Monday, August 29, 2016

A Solitary Life Offers Memoir Lessons

I first learned about May Sarton while attending a writing conference and the subject of my next book came up. “I’m writing a memoir tentatively titled A Woman Alone,” I said. At which point a writer offered: "Have you read Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton?"

I hadn't. In fact, I had never heard of her. Yet her memoir is one of those gems I will go back to, reread and relish.

For the memoirist, the book is a must-read. The very solitude that fosters Sarton's acute loneliness is also necessary for the artist to create, most especially when delving into the deep and murky waters of life story writing.

How often have I heard in the Women's Writing Circle the lament about the lack of time one finds to devote to the craft; the demands of everyday living impinging on the necessary time it takes to learn and hone the craft - not through taking classes or academia - but through trial and error and the discipline required to write every day in the privacy of one's own room in order to become a better writer?

Which is why I love Sarton. She understands that this discipline and this time alone is the great "classroom" of the writer.

This journal opens in September with the words:“Begin here. It is raining.” Simple, yet evocative of what is to come. As Sarton's journal unfolds over the next twelve months, she ponders the loneliness of living alone, yet rejoices in her work.
“We are one, the house and I, and I am happy to be alone – time to think, time to be. This kind of open-ended time is the only luxury that really counts and I feel stupendously rich to have it.”
The author offers her readers honesty and an open heart about her life living in the solitude of rural New Hampshire with just a few half-wild cats and a pet parrot named Punch. The isolation can result in what Sarton calls “neurotic depression.” Yet, as she notes, it is the distractions of everyday life that foster "resentment" in her. The creative life often means selfish devotion to the work and forgoing a certain commitment to the demands of relationships and other people.

Sarton died in 1995 of breast cancer at her home in Maine, yet this memoir is testament to the power of the memoir genre. She – the poet, the novelist, the memoirist and the woman – is alive on the page.

May Sarton
Her tender and tough ruminations about friendship; the wonder of the first white peonies in the garden; waking up to “the meadow bright silver with frost;” the death of her beloved pet bird . . . her own love affair that had turned sour by the end of the year, breathes life in all its richness and despair on the page.

These are the ordinary moments and days of our lives rendered extraordinary due to the writer's ability to observe in detail and depth.

A native of Belgium, Sarton traveled frequently throughout Europe and met the great Virginia Woolf of whom she writes:
“What does it matter whether she is major or minor, whether she imitated Joyce (I believe she did not), whether her genius was a limited one, limited by class? What remains true is that one cannot pick up a single one of her books and read a page without feeling more alive. If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine – why is there resentment at female-oriented art?”

Why indeed? And if art is “life-enhancing” – which I believe it is – then Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude belongs to the ages; an intricately beautiful testimony to the struggles the single woman without family faces, yet the incalculable joy in just being alive, alone with her art, her voice, her story.

When I finished this book, I pondered my own writing, my own work-in-progress memoir. I felt Sarton had set the bar so high it seemed almost pointless to continue my own "journal of a solitude." But then I thought about the lesson I took away from her memoir. Writing the confessional is always a valiant effort . . . and when we do "the days fly by" as she puts it, in the joy that comes with the enormous privilege of having the time to think, to write and share our journeys.

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