The new novel we’re working on, Masks, now in fifth draft, is actually a memoir. The narrator is a man in his forties, writing about his family’s final summer as touring players. He was six at the time, and his time was around the 7th Century. His employer/patron, for whom he serves as both scribe and steward, is fascinated with the bits of story he’s heard, and urges that a full recounting be written. The narrator is willing, but challenged: it’s not just that old memories aren’t easy to dredge up, it’s that the six-year-old Bragi was immersed in a god-coup that was visited on his family through a trunkload of masks.
With each new draft, the story becomes more of a cliff-hanger. Yes, I know what happens next, but at the end of every newly-drafted chapter I’m holding my breath. And suddenly I realized—oh shit, that’s what I need to be doing in my own memoir.
I’ve been laboring away at the ghastly years between starting college (1957) and the clean break of going to California for the first time. I have reams of letters I wrote, college transcripts, helpful newspaper clippings, and my sometimes swiss-cheese memory bank, and I’ve been doing a pretty good job of writing what happened. But I just realized that’s not the point. I have to write about what it was like to be inside that increasingly terrified girl as every single brick in her artificially-constructed persona fell to the ground.
Not only that, I need to reconstruct the years of lies and forgeries and pretenses, the insane devices to wall off the truth. Insane, yes, somehow believing that each subterfuge would actually work, living in a sweat of guilt and anxiety.
I loved seeing the movie, Man on Wire, not realizing that it was a mirror inversion of my own experience. Philippe Petit was an obsessive master of his craft of wire-walking, and in 1974 he strung a cable between the twin towers and danced out there for nearly an hour. He knew exactly what he was doing, and exactly how he would be shattered if he failed; he carried his truth within himself and became invincible.
I hid my truth from everyone around me, but most of all I hid it from myself. I never allowed myself to think about what would be shattered if I failed and never considered how I might turn around and get off the wire. The world we’re living in today is full of people like that. I finally confronted the wreckage of my own making, endured the pain, and started over. Survival is possible.