizes it, are not the inconsistencies in my writing, but the inconsistencies in my personality. It's not my memories or stories that are inconsistent. It's me.

For my entire life I've moved between different identities. I've had to a a survival skill. Now, as an adult, mostly I've managed to fuse together all of the aspects of who I am though I still compartmentalize. As a child and especially as a teenager, I struggled with my sense of self a lot. I had two distinct personalities (not like Sybil, I was aware of them and they were both me). I know exactly where this came from and I had some idea of it even back then.

My biological parents are complete opposites. Growing up until I was eleven, I lived with the Hollands, my father's family. The Hollands are regimented, strict and ordered. My grandfather was a National Guard General and his house ran in a military fashion. We went to church and did nothing that wasn't planned. Little ever changed in their lives and we had dinner at exactly 5:30 every single night. Life ran on a schedule and never deviated. These people were conservative, God fearing and government loving. Their expectations for life were that kids went to school, got good grades, went to college, graduated, got married, went to church, had kids of their own and lived in the same house for fifty years. Of course my father threw a wrench into this system when he married my mother and then divorced a year later and came home to live in the basement and then things changed a little more when he married my stepmother Louise when I was nine and became a raving Jesus Freak.

So that was my life most of the time. Then on certain weekends and for six weeks in the summers I went to live with my mother and stepfather who had no order whatsoever, never planned anything, did everything spontaneously, had no idea what a schedule was and lived by no rules. They were rebellious. They hustled. They moved all the time and made deals and got into trouble and ran with wild crowds. They were decadent, impulsive and wildly fun and interesting. At their house I could run naked and eat ice cream for breakfast. I could watch what I wanted on TV and stay up as late as I wanted. Nothing mattered like it did when I was with the Hollands.

In short, I moved between two totally opposite worlds and I learned to conform to each world when I was in it. I learned to become what I was around. The problem was that when I was with one side, I was often wishing for the other because the extremes were too great. With the Hollands, I wished they would lighten up and have some fun. With my mother, I wished she'd settle down and get some order.

It was like I could never achieve balance and I kept trying to figure out which side I was or wanted to be and it was extremely confusing.

At eleven, when I went to go live with my mother in New York, I was a traumatized mess. I had been through hell with my father and Louise and I was deeply, emotionally scarred. Add to that the horror that is puberty anyway, and you can understand that I was a disaster. I constantly struggled to figure out who I really was. Was I a wild child like my mother or was I uptight and orderly like the Hollands? I didn't know, so I vacillated wildly between two extremes of behavior. Sometimes I was really really good and other times I flirted with being wild and rebellious. Another problem was that I never knew what my mother wanted me to be. I wanted to be what she wanted. Did she want me to be like her or did she want me to be a good girl? I didn't know how to read her signals. Sometimes she noted that I was uptight and smug like the Hollands. Then I'd try to be rebellious and get punished, so I couldn't figure out what image she'd prefer me to have. I couldn't figure out for myself which I was.

Another issue at hand was that I was never great at being truly rebellious. I've always been a scared person. I'm scared of everything, so I've always had deep, dark fears of being truly bad. I have still never been drunk, not even once in my life although I openly confess that during a short period when I was 16/17 I was led to experiment with drugs (and I'll write about that) but I was so traumatized by the experience that I ended that behavior very quickly. I never smoked. I had one boyfriend all through high school. I wasn't promiscuous compared to any of my friends, though I thought I wanted to be, which leads me to how I managed to be rebellious without actually being rebellious.

I was rebellious by proxy. I always had two sets of friends. I had my goody-goody friends for when I was in my Good personality and then I had my wild and crazy friends for when I was in my Bad phase. The wild friends were always more attractive to me and they allowed me to be around all kind of bad behavior without actually engaging in most of it myself and when they would cross a line and freak me out, I could go running back to the safety of my good friends, just like I did with the two sides of my family. See the pattern?

Here's the thing though. Sometimes you don't have to engage in the bad behavior to necessarily get into trouble. Sometimes being around the bad kids caused me problems and got me punished and look, I was a teenager, I had poor judgment a lot of the time. One of the times I switched schools was because I had developed a toxic friendship with a girl who was deeply troubled and she sucked me too far into her problems to the point where my parents wanted me away from her. Another time I had been in big trouble in school for cutting class with some boys, which sounds bad on the surface until you learn that all we did was go across the football field to get an apple pie at McDonalds. And then of course I got expelled for difficulties in gym class when half of my class was dropping acid and having group sex and one girl had just had an abortion. I got caught for the dumbest stuff.

Being rebellious by proxy didn't always work. There was a lot of peer pressure. A lot. The bad kids didn't understand why I'd hang around them and then be too scared to do the things they did. What was the point in being their friend, they wondered. Why was I scared? Why didn't I just run to my good friends?  Just try it, they'd urge. Try doing something. Stop being so weird and uptight.

