Susan Conley's memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, first published by Knopf in 2011, was an Oprah Magazine Top Ten Pick, a Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist and won the Maine Award for memoir (susanconley.com). It is the story of a journey into China, and into cancer, with her family of four--her husband, Tony, and her two sons Aidan and Thorne.
The Foremost Good Fortune is a kind, generous look at family life, married life, and expat life; but it is also a portal into a world which some of us will never understand: disease, remission, recurrence. The book is brave and unique, but beyond that it is such an inviting read, with its clarity, precise descriptions, close-looking, and hard-hitting honesty about the human condition to need answers for the tough questions about death, afterlife, and love.
I'm going to be honest. I haven't fully processed this book yet.
That said, I wonder: how quickly can we process books with topics, themes, and questions that shouldn't just be taken in one ear and then gradually pushed out the other (as we move on in our daily lives--or pick up the next book)?
I don't know how fast we're able to process. Maybe it's about our own life circumstances at the time--well, I don't have cancer, and I've never lived in China, so will this book not affect me as much as it did someone else? Maybe. Maybe not. OR, there's this option: it will affect me in different ways.
I'm glancing through my earmarked pages--11, 24, 70, 90, 128, 135, 154, 171, 196, 263, for starters--noting connections between things I've underlined: some of the narrator's (Susan's) thoughts and actions in the book ring true with what she's personally told me as it's affected my own writing. (I worked with Susan last year in my graduate work with the University of Southern Maine). On page 24, for example, she writes, "...I'm projecting. But I'm often guilty of that."
POW. She told me that exact same thing. "Watch out here Maggie. Be careful not to project." (And I thought, hat the heck, SUSAN, that's just who I am!)
Was she warning me as a friend/mentor, trying to give life advice? Or was she warning me as a writer: "Don't do this (projecting thing) in your prose, unless you acknowledge it"?
I was walking with a friend yesterday, and we were talking about our writing lives. What should we write? What do we withhold? How do we tap into our feelings if we are (both of us) resistant to feeling things at all? (If we're happy, for example, then we'll push other less happy people out, but if we're sad, or angry, then that sucks for us. And we don't want to feel anything if it's just going to, well, hurt).
"Maybe the difference between saying what you're feeling and saying that you don't know how you feel is that you're even aware of it at all," my friend said. "There are lots of depressed, angry people walking around out there who don't even recognize they're angry. But at least you're acknowledging your anger." What counts, we decided, (or I'm deciding now), is that when you write out your story, you're honest. You're honest about who you were when you were going through the experience. So if you were numb, you say so. If you were anxious and hyper, you say so. You give the reader enough of a clue into your life, your world, your psyche, that they believe what you say--they don't think you're withholding.
Well. Susan has gaps in her memoir. There are holes where there could be extra descriptions--of hospitals, or maybe of Beijing markets--but maybe I noticed those holes because I've been trained to. What impressed me was how much she felt in this memoir. The gaps don't matter because in what she does give, she's generous! She doesn't back away; that's one thing we discussed, recently, in (my final) residency with my graduate program, the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing. Amanda Johnston, a newer faculty member for poetry, said this:
"DON'T LOOK AWAY."
Don't look away from the hard moments, the uncomfortable scenes, the memories you've locked away, perhaps, because they're too painful. That's where the life is. People need to know they're not alone--so you really just gotta share your shit. (Excuse the language!)
Friends, readers, brothers and sisters in literature? Keep reading, keep living.