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
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