I read recently from The Ghosts Who Travel with Me at the Modern Hotel in Boise, one of my favorite stops on the book tour. In 2008, when Arline and I began the literary pilgrimage that would inform the book, we stayed at the Modern Hotel, and I fell for its midcentury modern design: hip but relaxed, luxurious but homey. The owner’s grandmother, who opened the first Modern Hotel in Nampa, Idaho, makes a cameo in the book, and I was pleased to share my fondness for the hotel with the locals who get to visit whenever they wish.
After the reading, the owner, Elizabeth Tullis, told me a story about her grandmother. She had asked her grandmother to speak about her life into a tape recorder. When Elizabeth replayed the tape, her grandmother looked startled to hear herself. She said, “How did my life get into that box?” Elizabeth told me she had the same reaction to hearing me read about the Modern Hotel: How did her life get into that box?
How do our lives — messy, complicated, contradictory — get into these boxes that are books? Books are linear, each sentence marching after the last as if it inevitably follows, the bound pages forcing us to read the paragraphs in a certain order. That’s the tension for memoirists: to take the mess of our lives and organize it, but not so tightly that it feels inauthentically sterile. I’ve discovered, reading from the same passages over and over this summer, that I want to keep editing, and so I do; before each reading, I practice, imagining my audience and editing accordingly. Listeners who buy a book will see what’s fixed to the page, but perhaps the revised version will still linger in their ears, a ghost that travels with them.
A book is like a Polaroid taken at a party, stopping the host’s mouth half-open, the laughing eyes half-closed. The book stops sentences at a moment in time, freezes them in position. And like the Polaroid image, which gradually sharpens, the book’s power and the book’s flaws gradually sharpen as the writer reads it out loud again and again, and as readers encounter it. Unlike the unlucky host in that Polaroid, who did not know when to smile, the writer has control over the final version. Still, that control can feel like an illusion. Long after publication, the writer may still see words, phrases, whole sentences she would like to change.
So this is what I’m feeling these days after a summer of talking about the book in interviews, reading reviews, and listening to its sentences emerge from my mouth in front of microphones: a bit startled. How did my life get into this box? By which I mean: How did this particular version of my life get into this box? What does this version say about me? Who is the me that is revealed on the page?
I am many drafts into a new memoir. The sentences are in motion. I will try to appreciate all the possibilities they still represent.