Category Archives: memoirs made of dreams

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Hindsight Bias

The two books I’m currently most engaged with are Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide and Carl Jung’s Man and his Symbols. Setting Jung aside for a moment, allow me to discuss Lehrer a little. Lehrer is one of those names that pops up if you read Wired or Scientific American, which I do–and The New Yorker, which I don’t. His writing sounds young, as well as a little soft.* He writes soft science. That’s fine. I don’t always know when he (or any writer of his ilk) commits factual errors, but I have a heightened sixth sense for manipulation that prevents me from being completely duped. However, I can look past even blatant manipulation because I engage with this sort of writing for its squishiness and not despite it. Yes, you read that correctly. I want glimpses of hard science, even illogical ones, in order to engage my imagination.

What does this say about how I make decisions [that is, after all, the subject of Lehrer’s book]? I’ve long relied on what I thought were my analytical faculties and suppressed my instincts as inherently wrong. But as I examine my life decisions, I wonder how many of them I’ve actually made, or continue to make, by primarily using my prefrontal cortex, which is supposed to be the party spot for rational thought. In hindsight, I appear to be nothing more than an imagination junkie searching for the feeling mix that juices my life. But as you might already know, hindsight is nothing if not biased.

In the grand paradox of how I view myself today, I’ve relied too much on imagination in my decision-making processes, and I’ve simultaneously neglected the creative spark in my soul–the essence of who I am. My assumed reliance on imagination gives me pause and takes me back to those early years of my adulthood, the ones that turned me into a barista rather than a student.

While still at Linfield College, I had a number of friends who were studying physics. I don’t remember how it happened, how my creative writing studies attracted me to these people in a magnetic way. To my current biased way of thinking, I imagine [there’s the imagination again] that they were rational and I was creative, and so we fed off each other for those missing parts of ourselves. The ideal of myself as creative fed my energies and still feeds it, even if the truth is something so apart that it unsettles me to consider it.

What if none of the above is true? What if imagination has nothing to do with my decision-making properties at all? What if my choices in science literature and friends have more to do with fear? What if all my decisions have bloomed from the seed of anxiety planted in my soul by early failures to live up to my expectations? Perhaps I stood by physics geeks because I desired to be like them, but was afraid to study anything more difficult than creative writing. Maybe I (present tense) read soft science magazines because I’m still afraid of the incomprehensible nature of the world around me.

Now turning for a moment to the Jungian book on symbols, I have to admit I’m reading this book for the direct purpose of understanding myself better, and not for the purpose of understanding the world around me, although the net effect has added up to a little of both. Recently, I’ve dreamed a series of vivid stories, all of which have contained what Jung would call the Divine Child archetype. My divine child, according to Jung, is the essence of my pure self, or, as I view it, the core of my creativity unspoiled by the world. In my dreams, I’ve neglected this child and, furthermore, I don’t recognize the little person in his diaper and blue sleeper who wanders into my space unbidden.

What I’ve failed and continue to fail at is perceiving my Divine Child as my personal potential, which may have nothing to do with my dampened creative spark. As a young adult, I squelched my potential by quitting school and finding the first job available at an espresso shop. I convinced myself, in the forefront of my nonunderstanding mind, that writing poetry would save me from the disaster I had become. In the recesses, I convinced myself that studying the finer points of roasting and growing coffee would suffice as knowledge of the world.

As humans, we all suffer from disjointed thinking that we mistake for clarity, even if not all people suffer from my particular problems with anxiety and pretense. And, in a moment of clarity, I’ll proclaim that to be the purpose of this memoir. The books I’m currently reading have revealed truths about myself that I hardly expected when I turned over the first pages. We could all use a little honest self-examination now and again. Your book choices or lack of them reveal truths about who you are. Your dreams reveal the parts of yourself your outer ego is attempting to suppress.

In a choppy kind of conclusion, I seem to have stumbled on memoirs as a way to understand how memory works, which is ironic, to say the least. Hindsight isn’t 20-20. Hindsight carries with it biases I don’t know how to lobotomize from my understanding of self and the world around me. When given the opportunity, I look falsely at my past in order to integrate my cognitive dissonance. But hindsight can pierce deeply with that double-edged sword of truth if we stop overriding our egos and allow it to accomplish its healing job.

*To be fair, I believe Mr. Lehrer is young. And he’s obviously quite intelligent, but by writing for a general audience, he’s softened the science.

