The Memoir, Mirrored -The Toast

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carIt was roughly ten years ago that the editor of a small literary journal called me with an invitation to contribute. He’d seen my letter to another publication and noticed that, at least by rural standards, we lived fairly close to one another. I liked his paper, especially the book reviews, but it didn’t feel like a venue where my ideas would be welcome. A nice place to visit as a reader, sure, but without an inviting corner to unfurl a sleeping bag and get cozy in. There was no sense cobbling something together that would almost surely be rejected, so I simply asked him, “What should I write?”

“You just said you don’t drive at all. That’s pretty unusual. Why don’t you write about that?” he offered. He had published an essay about eschewing computers and the internet for typewritten work, so I’d tossed out that bit of trivia about myself in an attempt at Luddite bonding. I promised to think it over, but when it was revealed that the reward for doing this would be bragging rights and two copies of the paper it was easy to bail. Prestige is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills. And the subject wasn’t something I felt comfortable delving into with this guy, as the longer we talked about things the more I found myself internally backing away. It was clear that only a certain version of the truth would do, and for it to see print it would probably have to flirt with outright lying or there would be no “hook,” no drama.

It wasn’t about my personal or artistic integrity, just the fact that making up that much of a story is hard work, and a total waste of time with no paycheck on the horizon to work toward.

It’s true that I don’t drive and have never owned a car or had a license, and it’s certainly true that that’s unusual among people my age—it was a huge rite of passage for every one of my peers. But this isn’t about driving, or about me. It’s about memoir, and how often our truths are incomplete, or tailored to fit an external perception or expectation of who or what we are. When you tell a story about yourself, exactly who are you trying to sell to the reader?

Just so there’s no ambiguity, here’s the true story of why I don’t drive. As a kid we never had insurance on a car, and the cars we had were as insubstantial as cardboard. There was the pickup whose doors we reattached with baling wire and another that we discovered had been underwater prior to purchase. We had a chartreuse Mazda station wagon that leaked carbon monoxide into the back seats, so you could murder your passengers a little bit at a time on any but the shortest errands. Oh, and a beautiful but doomed sky blue Audi that died in the space of a few months from multiple undisclosed mechanical problems, though not before several birds dashed their brains out flying into the hood as we drove to the laundromat or grocery store. Several VW’s, both van and bug. A Coronet, a Bonneville, a tiny Toyota, an outsize Bronco, and an inconsequential little orange thing less memorable for make and model than the seller, whose name was Frank Yank. I shut my fingers in the door of that one once, and it hurt like hell.

In my senior year of high school my dad won a modest settlement when his boss tried to fire him after he’d been hurt on the job, and we bought one of the first brand-new Hyundais for around $6000: Party time! We never insured it, but he did let me lurch it around a parking lot in Bodega Bay once or twice since I had my permit. It was clear he wasn’t comfortable teaching me, though, which made it hard to learn, besides which it was a stick shift. This reflected a weird pattern in my family: If you weren’t automatically good at something it was considered wasteful to spend time studying and improving.

Clearly I could have learned, but because I didn’t already have a patch-covered jumpsuit, Meinecke sponsorship, and glass bottle of milk in hand, why bother? I let the matter rest, then made my parents pay for their lack of interest by mooching rides from them for the entire remainder of their lives. That included teenage rides to concerts in San Francisco where they had nothing to do but sit in the parking lot and wait, since they did not share my desire to jump up and down in the presence of Adam Ant. Philistines.

This is all true. And it offers a rounded view of the woman depicted, in that you might feel sorry for her (She’s poor! Her parents seem flaky!), or want to plant a boot in her ass (Jesus, get it in gear and make something happen for yourself already! How can you still be nursing this grudge?), depending on your own background and beliefs. But of course it’s just one story, and by no means a complete picture.

It’s also kind of boring when you get right down to it. I mean, having crummy cars is not inherently
more interesting than growing up with nice ones. It’s how you use them as material that counts, and
trusting that what you choose to include is somehow both right and enough. Not for publication, but for you, for your story. I was still a bookseller when James Frey came on the scene and was first lauded, then derided for fudging his memoirs, after which it seemed like half the books in our biography section suddenly had to be moved to fiction. Everybody was full of crap; the desire for attention and acclaim (for Oprah! Let’s admit it) had supplanted what I hope was people’s original desire, to tell the truth beautifully and well. When that ceased to be enough, well, maybe grandpa was a Nazi. Maybe I was in a street gang, or pulled out a toenail in a fit of pique. Who’s to say? And who cares if it’s true?

Here’s the true story of why I don’t drive: I asked for rides from childhood through my mid-30’s, making a willful disconnection between my environmental leanings and the fact that having to be picked up and dropped off doubled the carbon footprint whenever I went to work, a movie, or the beach. I wrote it off at the time, but relocating to a small city where I can literally walk to every single thing I need led me to see the error of my ways. It also made it possible for me to repay my carbon debt while getting lots of free exercise as a bonus. Just this morning I ran errands for three hours—the teller at my credit union was alarmed when I came in with two small paychecks and an enormous hoe from Home Depot, but I got a ton of stuff done before noon and was able to jump right into some writing and revision, switching from body to mind effortlessly.

