Forfeit and Self-Forgiveness
Now I understand why young people don't write memoirs.
If you've never read my work before, I'll start off by introducing myself as a millennial. I'm part of the biggest and most hated generation of self-entitled, lazy brats. This is relevant for me to note because it's common for people like me to believe, with every fibre of their being, that their life is interesting enough to write about. If this wasn't true, some of my fellow millennials wouldn't be the richest young people on earth because of their gratuitous, self-broadcasted vlogs on Youtube. I, however, did not set out to write my memoir, or even decide upon doing so when I was twelve years old, because I thought my life was interesting. When I was twelve years old, I had already survived a decade of first-world, suburban trauma. This came in the form of domestic violence, mental illness, abuse, and manipulation. And that was just what I saw. It wasn't until my early 20s when the trickle-down effect of my genetics brought my already-tender experiences of domestic violence, mental illness, abuse, and manipulation into an even more intimate view. And in between, my father died of cancer. He and I were close, yes, but it was the messy, arduous, and bloodthirsty estate battle which followed his death that showed me just how greedy the fellow [wo]man can be. I knew at twelve that I had an important story to tell. I knew, by way of the secretive cultural landscape I grew up in, that telling my story might be the last thing I would ever do. The twelve years that followed ripened my purpose. It became a matter of life-and-death; after facing actual life-and-death, the story was developing as an extension of myself, and that extension was screaming to be heard. In recent years, I've struggled to contain that animalistic desire to express myself and to tell the truth about my experiences. This has led me to where I am today.
From twelve to twenty-four, this was how my life story evolved. At twenty-five, I decided it would be a good time to write it. It appears I was wrong. Young people - especially those with millennial-sized egos - don't write memoirs because they don't have [good] stories. I probably could have written a memoir, had I known that a memoir didn't have to encompass an entire life, when I was twelve. A memoir is part of a life, I'm told. So by that extension, anyone can write a memoir. Young people don't do it because the story isn't over. It's the exact antithesis to why older people doubt us when we say we're writing our memoirs: "You're like 12!" "You were born yesterday!" "How have you lived enough to write a memoir already?!"
I think of it like this. Young people like myself, who have survived a significant traumatic experience/multiple traumas, have faced life and death together in some way. Writing a memoir is justified because they have a story of survival to tell. Malala Yousafzai's now-famous memoir, I Am Malala, is no doubt a story about survival. House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout is the first-person account of her kidnapping and imprisonment in Somalia. Girl in the Woods, memoir by Aspen Matis, is a story of overcoming rape and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Even Wild by Cheryl Strayed takes place when she's 26 years old, newly divorced, addicted to heroin, and grieving the death of her mother and resulting dissolution of her family. These are all memoirs written by young women who have had to overcome tremendous adversity. These are survival stories, and they're hopeful ones that inspire us to rise up and out of our circumstances and choose our own destinies, especially when the odds are stacked against us.
I see myself like these women and also not like them at all. For one, I don't have a high-profile story that makes my personal narrative one that is particularly sought-after. I'm a relatively unknown, obscure Filipina-Canadian woman whose voice is hugely underrepresented in mainstream media. In many cases, women like me don't have a voice at all. Second, while I may possess the literary skill to produce my own first-person account of my life, and to do so of respectable quality, it would have to get published. I'm fortunate to be living in this age when there are so many different routes to publishing than the costly, time-consuming, and emotionally dejecting process of approaching publishers through an agent. But this brings me to my third point. I'm twenty-five. I'm probably going to live a lot longer. Whether the ending is good or bad, I can't pretend that I know how my story ends already. It just hasn't happened yet.
