Saturday, March 5, 2011

Talking About My Life

When you write a memoir, you're deciding privacy is not so important to you.  Instead, you have a message you want to share with others, and you're willing to take the risk of revealing your secret life to achieve that goal.  Open secrets, things you never really wanted to tell anyone.  Suddenly, you find that people you don't know ask you why you did things you're ashamed of.  You have no answers, really, but you try to talk about what you think might have changed in you, so that now you would never do such things.  You can't be sure that's true.

Writing is a dangerous craft, and there is no way to do it without letting cats out of bags, taking the cover off the bed, letting the hidden be revealed.  Well, there is another way.  It's called boring.  If you want to compel your readers to live it with you, so they'll arrive in the place you are and understand your message, you must let go of your desire to remain safe.

So, when I went recently to Emory University's Oxford College to talk about my memoir, Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling, I hoped it would be easy and safe. Of course, it was not, at least not altogether.  But I liked the way the students, especially women and students of color, felt it showed them a path worth considering.  I became a woman in science with a family, married and with kids, but still finding out the hidden ways the molecules of the universe work, why aging happens at the scale of molecules.  I talked with them about my student who committed suicide, my daughter who once asked, "Are you going to step on me, Mommy?" And my son, whose seventh grade teacher completely gave up on him, although his English aptitude scores were above 90%, because, as she said, "I know these black kids struggle with English."
They kept asking, "Didn't your family get in the way of your career?"  Of course it did.  But I kept both going because both were supremely important to me.  It was a struggle, no denying that.  And there were days when I had no idea if it would all fall apart.  But it didn't and I have the nerve to hope it would not for them either, if they decide they would love to be biologists with families.