But I never totally fit in with the good kids either. Sometimes I got bored with them. I felt like I was missing something even though I felt safe. They weren't as exciting. Often I wasn't good enough for them.

Most of my bad behavior was in my head and manifested itself through my taste in art, music, film and especially books. It still does. I love an edgy, violent book filled with sex, drugs and rock n roll. I'm reading Stephen Elliott's Happy Baby right now. Lord have mercy. There have never been any limits on what I would read. I'll read anything, the crazier the better and this is because in the world of a book, I can safely experience anything with no consequences and if it gets too much to handle, I can put the book down. End of story. I can control it better than real life.

So from reading controversial books and watching films most parents wouldn't allow, I developed romantic notions in my head of all sorts of decadent, outrageous behaviors that I admired but ultimately was too afraid to try when confronted with their reality. Then I would feel badly about myself for not trying them and letting fear hold me back. This is still a theme in my life and this theme is very apparent in the Spam story. The commenter accused me of BS and he or she was right in a way. I'm not BSing my readers as an adult and as your storyteller. There was a ton of BS in that story, but it's more nuanced and the commenter picked up on it and just interpreted it differently. The teenage me, the main character in that story was ultimately BSing herself most of the time and when I wrote that story, I wrote it that way intentionally. At 15, I didn't know I was doing it. 20 years later, I understand how I deluded myself with romantic silly ideas, as most teenage girls do.

The commenter brought up an issue of my grades. Again, I switched back and forth between being a perfect student and not being able to hold it together academically. I think I recall writing about this before. I would start off each semester or each year swearing I was going to do it right this time and then I couldn't maintain that momentum. I had a lot going on and I was by nature constantly disorganized and very dreamy. I didn't mean to be a bad student and sometimes I was a great student. I wanted to be a good student. I did well in English and History without really having to put forth much effort. I struggled terribly in math and science. I went to several different high schools and I always felt like I was behind and couldn't get caught up until eventually I gave up and dropped out halfway through 11th grade, but I never got bad grades on purpose. There were points in my life when I got better grades than others. When I was younger and lived with the Hollands and they rode my ass constantly and forced me to do my homework, I got good grades. When I lived with my mother, I didn't have that and my mother didn't get involved with my schoolwork because she had her own stuff going on usually and my schoolwork was my own responsibility. That meant that I would become disorganized, procrastinate, forget and get lost in a novel when I should have been doing math problems.

When I got to college I did much better and if you'd like a breakdown of my college career I can give it to you. After dropping out I spent 1 semester in a community college here. Then I moved back to New York with my boyfriend (same one) and spent a semester at community college there. He was applying to real colleges in Boston and I decided on a whim to apply to a real college too. I got in to a very prestigious New England college, went in the Fall of 91 and left right after Thanksgiving because I couldn't hack it and because I had some social issues. Two years later, back in Florida after Atlanta I tried two semesters at a different community college here. Now, I got As and Bs in all of my college classes except one ill fated computer class. I was able to pace myself better in college. By then I was with Evil-Ex. We moved back to Atlanta and he went to college there. I couldn't get in so I just gave up on getting a college degree and worked. In 2002, living back in Florida I went back to community college, got excellent grades, graduated, went to state college and got even better grades, graduated, went to grad school, got a fellowship, won awards and got my MFA last summer.  Got it? Shoot, I can barely keep track of it myself.

So that's it. My entire life has been a struggle to determine who I really am. Which side am I like? Am I good or bad? What does good or bad even mean when it comes to complex human beings and their behaviors? I still wonder how do I reconcile the need for order, structure and planning with the need to experience all aspects of life, to break free, to live without fears, to live with wild abandon. How do I find approval from both sides of my family who each think I am like the opposite so that I never really fit in with either and how do I resolve the inconsistencies within myself?  I'm still trying. I'm doing my best. I'm still writing and this is my truth the best way I can tell it.


beatgrl said...

Wait, you got expelled for difficulties in gym class? Have we heard that story?

Wide Lawns said...

Yeah, I mentioned it in the 1st part of the Spam story. Ultimately I think they expelled me for more than just that. That was the catalyst, but I think my shyness about gym class represented social problems I was having and the school felt I was emotionally and academically too far behind their students and that I needed to go to a school for kids with problems, where Tara Reid went. I did a summer program that year to avoid failing 10th grade and would have gone there in the Fall had we not moved to Florida where I went to public school. Here's the paragraph where I talk about it:

"Tenth grade was probably not my best year. I still have my journals outlining 1988-89 in agonizing detail. I aspired to be a juvenile delinquent, but lacking the guts to actually do anything immoral or illegal, I just decided to hang around with people who did and be a delinquent by association. Luckily this panned out nicely and succeeded in my attending two separate high schools that year (which I'd also done the previous year in 9th grade) and in getting kicked out of the second one all together after several suspensions. I wish I could say I got suspended for something exciting, but alas, it was for refusing to dress out in gym class and then for refusing to go to gym class period. I've always had a phobia of gym anything."