I have survived more than my share of trauma in twenty-five years, this is true. I have more than a few stories that will break your heart, and consequently may boost ratings, if we're still on the subject of publishers. But here's my issue with survival stories. They aren't stories about living. They're stories about getting by. I've overcome the brunt of my own mental illnesses. I've engaged in hundreds of hours of therapy, learned how to navigate relationships through difficult trial-and-error, and I've had an ample amount of time to work through my grief and to begin considering forgiveness. In pursuit of this very project, I left my hometown of more than twenty years, moved to an island on the west coast, and I holed myself away in a tiny cabin in the woods so I could write. This life - its pace, its silence, and the intentional nature of all of my days - has brought me stability and happiness like I've never experienced before. The nature of my life today is healing the wounds of my past. I have not written the end to my story because it is still happening. And if my life is to be summarized into a story, my identity thrust onto the world stage by way of this part of my life, I want that story to be one of living. Not just one of survival. Ernest Hemingway himself was known to have said: "In order to write about life, first you must live it." I am living for the first time in my life.
I've mentioned in my previous work that I write for the purpose of telling stories. I write to be the voice, not the protagonist. In other words, I have not the desire nor the intention to be the hero in my story. I am not looking for praise for doing the things I had to do in my past in order to survive. The post-traumatic stress I still live with in my day-to-day life is not mitigated by any reverence I might receive for how I behaved in crisis. I should note, however, that Malala Yousafzai, Aspen Matis, Amanda Lindhout, and Cheryl Strayed should not be under-credited for telling their stories of survival. All of these women have been exceptionally brave, three times: in surviving, in having the grace to carry their experience with them, and in having the courage to relive their traumas and share their stories with the world. I've thought at length about what it means for a person to carry both their light and their darkness. My past is my darkness. I have been both the abused and the abuser, as a child and as an adult, respectively. This means I have not always been a victim, and it serves no one to tell my story as a victim and compromise its authenticity through perverting its form. Time is relative; living on an island where the pace of life is slow makes me forget how long it's really been. I lived here all of three weeks before I flew home for Christmas, and then onward to Ontario to ring in the New Year. I returned to the coast on the 7th of January, and it is only the 24th of February, perhaps the 25th by the time this goes up. The past still creeps up on me because I haven't completely left it behind. My tracks are still visible on the pavement I walked from the birthplace of my pain to my new utopia of promise. My darkness is something I still struggle to accept. I have not yet found my way to forgiveness, and so I've been unwilling to carry this darkness with me. Yet I must, if I ever want the load to get lighter, and if I ever want the act of talking about my past and telling my story to become bearable, or easier. Simply put: it is not yet time.
My spoken intention for completing this piece of work now was "to put that piece of me to bed." I felt that if I spoke my truth and committed it to paper, that it would no longer torment me from the inside out. I believed that I could control it and that my past would no longer be able to hurt me when translated into letters on a screen. This may still be true, but the exorcism involved in releasing this darkness is destructive. As winter melts into spring and daylight floods the windows of this cabin, and I grow more and more restless as the sunset pushes later into each evening, I resist this process. Less for its emotional taxation and more for my intended distraction. This year, the west coast has seen one of the coldest, longest, and darkest winters its had in over a decade. If even those conditions could not release my darkness safely, it certainly will not budge on the brightest of days. And it isn't how I want to spend my days. My decision to move here and take a slower pace at life came to me on an airplane. I decided that I needed time and space to prepare myself for my next stage of life. This was to be a time-out. By that definition, I have not failed. Instead, I have done exactly what I was supposed to do here, and I will continue that. I will remind myself of this over and over again, when my loud, relentless inner-critic demands self-forgiveness for this forfeit. She will grow quieter with every mountain I summit and waterfall I discover. This is what living is about. Not surviving. I came here to build a life and to rebuild myself.
While it may not be time now, is not to say it never will be. The fact that I've clung to this project since 2003 speaks volumes about how important it's been and how it will remain for me. My memoir will likely be the most personal written work I produce in my lifetime. I will be lucky to write more than one; chances are I won't live long enough to get to do it over. So if I'm going to write one story about my life, I want to make sure I can choose the ending. That ending has to happen, and for any of it to happen, I must live.