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Searching Out a Memoirist’s Intentions

Recently, I finished Susan Ray Schmidt’s memoir of escaping the fundamentalist Mormon lifestyle she was born into. It was a powerful book. The author emotively describes her circumstances, creating, in me, a compulsion to read through to the end. And most reviewers were also caught up in the story of a young woman who triumphs over powerlessness. But, inevitably, some of the reviewers criticized the author for poor storytelling, and for the the length and structure of the book. To each his own opinion, of course, but I don’t expect somebody who has lived through an incredible experience to write in the vein of an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate. However, I do expect the writing to be grammatical and clear so that the story will speak for itself. In my opinion, Susan Ray Schmidt clearly and grammaticaly tells her story.

This kind of criticism, having to do with story structure rather than the story itself, forces me to consider the intentions of memoir as a genre. Many people have attempted to categorize memoirs into subcategories, and their lists run anywhere from three basic types to numerous offshoots of larger categories. Generally, these categories look something like this: Travel, Confessional, Coming of Age, Survivor. As somebody who has read hundreds of memoirs, I opt for three overarching types or styles, which will, by necessity, blur and overlap. But mine have more to do with intention than with subject.

Memoir of the Incredible/Unusual/Authentic Experience
As I’ve already suggested, this kind of memoir is driven by the story rather than the eloquence of the writing. The authors have lived through incredible experiences and have committed them to paper, either because of outward suggestion/influence or inward compulsion. Multiple, smaller categories of memoir will fit under this banner because the intention is the same with each: to relate an impactful story. The author might have hiked across Africa alone in her twenties (normally called Travel), or survived to tell the world what it means to live with a rare congenital disorder (normally called Survivor). In the book at left, the author lived through an unusual experience, as a Western woman who married a Bedouin and moved into his cave with him. When she fell in love with this man, she had no intention of writing a memoir, but rather of learning to raise a family in a nontraditional way. This is key: these authors experience life without the intention of writing a book about it.

The Journalist’s Memoir (or The Narcissist’s Memoir)
This kind of memoir will have dual intentions. First of all, these are professional writers–or they hope to be. They write book or article proposals, not because they’ve already lived an experience, but because they want to live it. They have a thirst for adventure that prompts them to develop what-if ideas. What if I lived with the untouchable class in India for a year? What if paddled down the Amazon with nothing but a packpack of supplies? I love this type of memoir–I would have to say it’s my favorite because it’s less hit and miss than the category above, or the one below. But, earlier, I brought up the dual intentions inherent to this type of memoir. These authors also need advances to pay for their experiences, and so their experiences are not quite as authentic as those of the previous category. These authors are mercenary memoirists. This occasionally leads to a kind of narcissism I’ve seen of late with the Elizabeth Gilberts of the world, who propose travel adventures for their own self-fulfillment and then stuff themselves with food in Italy and put it on their publishers’ tab, so to speak. I learn less about the world and how to cope with challenges, and more about doing what’s right for me. But the best of this type of memoir I’ve highlighted at left (one of my favorite authors, anyway). Robyn Davidson’s style is to propose a challenge for herself (traveling alone with camels, for example), or to engage with an unknown culture in a faraway land because she possesses that indomitable Viking spirit.

The Creative Writer’s Memoir
This third category is the one my frail attempts at memoir would fall into (click on the tag Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl to read them). The authors of these are often MFA or English department graduates, and their particular genius is in taking ordinary life events and turning them into profound, philosophical experiences that many can relate to. Often, these authors write Coming of Age memoirs: coming of age for a Guatemalan immigrant in the U.S., coming of age in a typical, but crazy American Midwest family, coming of age for a modern Jewish girl in New York. Or these authors might elevate a specific time period into a focused, but epoch look at history. I can’t count the number of memoirs/autobiographies I’ve read that capture the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. I haven’t yet tired of reading about these pivotal decades, either. There was something magical about the world when it was on the verge of a new technological age. Airplanes used to be magic! But that’s what these authors do: they capture ordinary life and turn it into something profoundly spiritual, even if it’s only about the unstable life of one child who lived through a broken home (see This Boy’s Life at left)–or, ahem, a woman who worked in and hung out at espresso shops in the nineties.

If you’re a great reader of memoirs, perhaps you’re balking at my categories. But, for me, pinpointing the intention of each type of memoirist is important in understanding and rating/reviewing their books. Does the author clearly and emotively tell me her incredible story? Does the author’s thirst for adventure help me to understand the world better? Does the author’s window into the ordinary give me new insight into, or a profound vision of the human condition? Maybe, for the best memoirs, the answer is yes on all counts.

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Memoirs Made of Dreams: The Contrarian’s Nightmare

Life was happy and, somehow, bland in the oasis of the university campus. Green lawns cascaded toward buildings colored like desert mountains: tile red, yarrow, grays and greens and dusky-sunset blues. But that’s simply to set the scape of the dream, where imagination creates, not mere desert willows, but willows that enliven their narrow leaves and pink blooms, whose pods rattle wildly in the brush of hot wind.

