My memory of being alone

First of all, some brief housekeeping: I have deleted all posts from my other blog, and will close it down at the end of the month. I could say it’s because of pressing work obligations keeping me busy, or because my first love is this blog and I want to pay more attention to it, or that I anticipate further self-imposed demands on my time come spring, as I’m  considering taking a French class and all of these reasons would be true. But the main reason is I’m a paranoid freak totally convinced someday someone I work with will come across that blog, identify me, and I will both lose my job and be unable to find other employment because, you know, I’m the girl who blogged about her bosses. I imagine PR lady and Gardening Boss will make brief appearances here, but only in the most periphereal way – I just don’t want to take the chance right now. It’s certainly fun writing on the other blog, but I do think the risks outweigh the benefits. 

On to today’s post.

When I first started seriously writing, around the age of 23, I worked mainly with memoir. There was no  particular reason for this genre other than its where my ideas stemmed from – I’d just returned from spending some time with my dad, cleaning out my grandmother’s home in Boyne City, and I pulled out a pad of paper and a pencil and began writing about it long-hand, kind of an off-the-cuff journal entry.  It was a limbo period of my life – recently married, working as an administrative assistant for a hospital while my husband finished graduate schoolk, realizing my dreams of an acting career weren’t going to pan out – just limbo. I don’t remember being unhappy – I just remember trying to write. As I journaled about the time spent with my dad,  I grew excited…I began thinking maybe I had something beyond just a journal entry. In my head, I couldn’t consider it an essay since I had such strict ideas about what defined essays. I wasn’t quite sure what I had, but soon enough I had one, then I had two, then I had three different pieces of writing and I sent them off to an old writing professor from Michigan State who, God Bless Steven Chalk, wherever he is, took the time to read them and helped me revise them. From there I began looking at MFA programs and, since such programs insist you define the genre you write in, I pegged myself as creative nonfiction, applied to schools, and eventually attended the University of Pittsburgh where, for three years, I wrote exclusively nonfiction.  I received the most wonderful education from Pitt – I became a better writer, a better reader – I had some of the most incredible teachers and for three years I was lucky enough to teach.  At the same time, while all this learning was going on, I slowly became disenchanted with creative nonfiction, or, at least with memoir.  I wrote nearly exclusively about my family and northern Michigan and while to me it seemed what I had to say was important, it wasn’t valued as much by my colleagues. Which, let me stress, was totally and completely accurate.  But this post isn’t actually supposed to be about how my writing was received – it’s supposed to be about the reliability of my own memory, and being alone.  Hopefully I am moving to some kind of point. The jury, so far, is out.

Anyway. Occasionally I would share pieces of my writing with my family and without fail, every time, my mom or my dad or my brother or S. would claim I wasn’t remembering things correctly, that the way I recalled events in no way matched reality.  I felt so, just, infuriated when they would say things like that – to this day I believe completely in the essays I wrote. But I do understand that every person has his or her own take on things and that the unreliability of memory is memoir’s greatest antagonist, and I slowly began to recognize that regardless of how much I loved naval gazing, I needed to write some other things first. I thought, fuck it. I’ll write fiction.

I thought about all of this over the weekend. S. and I spent the weekend in East Lansing, Michigan. We had tickets for the Michigan State vs. University of Pittsburgh football game, and we took some extra time to eat at our favorite restaurants, walk about the country’s most beautiful college campus, and spend time together.  The weekend was almost ridiculously beautiful, with just enough autumn in the air to romanticize applying for a ph.d.  I’m not often completely overwhelmed with memories from college – I tend to idealize my graduate education much more than my undergraduate experience.  While I loved attending a big ten school, I still can recall so much tension – financial pressure, balancing insane school and work schedules, living in disgusting apartments – I loved college, but being thirty is so much better.  On this trip, though, I did feel a bit of nostalgia for my years at Michigan State, which emerged during the football game.

As a freshman at State, I was so excited for football season to begin. I grew up in a football house, with a dad who played in high school and a mom who was a cheerleader. To this day I still remember my first football game as a high schooler more clearly than I remember prom, or boys I kissed.  My parents promised football games at college would be even better than the high school counterpart, and while I found that a bit difficult to believe, believe them I did.  I was the kind of girl who found herself utterly devastated when she didn’t make the cheerleading squad – the kind of girl who didn’t miss one dance after a Friday night football game in her entire high school career. Certainly there is so much more to me than that, but my adoration for football, and football players, and cheerleaders and Friday night lights remains steadfast to this day.

I had such fantasies about State football games – long, elaborate narratives played in my head about walking to the stadium with friends, long mornings spent tailgaiting, raucous afternoons at the games, late nights celebrating big wins.  Eventually these narratives all played out for me, but during my first week of my freshman year of college, I found out football wasn’t quite as big a deal to, well, almost everybody else on my floor. None of the girls on my floor had football tickets – not one. Well, maybe some did, but none I liked and I quickly realized I had nobody to go the first football game of my college life with.

I talked about this with S. as he and I walked hand-in-hand to Saturday’s game. I tried to describe the isolation, the absolute shock I felt that I alone out of all my new girlfriends, had football tickets.

“What did you do?” He asked.

“Well, I went alone.”

