Writing about your own past is surreal. You’re reliving it. You’re at Fox Cabin at blind camp with the blue vinyl couches in the living room and the orange, white and yellow checked curtains in the bedrooms. You’re eight years old, unable to sleep because you’re terrified of your parents because Mom was getting hysterical again today and maybe this time she’ll really lose it or Dad’s smoldering rage will erupt, so you’re reading Nancy Drew by the night of your night light. You’re riding King County Metro after being rejected from both blood plasma donation for cash (your temperature was too low) and staying at the Green Tortoise Hostel for work-trade, knowing you only have three days until you and your roommates get evicted. You stare out the window watching as the bus passes through the hilly streets of downtown Seattle, thinking dark thoughts like maybe homelessness would suit you because you’ve always felt like an orphan anyway. You’re skulking by a payphone outside 7-11 in the outskirts of Seattle while your roommate is across the parking lot buying pot. You’re swimming in Puget Sound, not long after sunset, and the water is so cold that you’ve never felt more alive, and it suddenly, truly, deeply feels like all you’ve been through was somehow worth it to be here now, in the water, your limbs feeling heavier as you get closer to shore, and you’re unable to stop looking back at the cerulean dusk and the fading pink on the western horizon.
You’re all of these places but you’re also sitting on your bed writing in your little room with your books and notebooks stacked in milk crates, your window slightly open to let in the sounds of the Orcas ocean and the slow creak of cedar trees swaying in the wind, trying not to think about the boy who lives down the hall from you or the girl in his room. Or you’re writing in the fluffy brown chair in your apartment, wondering if you should get rid of it because your ex-boyfriend left it when he went to jail and do you really need any more reminders of him? But on the other hand it really fits the color scheme of your room and is really comfortable to write in.
In the story you are writing it might be fall while in reality when you are writing it, it’s summer solstice. And yet, the more you write, the more you swear that the light coming in through your windows is so distinctly autumnnal. You can almost smell the foliage.
There is something haunting about being in more than one experience at once. It’s like how it felt when I first came home from college after months of being away. Walking into the living room with its dark blue patterned furniture and light blue pleated blinds felt almost like an out-of-body experience. Everything was always slightly off from what I remembered, like all the colors or the feelings I associated with them had all made the slightest of wavelength shifts on the electromagnetic spectrum, just a few angstroms, nothing you could quite articulate or measure but sense nonetheless. Writing memoir is like that, I’m in two places in time, two times at once, memory and present tense, and they are so distinct and yet so muddled that it’s hard to tell which one I’m living in more.
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This is an excerpt from my most recent piece of writing, a personal essay called “Blue Alchemy,” about writing memoir, and the slipperiness of writing and memory.