Honoring the Past
A memoir author discusses reliving painful moments and recognizing a gift when it appears.Sometimes, in the most difficult moments, life sends an unexpected reprieve. For Tian Wilson, that saving moment came in the form of a feral cat. In her memoir, Gifts from a Feral Cat, a recent BookLife Editor’s Pick, Wilson reflects on an especially painful season of her life, her encounter with the titular feline, and bringing her book into the world.
You write from a place of deep introspection and tenderness. Did the process of writing your memoir help in healing some of the emotional wounds you carried from painful situations in your life?A painful memory is tricky. Over time, the heart and mind cover it with a salve that blurs the edges, softens the experience, rationalizes behaviors, and mutes the pain. The first time I wrote the story, I objectively skimmed along the top of the details. It made for an interesting and very accurate memoir. But the book was soulless, and cried out for its heart. Like a method actor, I decided to return to 1989 and remember what had happened, so acutely that I felt like I was in New Mexico again, feeling everything that had happened like it was the first time.
Going back to 1989 and reliving those moments for the book was quite painful, but it changed my writing. It also changed my own internal healing process. I liken it to the Earth’s largest living organism, the underground mycelium network in Oregon that covers over 2,300 acres. I learned that feelings are like the mycelium, interconnected by tender filaments whose tendrils send some kind of secret call out to wake up other painful feelings that I thought were dead and gone. As each memory surfaced, I embraced it and felt it deeply. In this way, the past was honored and released... healing at its finest.
It seems like you saw a bit of yourself in the cat, MJ. Can you share more about that?
Though MJ had multiple sterling character traits, there were four we seemed to share. First, he was an observer—ever watching, interested, learning, and listening in order to experience his intricate world more acutely. Second, he was a loner. He was comfortable being alone, but also willing to reach out of his comfortable solitary life when needed. Third, he was resilient. When he was knocked down, he got back up again and grew stronger from the experience. And fourth, he was patient, not just about stalking prey, but patient with my cats and with me. I think patience is the child of kindness; MJ displayed kindness and patience toward my cat Cochon, which was at the core of the little cat’s miraculous healing.
Animals learn to trust people that take good care of them, but humans can be more complicated. What has helped you in being able to trust people despite their shortcomings?
I was fortunate to learn early on to have trust in myself first. As far as trusting others, my perspective about trust is perhaps different, because I discovered people can be trusted to be who they are and act on what they value—nothing more and nothing less. I adopted that perspective after a conversation with a teacher who said the concept of trusting someone was based on an expectation of how I thought they should act. He told me to check that idea out for myself. I did and found he was right. There’s something liberating about being at ease with the way people are, rather than struggling to impose my shoulds, musts, and ought-to-bes on them. What has helped me to use this working idea of trust “in spite of their shortcomings” is that I don’t see people as having shortcomings. I’m not a Pollyanna; I just see humankind as richly varied, with different strengths and weaknesses.
What made you decide to self-publish instead of pitching to a traditional publisher?
As this is my first book, my initial inclination was of course to go the traditional publishing house route. Then I discovered what that route entailed. A celebrity or an athlete or a politician, a professional writer with a few books under their belt, would all have more than one foot in the door. I am none of the above. To start from zero, find an agent who would immediately read my work ahead of the other 200 manuscripts on their desk, then send it to a publisher who would present it to the public in short order was not, I realized, going to happen. Self-publishing is no longer considered as it was in the past, a “vanity project.” It’s a lot of work to learn and manage the process from cover to cover and beyond. However, it gives those of us who want to share our stories a way to accomplish that aim.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
I hope they find it interesting or delightful or captivating. There is nothing better than reading a book that is hard to put down, that takes you by the hand and immerses you in another world, a world you understand and that puts you at ease.
Secondly, I hope they can find one thing—even a small thing—that will make a difference for them. If they can discover one thing that will bring some peace, wisdom, or understanding, or end a bit of chaos in their lives, if one thing creates that “click” I talk about in the book, then I have done my job.
What advice would you give to those looking to write a memoir?
I avoid giving advice. We are all unique and different, so what has worked for me may not work for someone else. I will share a few reminders I made to myself as I wrote that have worked for me so far.
One, protect the people in the story. In the case of Gifts From a Feral Cat, I changed the names of most of the characters, either at their request or because they are now deceased and I couldn’t find family to ask permission to use their real names. Second, be ruthlessly honest. I didn’t “have it all together” and I let that be known. Confused? I admitted it. Tried something that didn’t work? I was free to acknowledge it. I was honest and straight and didn’t try to masquerade my own poor behavior as simply a lack of self-awareness. Paradoxically, I made sure I was willing to say out loud that I did the best I could do and did as good a job as possible with the light and understanding I had. Third, be willing to be uncomfortable, to travel back and really feel again what was felt at that time. In a funny way, writing a memoir may be the only opportunity I will have to live the past again. And that is a gift.