Jean_Phx said...

This was a very powerful entry - thank you for sharing information that must be very hard to constantly relive. I, for one, do not think that your entries about a teenage girl in the '80's as a bit inconsistent - please. I guess you would have to have been a teenage girl to understand that :-)

Karen said...

Don't you ever feel compelled to explain yourself to us ever again based upon the confusion of an anonymous commenter. (Psh.) That said, this post was the most honest, revealing and thought provoking post you've ever written. And I've been reading for a long while. What you described, takes most of us years to figure out and accept, never mind admit to in a fairly public forum. (I'm not even doing this justice... I'm at work, but I had to respond albeit, quickly...) What I liked most is that you never once apologized, you simply made the point that you are uniquely and inconsistently yourself. I completely respect that and you.

ElectricDaisy said...

I second everything Karen said. I enjoyed this post because I can identify with you about having different personalities and fitting your personality as the situation dictates. I'm glad that the commenter sparked this in you so that we get this post.

Mamie said...

"Thirding" Karen! This was a fabulous post,insightful and honest. But DON'T feel that you have to explain yourself becasue of a nitwit commenter! Your description of the narrative process of writing memoir was wonderful, and really does say it all... you could have stopped right there and it would have been plenty to enlighten all of us.

However, the continuation of the post felt very intimate, and it was a privilege to ready it - thank you for the insight into what has formed you as a writer and person.

dissed said...

We are who we are; the whos and the ares don't always match. Screw it -- it's THE STORY that counts. Go for it.

♥ Calamity Anne ♥ said...

Just keep on telling it!!! You have a knack for keeping me on the edge of my seat!

catherine said...

Holy, anon commentor really got to you. You don't have to do this. I have been reading since the begining and I don't see any inconsistencies. You are a great storyteller and life is usually stranger than fiction anyway. Just keep doing what you are doing, You rock ;)

Here is a link to a collection of nastyass food pics. Enjoy

Anonymous said...

I know exactly what you mean about living two lives, having to personalities to move between the two worlds. My childhood was the same. Compartmentalization is still something I do, with feelings, with people. It causes trouble in my personal relationships - but I don't think it's something that will ever change. Maybe I'll write about it sometime.

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I second what Reader Karen posted. And I find your writing beautiful and brutally honest. I don't what style to call it but you've got a Shakespeare thing going on ...it just makes sense in it's own poetic way.

Anonymous said...

I have always understood the strugles with the good you and the not so bad you. You have always made that perfectly clear. You like the neat and tidy but love to watch crazy people around you. Thats the one thing from your writing that Ive always been able to relate to.

James said...

Hi Wide Lawns.

As a very long term reader, i've always enjoyed your posts - and like the others here, i dont see any real inconsistencies with them.

This post reminds me of my life - where i've bounced hard between being good and bad, and high grades (95% average) and low grades (35% average).

I very much relate to the bit where you feel that you had two identities.

I hope you keep blogging for many more years, as its very well written and entertaining, and is probably my favourite blog to read.

Delainie said...

Whoever you are, I like you. Inconsistencies and all.

Melanie said...

I, too, have struggled to merge the split personality that I got from my mom and dad who are as different from each other as night and day. I'm 48 years old and am just now figuring out who I really am, as opposed to being a reflection of either or both parents.

And, yes, in case you're wondering, they got divorced because there's no way in heck that two people who have such different values can live in peace with each other. Rather than being especially traumatized by the divorce, I was thankful that they were no longer making each other's lives miserable!

Anonymous said...

There are those of us who have followed your blog for a very long time. We have laughed and cried with you.

You don't have to justify a damned thing. You feel like family and your kin love you just the way you are.


LegalMist said...

I think many of us with divorced parents (and probably many folks with parents who did not divorce) have dealt with this issue. Parents so different from each other you can totally understand why they got divorced, and then you, as the child, have pieces of both of their personalities within, and it is a struggle to find your "true" identity (as if anyone is entirely consistent, all the time).

I love your stories. I don't find them inconsistent in the way that commenter stated. I, too, was a mostly overachieving "A" student, or at least I wanted to be perfect in that way, but with a rebellious streak, and so I managed to rack up a few C's along the way, too...

I think everyone who has faced reality has had to admit to some inconsistency in his / her personality at some point.

Love your stories. Keep 'em coming!

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