Re-Writing My Life
And I noticed that this temptation to make a melodrama out of my spiritual growth had started to seep into the way I was living my post-conversion life. After Not God's Type was published, I began to write blog posts about the challenges of being a new Christian. So far, so good. It's important that Christians write honestly about weakness and failure, struggle and doubt. What I discovered, though, was the danger of reporting live from the front lines. Performing my spiritual life for a waiting audience had the perverse effect of making the struggle itself seem more worth my attention than the resolution of the struggle. I became tempted to hold onto my own weaknesses and difficulties so as to have something to say.
One day I was walking around an arts and crafts fair in town, debating whether to buy a painting. (Truly momentous, I know.) Eventually I decided not to … and then I found myself thinking, "Ah, this inner debate will make for a great blog post."
Next thought: Ugh.
Next action: I stopped blogging about my spiritual life. I've never regretted that: I would venture to say that one of the reasons I was able to do a good re-write of Not God's Type was that in the intervening time I'd been living my life and not writing about it!
A further challenge of memoir is that it involves other people. In addition to considering the unknown future readers out there, I had to deal with the possible reactions of the people who knew me, or who were mentioned in the book. Eventually I found a guiding principle, which was, paraphrasing Aslan's words to Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, that I was telling no one's story except my own. This gave me the freedom to tell my story more fully: it was ok to have cameos and walk-on parts as well as major roles.
The tricky part was deciding what to do about my parents.
In the first version of NGT, I had omitted my parents entirely—simply because I didn't know how they'd feel about it and I was afraid to ask. There were no skeletons in any closets, but I feared that anything I said would be too much (we are New Englanders, remember). By the time I approached the revision, though, I was more at ease with my family about my faith, and so I felt able to write about my childhood without awkwardness.
Except for one word that I agonized over. I wrote: "In retrospect I realize that we were quite poor when I was growing up … ."
It was a statement of fact. We used food stamps when I was a little girl, and ate soup and rice at the end of the month because there wasn't enough money to buy more groceries. I remember that we stayed at my grandparents' house at various times when I was growing up. It was a drafty 13-room colonial, starting to fall apart; there was running water indoors, but for a toilet there was only an outhouse, in the shed. But we were always clothed and fed and warm, and my life was imaginatively rich: I had books, and crayons, and as much paper as I wanted to write and draw on; my parents encouraged my love of learning. I never felt deprived. Nonetheless, my parents, who worked so hard to claim a middle-class life, were ashamed of the very word "poor." To use it would feel like a blow, like an act of ingratitude.
Even so, it was important for me to write something of this in NGT. I had discovered that many people assumed that because I have a PhD and I speak well, I come from a privileged background, with college-educated parents. To be honest about my humble beginnings, even in a small way, might give encouragement to those parents who are struggling to bring up a family on too little money—and to readers who were, like me, first-generation college students.
In the first version, my anxiety about my parents' reaction had led me, by omission, to create an image of myself that elided my working-class roots. As I revised, I became aware of how much my perspective as an author inevitably shaped the way I told my story; I had been naive about my ability to record events with camera-like objectivity.
Some of the dialogue in NGT is word-for-word, drawing from email conversations with Josh, my fencing coach who served as a guide into the Christian faith. Yet I'd often had to re-create dialogue, as Boswell famously did for Dr. Johnson, not to mention my own thought processes. In revising NGT, though, I couldn't go back to look at the originals, because in various email-account shifts I'd lost all my old messages, and in a burglary I'd had my journals stolen. (I kept them in a locked cash-box, for privacy's sake—I suspect that the burglars, frustrated after finding nothing worth stealing in an English professor's house, were elated to think that they'd finally found the good stuff. I can only imagine their disappointment when, later, they cracked open the cash-box.)