Memoir Writing


Books That Have Made All the Difference


Sometimes when I hear people say that they have read a book that has "turned their life right around" I roll my eyes and thing, "Yeah, right," I think. But, there are books that have clearly changed my way of looking at life. Not a lot of them, to be sure, but there are some. Since there are books that have given me a different, more useful, way of thinking I suspect there are books in your life that have made a lot of difference to you. I can remember one text book that I was assigned to read that had only one phrase in it that I found useful. That phrase was "A resonant thought." A new way for me to evaluate the usefulness of ideas that life offers along the way.

There are books that I have found truly life changing. Very few of them, to be sure, but they are out there. What I would like you to do, now, is to let your mind flirt with the notion of life changing books. When you have fixed on a book that you have found significant, begin to write. Feel free to include things beyond the printed words in that book that are occur to you when you think of that book.

One such book that comes to my mind is R.D. Lang's Politics of Experience. Below the flowery line you can read what I wrote when I tried this experience. Today, I might write something entirely different.


Example: Remembering R. D. Lang's Politics of Experience

As I let my mind wonder through the titles of books that I have read that have made a difference to me, the first one that comes to mind is Living at the Edge of Chaos by someone or other, a Jungian psychologist. As I understand it, because she is a Jungian psychologist and therefore she believes that much can be made of synchronous echoes. How can I explain those shimmering cameo memories that pop into one's mind from time to time? Meaningless little crumbs of life recalled? If you chose to believe that these glowing moments are, in fact, second chance offerings beckoning from afar, then you could opt to resolve to follow an appealing course that you long ago failed to follow and perhaps find yourself living a more zestful life. But, ah, there is the more likely chance that these memories maybe just flotsam floating around in the mind. So, I reject, Living at the Edge of Chaos, and allow my mind to open to memory of another book: Politics of experience.

Once, back in 1971, I was having a discussion with my advisor at college, perhaps the question at hand was "is there such a thing as truth?" He suggested that I might find it interesting to read "Politics of Experience" by R.D .Lang. He actually loaned me his copy of the book. I went right home and began reading it. At the time I was not an especially fast reader, but I was a determined reader. Once I started a book, any book, I found it almost impossible to put it down. The way Lang explained the way that people understand one another in Politics of Experience was very different from the way I understood the relationships to be. I argued with him every step of the way. At the time, I had an aversion to writing in books, especially in other people's books, so, I kept a spiral notebook at my side and jotted down the sticking points I wanted to discus with my advisor.

Politics of Experience is not a very big book, but since I was going over it in such detail, it took me three days to get to the end of the book. When I think of Politics of Experience I do not think of the content of the book. I think of what happened right after I finished reading it.

It was very near midnight. I snapped the book shut and threw it across the room in disgust. "Absolutely shit!!" I proclaimed.

My husband, ever tolerant, said, "You want to tell me about it?"

I did not. I didn't even know how to begin.

"You're so wound up!" he laughed his most kindly supportive laugh. "How about we go for a little ride in the car. Maybe the cool night air will clear your mind."

I was raised in a family that believed that a nice automobile ride under the stars may well be the solution to all the worlds frustrations. So, off we went. He chose one of my favorite roads: Johnnycake Road. It leads out of Howard County and joins that little snarl of roads that eventually winds up in Carroll County, somewhere. As we drove along, I began telling my husband what was so frustrating about R.D. Lang's ideas on interpersonal communication.

There was nothing particularly difficult to understand about Lang's concept of how people communicate. His big thing in the book was that each person develops or fails to develop a level of trust with the person they are talking to, one layer at a time. That's not a particularly difficult to understand. It was the assumption beneath the communication that had driven me to scrawl a spiral notebook full of mental arguments with that aggravating Scotsman.

I had no quarrel with Lang's levels of understanding:

  1. I speak
  2. I speak/you understand
  3. I speak/you understand/I understand that you understand
  4. I speak/you understand/I understand that you understand /I understand that you understand
  5. I speak/you understand/I understand that you understand /I understand that you understand that I understand
  6. And so on to infinity, perhaps

My real quarrel with him was in that he said unequivocally that the reason for all this hedging of one's bets, this not saying what one really meant, was that at base each person is afraid the other will find some fundamental evil in them that he feels must be kept secret. Or was it the other way round? Was it that each person was protecting themselves from finding some secret evil in the other? In any event, the image he worked from was that of a person, opening a series of doors, one after the other that led down a dark secret stairway, at all times on the verge of running back up the stairs, slamming all the doors to intimate communication behind herself, one level at a time was very clear, yet troublesome to me in some major way.

I can no longer remember whether his contention was that people refused to open the doors to further understanding in order to protect themselves from other people finding the dark secret at the core of their being, or that they did so to protect themselves from exposure to the dark animal that lived in the deepest realms of the hearts of others. The difference seemed important at the time. But now I thinks otherwise. I suspect they are the same.

As we talked, I could feel her husband's understanding of my questionings. Level by level we moved down the stairway of understanding each matching the other's trust level by level. And suddenly, we both realized at the same time that somewhere along the road, he had taken a wrong turn, and now we were out in the middle of the dark woods and lost. He pulled over to the side of the road, and I reached retrieved a map and a flashlight from the glove compartment and began trying to identify where we were. It was in that late springtime. In Maryland that meant the air was thick with humidity, the breath of honeysuckle and the thrum of cicadas.

At that very instant, a V.W. bug pulled up beside our station wagon. The girl driving popped her frizzy head out the window and asked... "You know where the Old Holmes Place is?"

We said, "No."

Her companion said, "Party there tonight? Cool old basement? No house at all any more. Round here somewhere?"

Again we told them we didn't know anything about the Holmes Place nor did we know the whereabouts of a field party.

The driver flashed us a smile and a peace sign and said, "Don't let the dark roads freak you out." And off she went. Leaving behind nothing but the memory of their taillights disappearing around the curve and their good wishes. There is nothing more to this little cameo event... unless you count a halo of loss.

Together we studied the map and worked out a fair guess as to where we had wound up and how to find our way home. We drove along the ever more familiar route in silence. I have no idea what he was thinking. But I do remember what it was that I was thinking. "Lang is wrong about the truth at the bottom of the stairs."

My real quarrel with Lang was that I believed he thought it was important that people learn to go down all the levels of understanding, while I worried about what would happen if they didn't have these little things to argue about. They would have nothing to do but sit there and hum. At the time she was afraid of just setting and letting all the complications in life go streaking past like a meteor shower.

The thought of all that setting and humming and paying no attention to the rest of the world and its mad rush to perdition still scares me, but it's looking better all the time.

I am beginning to believe that we quite likely live in the world we describe to ourselves.I can no longer remember if the important thing was to keep moving so that the frightening things in the world could never catch up to you or the notion that she had some obligation to try to I

I have almost forgotten that fragment of a John Milton quote:

"Him the Almighty Power
Hurl'd headlong...

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell"


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