Exit Stage Left; or Writing the End of a Memoir When Life Goes On

I kept hearing about it, but as I’m already pretty accepting of the idea of death, I thought I didn’t need to read it: Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. But I’m so glad I did read this thoughtful and poignant meditation on life and what matters.

In one section, Gawande discusses an experiment that indicates that our experience of pain and our recollection of pain have an odd relationship — that we remember the worst and the end but not the duration of the whole thing, nor of the worst part. And if the end of the painful experience is less painful than expected, the memory of the whole thing is skewed positively, not matter how long and how bad the worst part was. And vice versa. He thinks about that research in light of a person’s recollection of his or her entire life.

He wrote: “In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all of its moments….For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens….Unlike your experiencing self–which is absorbed in the moment–your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole….And in stories, endings matter….When our time is limited and we are uncertain about how best to serve our priorities, we are forced to deal with the fact that both the experiencing self and the remembering self matter. We do not want to endure long pain and short pleasure. Yet certain pleasures can make enduring suffering worthwhile. The peaks are important, and so is the ending.” (This is, of course, the whole point of his book.)

I think about this in terms of writing memoir. A memoir must end, yet the writer lives on. Which means a reckoning must take place. The initiating impulse behind a memoir might be: look at what happened to me. But the end can’t rest at: but I survived. Nor can it be: and here’s what I learned. That’s too pat.

It occurs to me that the question Gawande and the people he has learned from suggest we grapple with at the end is relevant to the memoir too: What is your understanding of your situation? What is important to you now; that is, what are your fears and what are your hopes? Those questions allow a terminally ill person to write the beginning of the ending of their lives. Of course, things can go awry at any time, and their choices are very limited. But in that limitation is a freedom.

The memoirist also has limitations in how to craft an ending — the author is alive, life is still unfolding, lessons have been learned but other lessons slipped by, patterns were detected as others came to be random strings. What is important, what are your hopes, what are your fears?

There is a tendency to look back at the past from the present and see patterns or currents. But a good memoir can’t be so revealing of pattern. Olivia Laing in To the Riverwrote this: “…the future is by its nature contingent and to read every event in terms of what is yet to occur disjoints the moment in which life is lived, divesting it of that uncertain, glancing quality that is the hallmark of the present.”

To write memoir is to make an art of that re-understanding the past in terms of what happened later, but to write a good memoir is to inject too that “uncertain, glancing quality” into the narrative of events.  And then to craft an ending we can all live with. So to speak.

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