Coming to grips with one’s life can be unnerving, at times harrowing, and often perplexing, yet annalists of self persist. Unlike autobiographers who present for posterity, memoirists function as literary alchemists seeking transformation through recollection that yields an intimate truth of more than personal interest.
The impulse toward memoir springs from a belief that undiscovered treasure lies in our past. In Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure (Brown Paper Press), Sandra Miller’s luxuriously concise account, we encounter three lives to be dearly cherished: “Sandy,” the character Miller presents as protagonist; the real Sandra as distinct from Sandy the character, and the memoirist as writer in action, each struggling to make sense of complex matters: Sandy’s abuse-freighted childhood; her marriage; her tilt toward the discovery of shiny objects; the distant death of her father and the proximate passing of her mother; past loves, and Sandy/Sandra’s pressingly urgent desire to win a treasure contest fittingly named, We Lost Our Gold.
Miller’s Trove delivers memoir as palimpsest, a tightly sculpted entwining of the living Sandra airily sauntering behind the intense, ambivalent, driven and intermittently irreverent Sandy. We feel the living woman’s breath in the story’s cracks, flashbacks and transitions, guiding the writer’s hand and tying us to the continuity of experience that underwrites this tale of transformation and redeeming revelation.
Trove’s play with pentimento potently illustrates how our living self can function in memoir as a pedal point—a sustaining, sometimes dissonant, presence beneath our protagonist’s conflicts and migrations. The persistent presence of this undertone establishes an author not caught in memory, but beneficially selecting from it with a clarity and acumen that brings her readers to a place of belief.
I recently had the good fortune to speak with Sandra about her craft and her journey.
MARC ZEGANS: How did Trove change between your first draft and the book we have today?
SANDRA MILLER: When I started I wanted to say everything, so I included any detail even tangentially related to treasure hunting. My first draft was 500 pages. It took years of editing and rewriting, and a lot of help from writer friends to shape that draft into a story.
When I finally sent Trove to publishers it was down to three strands, my relationship with my family of origin, my current family life, and the treasure hunt. The book became more authentic because each strand wasn’t fighting for space. When you tell the hard story without distraction, you just go deeper.
MZ: Trove presents Sandy as ardently seeking without knowing quite what she is looking for. How did it feel to live that?
SM: For most of my life, I carried a hole in my heart. At times it felt nearly unbearable. I felt like there was a caged bird fluttering around in my chest, a chronic sense of restlessness that led me to adventures all around the globe.
Travel didn’t quell that sense of longing, but I always had an instinct that what I wanted was reachable. When David invited me to go on this treasure hunt, I felt “this is it. How could a search for a chest full of gold coins NOT lead me to what I need?”
MZ: As a child you became good at spotting small treasures. Your gathering process reminded me of the Lyle Lovett song, “Step Inside This House.” Lovett’s treasures tell the story of where he’s been. Your curios and bibelots play a different role; they function as active devices. Can you, speak to this?
SM: While I enjoy the physical experience of finding a treasure, it’s when I imbue it with meaning that it becomes a clue to what I need in that moment. My treasures find me, or we find each other. I pick up the ones that draw something out in me.
MZ: You unfold a familial tale of conflict and abuse worthy of Eugene O’Neill, but your character breaks the mold without exiting her family. Can you speak to this?
SM: The center holds because I have a strong marriage, but that’s one of the paradoxes. A healthy marriage doesn’t necessarily shut down longing and a person’s desire to explore. It allows for that to happen as long as the boundaries are clear and accepted by both people.
MZ: What do you imagine would have happened had you found the treasure chest you the first time you went digging?
SM: It would have been a flippin’ blast! But what a blessing we didn’t find it. I would have been deprived of the real adventure.
Marc Zegans, a poet and creative development advisor, is the author of five collections of poems most recently, La Commedia Sotterranea: Swizzle Felt’s First Folio from the Typewriter Underground (Pelekinesis). His newest collection, The Snow Dead, will be released Cervena Barva Press, in Spring 2020. His work can be found at http://marczegans.com, and his creative advisory services at http://mycreativedevelopment.com