The other day a young woman whom I love very much was asked a simple question.
“So, you never noticed this lump?”
She was sitting in her doctor’s office wearing one of those paper gowns. And although the question was an easy one, the answer was no, there have been other questions since which have been more challenging. When she called me, crying, she asked what she was supposed to do. Oh, she knows what she needs to do medically and today she is on the second step of what may or may not be a long journey, but she was trying to figure out what to do with the emotions. Where to put them. The anger and the fear. The deep sadness at being confronted with mortality at such an early age. And finally, if all goes well, the profound relief that all will be fine.
She is an actor. And I told her, thinking of Alice Sebold’s remarkable memoir, Lucky, to remember every moment of this experience. She will be able to draw on these feelings forever on stage or on film.
What else is an artist to do? This is where great acting, painting, writing, often is born. This is why we are drawn to it. Because it speaks a familiar language. It reaches in and taps something in our own wellspring of emotions.
I recently picked up Seabold’s memoir to read for the second time. It is a tough story about a young college girl who’s is attacked and raped and has the courage to go after her rapist. At one point in the narrative, months after the attack, she sees the perpetrator on the street and decides to take action. One of the things she feels the need to do is to go to the office of the professor whose class she will miss by going to the police and explain why she will be absent. he, a well known writer is at first irritated with her. That is, until she tells him why she will not be in her seat. His demeanor shifts quickly. He puts his hands on her shoulders and says,
“Alice, a lot of things are going to happen and this may not make much sense to you right now, but listen. Try, if you can, to remember everything.”
Seabold did. And years later was able to pull it all up from where it had been waiting and she wrote a powerful memoir that resonates long after reading it. Remember everything. Not an easy task if the memories are painful. If they haunt you. However, speaking from experience, writing down, taking ownership of the event is a most powerful thing.
A friend of mine said one time that she doesn’t enjoy memoirs. Really has no interest in them. But I get it. She is a therapist and spends hours each day listening to other people’s stories. Fiction must be a great escape for her.
But I, even though I read submissions to our journal, Memoir, everyday, never tire of them. I am drawn to the personal narrative like a drowning woman to a life raft. I search for my connection to others. I want to feel how we relate. I want to understand more fully who they are and then who I am. And I know if I am reading a writer who has done their best to remember it all or I am watching an actor who has stored away honest feelings to capture the character more fully on stage or on the screen, I am being given a gift. That these artists have stripped themselves bare. They have peeled off their outer layer leaving all of their tender parts exposed. They have exhausted themselves in order to share with us the truth in their writing, their acting.
I will never understand why the artists aren’t treated with the highest regard by society. Their bravery astounds me.
Someday I would like to ask Alice Seabold how she felt the day she handed off her manuscript to her publisher. Was she then set free? Or does she still carry all of it with her.
And in a few days, when my dear actress knows the results of her tests, I will remind her that if it is all now over, she should record her feeling of elation to use at will. And if it is all just beginning, to remember each step on this path. Own it. Use the power to create something which will last forever.