A lot of pain and heartache went into The Long Road North. I have grappled with many themes and events during my time writing this memoir, as it is so clearly both a positive and negative reflection on my not-so-distant past. How I portrayed certain people, events, and even myself weighed heavily on me throughout the entire creative process. I wanted to remain genuine to the events that took place, while at the same time not compromising anyone’s reputation. Although this memoir is a retelling of specific events from my past, my writing style received influences from four major texts, including: Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Mary Karr’s The Liars Club, and William Zinsser’s Inventing The Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. I want to talk a little bit about what each specific text meant to me during the writing process.
I begin with This Boy’s Life. Tobias Wolff is a magician in the way that he crafts this memoir about his childhood. His pace is brisk and the lengths of his chapters are unconventional, in that many times they extend only a few pages. I follow this trend to some degree, mostly because I tried not to overwrite. I felt that layering specific events with more detail was, in many instances, unnecessary. My text reads fast, and that is intentional, in that this is how my life during this time felt. It was a constant roller coaster that I for some time never seemed to get off. Looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Wolff also taught me the importance of being honest and being able to admit to one’s faults. Wolff makes clear that he is not a perfect person; he’s dabbled in thievery, lying, and many other poor decisions one could reasonably expect from a young boy without a father. I follow this same trajectory, making many decisions that most young males do. Whether it is the promiscuity or the mistreatment of certain people, I depict myself as no more of a saint than anyone else.
With Mary Karr’s The Liars Club, she inspired me to be as equally honest, but the fact that she is a woman brings a new perspective to my memoir. At times, I feel my vulnerability in this book defies typical gender stereotypes. I don’t know too many males my age that would be willing to explore their emotions to the extent that I do. While I was writing, there were times I felt that my revelations would be compared to a woman digressing on her emotional state, as if a woman navigating her emotions is more acceptable than a male doing the same thing. In this sense, as much as I hate to suggest, I feel I am paving the way for younger men to be vulnerable and not fearful of the way people will judge them when they expose some of the deeper recesses of their emotions.
William Zinsser’s Inventing the Truth in many ways enlightened me that doing a memoir on an event still relatively fresh in my mind could be a mistake, with a writer in his book explaining that more time needs to elapse before I can see how the impactful event in my life shaped the rest of my life. In this way I find my writing to be more revealing, almost like reporting. I don’t have the broad scope to yet see how my actions impacted my future. At the same time, I am able to document a portion of my life that was so invigorating and self-revealing. In essence, I don’t know how this period in my life will influence me decades from now, but I do know how it has influenced me in the present.
My last inspiration came from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I’m sure many of you have seen the movie starring Reese Witherspoon. This book was easily the most influential on my text. Strayed showed me how to write with transparency and clarity, to defy the normative placed upon my gender. Strayed talks a lot about her sexuality, some of her past escapades, and what they meant to her. I tried to follow suit in regards to my own sexual experiences. The reality is that sex predicated and still predicates much of my happiness as a male in my early twenties. Whether by nature or conditioning, I had felt compelled to be an overtly sexual human being. These thoughts dominated my mind constantly, to the point where I often thought I might have an unhealthy addiction.
Yet, like Strayed, I tuned out much of the thoughts that dominated my brain and went out in search of something more profound. Strayed encouraged me to be fearless in my approach to a text. Like Wolff and Karr, Strayed reveals many aspects of her life that normally would be considered taboo or condemnable. These perceived weaknesses are also what make Strayed and the others so fascinating. They’re humans who have made mistakes and learned from them. None of them end their book trying to suggest they found they’re happily ever after. That’s also the approach I took. My memoir ends, and then “Life was just beginning.”