Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Welcome to Your New Life

In this second part of a three-part series, Anna Goldsworthy writes about obsession and finding the right voice for her new memoir Welcome to Your New Life.

I never planned to become a memoirist, let alone a serial memoirist. After the publication of my first book, Piano Lessons, I intended to plunge into fiction, or biography, or anything else that was not memoir (graphic novels? encyclopaedia?) – if only to shed the taint of the word. But there was another project closer to hand: my baby. And a small problem: I couldn’t think of anything else.

Piano Lessons is generated by an obsession with music; Welcome to Your New Life by an obsession with a child. Each book seeks to transcribe an experience that is largely inarticulate, but in many ways Welcome was more difficult. Someone once told me that experience should be allowed to mature for a decade before being transformed into art. I’m not sure if this is true, but it had the ring of authority about it. In Piano Lessons I notated my adolescent foibles with serenity, confident that a statute of limitations applied.

Welcome to Your New Life enjoys no such vintage. It is a book hewed out of the desperate present, and as such is written in present tense. Babies live exclusively in the present, and parenthood is such an act of empathy that you find yourself doing the same. (Sleep deprivation takes care of the rest, shoring away both memory and aspiration.) In prose, there are clear advantages to present tense – immediacy, intensity – but it also offers less perspective, and less digressive ease. A friend described Welcome as a ‘photo album of emotion’, and my original notes – dashed down while breastfeeding, or during nap-time – were almost exclusively impressionistic. The challenge was binding them into some sort of narrative. Piano Lessons settled comfortably into the template of bildungsroman, but my life as a mother had no clear structure. Or if it did, I was so stuck in the present moment that I could not see it. It took me some time, and some living, to discover it: a descent into chaos, and partial re-emergence.

As I wrote, the book automatically fell into second person. I thought it might switch to third person when my baby was born, and for his first half hour, when he was still a stranger to me, it did. Then it immediately swivelled back to you. Okay, I thought, gritting my teeth: an entire book in second person present tense. That sounds about like my life at present. And so the book is addressed to my son, as a record of those early years in which he was not yet laying down his own stories.

The memoirs I like best are those least fascinated by their authors: memoirs that gaze outward, rather than towards their own navels. Inevitably, there is a lot of navel-gazing in the first part of this book, but I hope it is less about this particular mother than about motherhood: a type of travel writing from a terrifying, wonderful, foreign land.

Welcome to Your New Life will be released in April.

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