Living like this is of a piece with my commitments to reuse, recycle, compost as much as a trailer park will allow, grow a little of my own food, et cetera, and I’m proud of how much I can do in the limited amount of space I occupy. It’s not a zero-waste lifestyle, but I only generate a tiny bag that needs emptying once every two months. I use a flow interrupter to limit water use in the shower, and drought-resistant plants in the garden save even more. It takes a lot of creativity and effort but it’s super rewarding, and feels like a needed sacrifice made for the greater good of all.

Again, this is completely true, but I hope we can agree that the woman in this story is an insufferable twat. If she hadn’t shut up it’s a certainty we’d be hearing about her yoga practice, kale intake, and her carbon offset account to deal with the methane she releases after eating it. Spare me. It smacks of obvious, oblivious privilege in the same way the first story stank of po-faced self-pity. Who’s in charge here?

We all know the possible turns this story can take: Our heroine can commit to some aspect of her upscale cluelessness for a year, blog about it, and realize at year’s end that nobody wants to read about those damn projects anymore, or she can accidentally throw a newspaper in the trash, have a minor breakdown, and have a well-documented breakthrough while getting her act together, preferably in a foreign land. It’s simultaneously too precious and completely overdone, and a little too easy-breezy.

Where’s the conflict? The harshness? Would she know a dark night of the soul if it bit her in the ass?

The true story of why I don’t drive is a little uncomfortable to get into. I am deeply afraid, pretty much all the time. There’s the fear that inattention will cause me to hurt someone, sure, but that’s really the least of my concerns. I’m terrified that I’ll never have someone in my life who, recognizing the sound of my engine on approach, will come to the door and welcome my presence. I lose sleep at night over my failure to make meaningful connections with people, and have since I was very young. Sabotaging my ability to move freely gives me something to point to–”Oh, sorry I can’t make it, no car,”–and relieves me of the brutal second-guessing that attends any invitation. Do you really want me there? With what motive? Who are we to each other? Friends? Just friends? Why?

It was so easy to screw up while pretending to learn in my dad’s precious new toy, and then just go limp from that moment onward and avoid questions about driving as if I hadn’t heard them. It’s shameful to admit that passivity. I’m ashamed, and pathetic, and not sure which I’m more afraid of, being alone from here on out or trusting someone enough to let them get close to me. I’m reminded of my failure every time I’m a passenger, and it seems probable that I will be a passenger for life, always a bridesmaid, forever shotgun.

This woman, while still a bit difficult to embrace, gains a little by also seeming mentally ill. That’s always good for some sympathy, because who knows? Maybe she’ll have a big public meltdown at a reading, or get addicted to something more controversial than Chex Mix, which is really only exciting to the gluten-free. Lacking a sequel where she learns to drive on her wedding day and magically contracts a case of confidence, she’s kind of an enigma wrapped in a bummer right now. I’d borrow her from the library, but my personal shelf space is at a premium. You know how it is.

The true story of why I don’t drive is not at all clear to me. It’s true that my parents didn’t encourage me, but I failed to advocate on my own behalf and enlist their help. Hell, I had to ask my closest neighbor to teach me how to ride a bike. My folks got on my case in later years about not getting my license, which struck me as a crazy-making abdication of parental responsibility, and I definitely put it off at that point for spite, plain and simple. It’s possible that we were engaged in a years-long game of chicken with no winner, each hoping to antagonize the other into action. If so, the experiment did not end well. My parents are dead and I’m middle-aged, with compromised mobility and a life striking for its shortage of accomplishments and milestones.

I really do love walking, and accidents and invitations both terrify me, but not to such an extent that I’d surrender my independence over them. I think not learning to drive was just a mistake that I never corrected, and have since struggled to define. Styled one way it can flatter me, bent another I might work it for some sympathy, or at least a laugh at my own expense. You can’t have every version front and center, so which self do you choose? Who are you when you decide to meet your public?

Some of the facts I left out of this story (which weigh just as heavily as what you choose to include):

The whole time I was writing this I kept thinking of Marge Simpson’s aversion to flying, and the visual of her hair racing back and forth, up and down the aisle of the plane, as she’s shouting “Lemme out, lemme out, lemme out!” It’s not directly related—my dad wasn’t a stewardess, or a checkered-flag-waving guy—but something about it stuck with me. This is the point where I should recount that time when I was four and for some reason my parents let me drive them and our dog, cat, and hamster to the mall as a joke, but I couldn’t reach the brakes and flipped into a ditch and everyone died but me. It didn’t happen, but that story, along with my eating them all to stay alive, would definitely move some copies.

My mother drove but for almost twenty years didn’t have a valid license for reasons that escape my recall. Does it help or harm my case for not learning to drive that I was afraid every time I got in the car with her? It always seemed like something terrible was going to happen, but the worst thing was that we hit a puppy once and broke its hind legs. The owner had to pull it out from where it had gotten stuck under the front bumper (of the Hyundai, no less—we put 200,000 miles on that thing) and checked to make sure the car was okay. It was, and we continued on our way, though we were very sad. I think she got pulled over once, but we somehow got away with just a fix-it ticket for a bum tail light.

Some of the best times my dad and I had together were working on our fleet of hoopties. I like cars and the complexity of engines, and think I could have become a pretty good mechanic, despite being afraid of the noise those air compressors make. It’s a shame it never happened.

Heather Seggel is a full-time freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bitch, UTNE, at,, and she blogs with good intentions but no frequency at

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