Somewhere around the age of 25, I left my job as magazine editor, packed up my apartment in New York, and moved hundreds of miles to study literature in graduate school. I was eager to become a full-time devourer of the great literary masterpieces, yet felt slightly sheepish about my pursuit as others my age were climbing career ladders, attending glamorous parties, or zooming off to London on business trips. Well, they were making a living. I thought of them often as I read my Shakespeare, wrote my term papers, surrounded by the musty perfume of library shelves.

During this time, I fell in love with the poetry of Wallace Stevens as he evoked the primacy of the imagination. Stevens was an anachronism. He spent his career working full-time for Hartford Accident and Indemnity, and wrote brilliant poetry in his off hours. I found his dual life interesting, if not a little bizarre, as it flew in the face of my oft-imagined Bohemian life filled with Matisse colors, the gypsy smell of tobacco, and the endless flow of jazz. For years, I had longed for that writer's life of ebullient conversation, chattering away at the Algonquin, wearing my Daisy Buchanan wardrobe, the long pearl necklace looping a slender neck.

My father was an FBI agent who practiced the religion of stoic pragmatism. Although I never asked, I'm sure my father would have concluded Stevens was a smart man. He'd always have money to pay the bills, and could flip a coin as to which identity he'd assume at the evening cocktail party. Still, this tug-of-war between living the life of the creative artist and that of the working office person always loomed large in my psyche. Why? Perhaps because I saw how each road led to the same destination, and how there was no denying that each of us is born with a primal need for self-expression, a creative impulse. It's part of our flesh-and-blood circuitry. To live is to imagine.

Wallace Stevens wrote that the imagination is critical to our self-preservation. This is a radical thought -- especially for the times we live in. So often the imagination is portrayed as distracting us from real life, rather than making our life more real. How many times was I called the dreamer, and how often did I cower upon hearing those words, feeling exposed, apologetic, disloyal. I had been found out. That's why I was so charmed by Wallace Stevens. He was a suit who wrote poems!

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I thought of Stevens when I started writing FBI Girl, remembering that to tell my story, I had to surrender the ego's control, say hello to the imagination, walk into the blackest of rooms, and pray that some mysterious light might slip under the door. I traveled that light, boarding it's magic carpet that whisked me back home, back to sunny southern California, back to the late 1960s and 70s, the place and time when I came of age. In writing the book, the child who I was had something to say to the adult who I am, and, paradoxically, the adult I am now had something to say to that child. This is how memoir -- or at least this specific memoir -- was conceived.

I believe that past-present-future are often fluid concepts, that who we are now constantly converses with who we once were and who we are still becoming, and that this flies under the radar of our rational minds. Memoir, as art form, mirrors this process, resembling more a mosaic, or a dance, and it is very non-linear. Memory isn't a straight arrow. It swirls as a vortex. Imagine a million twirling poodle skirts powered by Niagara Falls. Part of trusting the imagination is learning to trust that twirl.

In entering the vortex of young Maura Conlon's life, the reader is perhaps whisked back into the landscapes of her own childhood. This landscape is the mother ship, the seedbed of our dreams; it holds the rhizomes of our imaginations. It is huge, this place where we experience life's tastes and sounds and touches and sites and longings for the first time. In memoir, we are transported to our original questions, those we may spend entire lifetimes attempting to answer. We travel the magic carpet, hearing ourselves ask: Where is home? What are the family secrets? What am I here to learn? What does love mean? And finally, as Maura discovers for herself in FBI Girl: What is my voice in the world? That voice has everything to do with self-preservation.

 

 

 

 


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Maura Conlon-McIvor
author of
FBI Girl
How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code
Published by Time Warner

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