Something strange happened about three-quarters of the way through the reading portion of my book signing last night. It was my second signing for my memoir, AfterImage. I had been so seized with nerves before and during the first signing that the whole experience was a tad out-of-body. But I managed to tamp down the butterflies in my stomach fairly successfully this time. I even went out to lunch with a friend mere hours before the event, as though it were a normal day – as though I wouldn’t be speaking in front of people by the time the sun set on Sunset.
But about twelve minutes into the author-reading-aloud segment of the program, this strange thing happened. I heard the author reading aloud. And – cue Rod Serling – it took me a second to realize it was me. There had been a few random warnings that stumping for this book – the story of losing my husband to cancer – would not be easy. “You know,” one writer with a much shinier literary pedigree than mine cautioned me, “you’re going to have to relive this every time you go out to talk about it.”
“I know,” I said. What’s the difference, I thought; I’m reliving it every day of my life anyway.
What I didn’t know was that I’d start talking about this experience – reading from my book, answering questions — as though I were talking about someone else’s life. I have spent countless hours of the past four and a half years considering why I was writing and, then, why I wrote this book. The answer, of course, is complex and layered and harbors shadowy recesses. But part of the answer is easy. Part of the answer is that I was in such disbelief about what had happened to me that I needed to make it real. The way I happen to do that is to turn an experience into words.
But recently, now that the book is out and I’m out there with it, I’ve begun to realize that another reason why I wrote AfterImage was to create a narrative that was outside of myself. My story, but a story nonetheless. A separate thing. Indeed: a thing, now between two hard covers with a bright yellow jacket. (My publisher called that one right. I had voted for the powder blue.)
So I suppose it makes a certain sense that my voice suddenly became separate from me as I was reading from this book, this thing — that the sound of my voice seemed to sail around the room emanating from who-knows-where. When I remembered that it was I who was generating that sound, the reality behind the words crashed down around me for an instant. My story, yes. But my life, too. My husband’s life gone. My voice caught. It cracked. People might have thought I was about to cry. But I didn’t. Instead, I kept reading… until the voice calmed. Whosoever’s voice it may have been.