The blandness bled from my mind. This was my life, my dream world: children, husband, and extended family sought comfort in numbers while they tossed bread to absurdly mean geese stampeding around the campus pond. No, this wasn’t the life I had always dreamed of, but the life that filled me when asleep, which is an important distinction to make.

In due time, my father-in-law spotted the name of the game show painted down the sides of the vans, all parked together near our vehicle. We were thus enlightened to the actual purpose of my dream: The Traveling Debate Show, a PBS venture, had finally found its way to the back cactus acres off the NM I 25, and hoards of hopeful locals gathered. They were the best, the brightest, or simply wanted a stab at a TV appearance.

Dad, Dad-in-Law, and Husband mocked the show. The debaters consisted of three groups–the Default Show-Host plants, the Intellectual Elites, and the average citizenry who occasionally conquered the debates, to the chagrin of the PhDs. The three men in my life mocked the show for its falseness, claiming it was an unreality show meant to subvert average people, to convince them they weren’t capable of rational debate, even though average people stuck to arguing the established positions. And still they lost, unless the directors needed to push forward a smart Joe or sassy Nancy to further entrap the viewing audience into watching again and again, rooting for Nancy-Joe-Junior-Jones-Smith-Chavez.

“I want to sign up,” I said.

“You’d better get in line quick, then.” Husband’s voice stung me with its dry skepticism.

Feeling small and silly, I joined the throngs and added my name to the list: — In my sleeping world, I’m an unnamed individual, a blank scrawl on a signature line. With every last drop of sweat-born courage [it was June or July and HOT], I informed the registrar that I chose to enter as an oppositional debater. I would take the Contrarian position, rather than the mainstream one.

“You don’t want to do that,” the registrar said. “Average people don’t sign up for the oppositional position. The only people who win that side are the PhDs.”

Inside, my heart quailed, but on the outside, I insisted. The Contrarian was my archetype. I couldn’t play any role but that one. Being perversely obstinate came naturally to me.

“O.K.,” the registrar said, and he put pen to paper and signed me up, directed me to my debate table where I filled out a myriad of disclaimers while my Default Show-Host waited, bored.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “Average people aren’t usually capable of debating the opposite viewpoint.”

I stared at him–at his clear eyes, brown hair, at the honest and instinctual appearance of his face. At essence, he was the archetypal image of Husband. No, I wasn’t sure at all that I wanted to do this. But I would carry on with it for the perverseness of the venture.

“They’ll bring us our topics in a few minutes. We may or may not get on camera,” he warned.

My contradictory nature couldn’t decide whether being on camera would be a negative or a positive. As my gut cramped, my mind warred between I want to be famous! and I want to be anonymous! Eventually, a harried woman in a lavender suit brought us two slips of paper with our debate topics. No cameraman or equipment appeared, and that fulfilled my expectations, at least. Average No-Name with Default Show-Host weren’t where the action was at.

Much to my non-surprise, the slips of paper were both blank and bore our topics at the same time. I knew as I stared at the little words not written there that I didn’t stand a chance of winning as a Contrarian. I couldn’t debate against these topics. How could I? They were too ordinary, and I would appear a fool.

As dreams go, the actual debate, where the climax of the dream should have played out, was a blur. I lost. But the details of my failure were missing because it was the expected result. The topics didn’t matter, and neither did the syllogisms. After it was over, Default Show-Host pretended that we’d had a good fight to the finish. He practically patted me on the head–in fact, I think he did. He patted me on my golden blonde hair [my hair hasn’t been that blonde since childhood], and he reassured me: “Average people don’t ever win the contrary argument. You did fine.”

Of course, my dream self shrugged the loss aside and buried the smallness I felt. I shrank inside my Wal Mart clearance rack t-shirt and convinced myself that the topics were wrong, that going against an instinctual male would never merit me accolades, that I still possessed a deeply intelligent half to my psyche. I was still a true Contrarian.

As I write this account of my dream world, many obvious interpretations leap out at me. And yet, I wonder if the true meaning is hidden in the same way that the PhDs were hidden throughout. In my imagination, I’m able to conjure a vision of the Intellectual Elites, with their dry shirts and sharp, wicked eyes framed by wire glasses. But they aren’t in the scape. Nothing in my mind brings them to life–no rattles of pens or the shaking of paper leaves, or the seeds of oppositional knowledge meeting the desert wind.

At the finale, I left the debate show, and the extended family went off for barbecue, and I followed along behind them, unsettled. A piece of me is still left in that dream.

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