“You went alone to a college football game as a freshman?” That didn’t sound right, and it didn’t sound at all like me.

“Well, I didnt’ have seats with anyone I knew. But I know I went. I remember eating ice cream and watching the game.”

“That’s so depressing.”

“But I wouldn’t have gone totally alone. I must have walked with friends, probably John, Jeff, and Kevin, and then sat at the game alone.”

“Yeah, I don’t think you would go somewhere completely alone.”

“No. But I don’t remember being lonely. I established a routine. I would watch the game through the halftime show. During the third period I went to the bathroom, bought an ice cream, and returned to watch the fourth quarter. It really wasn’t bad at all.”

“What did you do when it got cold out?” S. asked.

“Oh.” I said. “I had friends by then – I started sneaking into a different section.”

This was an acceptable answer to S., but it bothered me. I could not remember, and I still can’t, the time in between attending the games alone, and attending the games with friends. I remember my third quarter break, and I remember the ice cream sandwich I ate every game. I remember being surrounded by strangers and I remember feeling elated – finding freedom in my anonymity. I told everyone who asked I went to a big school to feel lost, and feeling lost turned out to be exactly what I needed. I also know I wasn’t the kind of person to walk herself to the stadium, and then trot home again – I know I must have had companions before and after the game, but I don’t remember who.  I remember the late-fall and winter games, and attending those with new friends. I remember slipping small bottles of creme de menthe in my boots and pouring them in large mugs of hot chocolate, and I remember sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom. I remember Carrie and Liz and Kelly and how they worked out a way for me to sneak into their section, and I remember the University of Michigan versus Michigan State football game that November, when my parents came down and met all of my football game-going friends. I remember it snowed during that game, and I remember we won. I went to a party at the Lamda Chi fraternity house that night and burned my throat on Purple Jesus. But I do not, and could not if under duress, remember the transition time from watching the game by myself, lost in a crowd of green-clad coeds, and making friends.  I can’t pinpoint when it happened, although all estimable accounts would wager sometime in October. I just remember eating that damned ice cream on sunny summer Saturdays and being happy.

See, that’s why memoir is so tricky to handle – and why it probably deserves all of the controversy surrounding. Nobody can remember all the details of his or her life… no one should be expected to, either.

S. found my memory of attending those first football games alone very melancholy, and at first I nearly agreed. But in retrospect, I remember them as blissful – I don’t remember being unhappy at all. I’ve always enjoyed, and in fact, needed, significant portions of time alone – it’s the one quality in my character that makes me hesitant to have a child. Just last Saturday, a friend called and upon finding out S. was out of town and I was spending the evening alone, he accused me of being pathetic.  “You could have called,” he said. “You could have come over for dinner. We had pork chops.” I didn’t know how to tell him that more often than not, I prefer my own company. I certainly didn’t feel pathetic.  So, in remembering those first solitary Saturdays of my eighteenth year, I wonder. Was I really happy, as my memory would have me belief, or was I actually ridden with anxiety and nerves, concerned about sucking in my stomach, overwhelmed with the situation. After all, I’d gone from having my very own spot in the bleachers of Alpena High during football games to attending my favorite sport all by myself. In reality, I couldn’t possibly have experienced the happiness I seem to recall now, could I?

Who the hell knows. Probably it was the ice cream. Once I discovered that, maybe the whole situation was totally redeemable.  But this is why I don’t write memoir…because even my memory of being alone is untrustworthy. I can’t imagine my recollection of anything else could be much better.

This entry was posted in Everything In Between, Hopelessly Indulgent Reflection, The Private, The Public, Time for a Hundred Visions and Revisions. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to My memory of being alone

  1. I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of creative nonfiction as a genre until I read your blog. Now, thanks to you, I’m much better educated. I haven’t given up on your Hemingway piece though … nor your work on living with a Vietnam vet. Are you seriously moving on? Changing genres? That means I’m going to have to take one piece out of the puzzle that is Courtney.

  2. LK says:

    I took a memoir class in my MFA program, and I realized I just couldn’t help “spicing” the story up — I start veering toward dramatization immediately. So, this is why I stick to fiction!

  3. m says:

    Your holes in your memory are what make your writing so utterly human. I love your memoir.

  4. Courtney says:

    Charlotte – no reason to be embarrassed – I hadn’t heard about it before, either. And no, I’m not giving up on those pieces at all. I’m spending more time researching them, and bringing in facts, and balancing research, the personal, and what I hope are universal chords…but I’m not sure they are really memoir, anymore. Sometimes I leave out very important points while blogging, I think!

    LK – it is very hard to resist spicing memoir up. I don’t think most people succeed!

    M – Thank you! That’s why we’ve been bffs 4-ever- the holes in memory aren’t signs of senility but rather things that improve my art. What girl could ask for more?

  5. Dorothy W. says:

    Have you read Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood? I’m thinking of it because she tells a story from her childhood, and then follows it with a section on how she may have remembered incorrectly, how her siblings have different memories, how she shaped the story, etc. I love that book.

  6. mandarine says:

    Gooode luhck weez yoor Français. I ahm not shoorre I’d bee uh vairry goode cotch, buhtte dong’t ‘esitayte to ahske kestionz.

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