Memoirist Susan Conley finds out how hard it can be to practice what she preaches:
Four years ago my husband, Tony, and two young boys and I left the States to live in China, and I began to write what I hoped was a memoir. I didn’t call it that at first, because as yet the writing felt more like travelogue. I wrote accounts of the outdoor turtle markets in Beijing and the five-hour line Tony waited in to see an embalmed Chairman Mao. I wrote about dumpling houses and ballroom dancing in public parks, but there was no voice yet to these pieces—they relied mostly on image.
A Chinese man and his American wife had fixed up an old, stone courtyard house in the flatlands on the outskirts of the capital. Every Thursday I took a dicey Chinese cab ride out there (the drivers never knew the way) and taught a writing workshop from 9 to 12 in the morning. There were ten in the class—a Dane, and two Brits, three Americans, a Malaysian, two Australians and one Chinese woman. Her Western name was Sophia, and she’d grown up in China during the Cultural Revolution. She’d never owned a book until she was a teenager. Her parents were criticized publicly by the government and harassed and sent away for being bourgeois.
Sophia had been able to get out of China in the seventies, and she’d made it to the States for college. But she was back in China now, because she wanted to bear witness to that hard past. For class she’d bring in veiled attacks on the Communist Party and the short memory of the Chinese people. How, she asked, could the nation be embracing a free-market economy and fake Gucci hand bags, when so many had died only decades before?
Her writing was sharp, but I wanted to be let inside the material and to discover the emotional wake that the Cultural Revolution had left behind. I also wanted her to be more generous with us. “Please,” I said. “Could we see how you felt the day you were asked to publicly criticize your own sixth grade teacher on stage? What did you wear to school that day? Where did you sleep that night your parents were taken away?”
Sophia wanted to stick to the facts. At times our writing workshop felt like a cultural stand off. I wondered if I was too American in my approach to Sophia’s voice. Too Oprah? Too People Magazine? Sophia said that the Chinese way was not to write about herself. I said the only way that the reader was going to care, was if Sophia made the pieces partly about herself. I also said there was a balance to be struck. Intimacy with the reader didn’t have to mean a cult of personality around the narrator.
Back in my Beijing high-rise, I continued to write my own China story. My boys were my lens. I tried to capture the understanding they came to with Mandarin and the Beijing school bus, and the live turtles on the street. But then I was diagnosed with breast cancer and the travelogue voice was officially over.
When my treatment ended, I knew if I was going to finish this book, it would need a different voice. I tried out one that was distanced and prone to irony. Then one that was humorous. But I couldn’t quite land it. I wrote notes to myself in capitals on my desk: write as if you were talking to Sara back home about trying to buy apples in Beijing. This helped. This got me closer.
Then I gave chapters to an American writer named Anne who’d been living in China for twenty years. She read the excerpts, looked me in the eye and said, “Nice. But are you going to write this story or not? Because this is half way and you can’t go half way with a cancer story.” I’d detailed my surgery in China and my fear. Now Anne wanted more?
Then it was August, and I flew home to Maine and showed the manuscript draft to some of my writer friends. “Good,” was the word they used. “But it’s not personal enough,” my friend Debra said. Not personal enough? “We want to see what was going on inside your mind while you lay in that Beijing hospital. It’s a problem of voice.”
I flew back to Beijing and started teaching the workshops again. Sophia enrolled and showed me a piece she’d been working on. The writing had a new, urgent voice. Sophia had been able to put herself into her story—she’d taken her experience and distilled it down from the sweeping epic into a tight personal narrative.
After class I went home and sat down at my desk. I knew that to fully write about my cancer and the trip back, I had to trust that intimate voice I’d talked Sophia into using. I wrote a new chapter about how my four-year-old, Aidan, had drawn butterflies on pink construction paper the day before my next surgery—and how he’d looked me in the eye and said any time I wanted to leave the operating room, all I had to do was remember those butterflies. I wrote. and something shifted. This new voice was the most intimate voice I could have imagined, but I had access to it and to more, and the book was launched again. In the end it was a matter of trust. From writer to reader and back again.
Susan Conley lived in Beijing for close to three years and recently returned to Portland, Maine, with her family. Her memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, comes out this month from Knopf. She is cofounder and former executive director of the Telling Room, a writing workshop and literary hub for the region. Her work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, as well as The Paris Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares and other literary magazines. Visit Susan’s website, SusanConley.com here, and her blog, The Hall of Preserving Harmony, here, her Facebook Author Page here, and her Twitter here.