Today’s writing lesson: Remember when writing memoir that there are always two perspectives in your story.
My thoughts today are less about memoir per se than storytelling in general and what is often called “writer’s block” in particular. As with my last entry, they come from something John Edgar Wideman wrote in his deeply searching and searing memoir Brothers and Keepers. Near the book’s end, Wideman talks about showing the first draft of his book to Robby, the imprisoned brother whose story lies at its heart. Robby tells him that “something crucial” is missing from it.
In seeking the source of the problem, Wideman decides that his expectations and fear kept him from getting down to the true story. “By the book’s conclusion I wanted a whole, rounded portrait of my brother,” he writes, but “no apotheosis of Robby’s character could occur in the final section because none had transpired in my dealings with my brother.”
In other words, Wideman’s expectations of what the story would be, and his ideas of what a story is, were keeping him from seeing what his brother’s life had to tell him. “I’d been waiting to record dramatic, external changes in Robby’s circumstances when what I should have been attuned to were the inner changes, his slow, internal adjustment day by day to an unbearable situation.”
Wideman’s use of the word “unbearable” at this point links Robby’s life to that of their mother, who used it to describe daily life as an African American. “Unbearable is not that which can’t be borne,” Wideman writes about his mother’s understanding of the word, “but what must be endured forever.” Wideman’s late recognition that the real story is Robby’s “internal adjustment” to “an unbearable situation” allows him to link Robby’s plight to those of his ancestors, including his mother, and of African Americans throughout history. By listening more carefully and homing in on smaller, more intimate details, he gives his story universality.
But it is what Wideman writes on the following page that speaks more generally to writers, especially those who find themselves scared to write:
“The problem with the first draft was my fear. I didn’t let Robby speak for himself enough. I didn’t have enough confidence in his words, his vision, his insights. I wanted to clean them up. Manufacture compelling before-and-after images. Which meant I made the bad too bad and good too good. I knew what I wanted; so, for fear I might not get what I needed, I didn’t listen carefully, probe deeply enough.”
The last sentence here is particularly useful. It is our idea of what we want that gets in the way, that makes us afraid the outcome won’t be good enough. We’re thinking about the end product when we should be thinking about the process. “The best is the enemy of the good,” Thomas Merton used to say. Our desire to be praised for what we produce keeps us from listening carefully to our sources or ourselves, from probing deeply enough to see what is truly there rather than what fits more easily into our preconceived notions.
“Lower your sights,” writing teachers often say to students who face writer’s block. A better thing to say might be “Forget about the writing and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.” Viewed in this way, writing is not a craft or even a talent but a way of understanding the world, others and ourselves. The focus isn’t on writing beautiful sentences or telling a compelling story but on seeing and understanding what is really in us and around us, trusting that truth, however provisional, will sparkle with a beauty all its own.
I suppose I should admit that my “experiment” has been a failure. I set out to post one blog entry a week on memoir writing and one on writing about others during the months of April and May. I haven’t written about writing about others for two weeks and this week my Memoir Monday entry is two days late. As I often say to students, life trumps writing. Work, illness and family matters interfere with our best-laid plans.
Maybe it’s appropriate then that today’s entry is about both memoir writing and writing about others—or, more accurately, writing about others in memoir writing. This may be the least-discussed aspect of memoir writing. We teach budding memoirists to examine their lives, to separate the contemplating consciousness from that of their earlier self, to dare to go deeper into pain and shame, but we don’t talk enough about how they should think about writing about the others in their lives.
In many memoirs, family members and others who have had relationships with the writer end up as collateral damage. Parents bear the brunt of the character blows. Sometimes they are the heroes of memoirs but more often they are the villains. They are portrayed as drunk or drug-addled, abusive or negligent. Some are psychotic, some autocratic, and some narcissistic in the extreme. The scars left by their behaviors are real and, judging by what many memoirists have written, they are life-altering, character-warping, ineradicable even with therapy.
But memoir writing can inflict damage and leave scars too. This coming week my Memoir Writing students will read essays from a book called Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro. Some of the essays make clear how wounding words and stories can be. Others talk about the usefulness of letting family members read what has been written about them in advance of publication. All of them, in one way or another, raise the questions What do we owe the people we write about when seeking to write our own stories? and How can we make sure we’re being fair to others as well as ourselves?
There are no easy answers, of course. But the book my students read this last week, John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers, suggests some approaches. Wideman’s book looks at the differences and similarities between himself, a widely respected writer and professor, and his brother Robby, who is serving a life sentence for his participation in a robbery in which a man was killed. The book is, in essence, a biography as well as a memoir, and the sections on Robby are based on interviews Wideman did with his brother. But Wideman goes to great lengths to show that he bears sole responsibility for what the book says.
In his Author’s Note, Wideman tells us his book is a “mix of memory, imagination, feeling and fact.” Because he wasn’t able to use a tape recorder during his prison visits, he had only inadequate notes from his conversations with his brother. He used those notes in conjunction with his lifelong knowledge of Robby, their family, their neighborhood, and the societal conditions at play in the lives of young American black men to write from Robby’s perspective, giving Robby a voice in the book. The voice in these sections is a voice of the streets, using slang and informal patterns of speech. Wideman makes it clear to his readers that he has constructed this voice but tells us, too, that Robby has read and approved and, at times, corrected it. You might call it a collaborative voice, one writer’s attempt to write about someone else while giving that person the opportunity to make sure the depiction of him reflects his own understanding.
Even then, Wideman is careful to tell us that his picture of Robby (which he uses as a mirror to reflect an essential part of his own nature) is his picture—limited and fragmentary, warped by his own partial view and understanding. “There will necessarily be distance,” he writes, “vast discrepancy between any image I create and the mystery of all my brother is, was, can be.”
It is this mystery every memoir writer needs to keep in mind when writing about anyone, even herself. We know people only partially and our views are distorted by our own needs, desires, emotions and experiences. If we respect the mystery of others—all that we don’t know about their inner and outer lives—and try, in the process of examining our own lives, to see from their perspectives, we have a better chance of being fair to them on the page.
We need to remember, too, that including them in our story means using them and their stories for our own purposes. “Though I never intended to steal his story,” Wideman writes, “to appropriate it or exploit it, in a sense that’s what would happen once the book was published.”
“Don’t I have a right to tell my story?” someone will ask. “Of course you do” is the only appropriate response. But rarely are our stories ours alone. Each of us lives at the center of a vast web of associations and relationships, families and communities. Every movement we make reverberates down the web’s delicate filaments, risking rifts and detachments and damage we can’t even see. We need to move carefully and respectfully, weighing the possible ramifications—on ourselves as well as others—of everything we say and do.
I’m thinking today about forms in memoir writing, both the forms our memories take and the forms we use to present them to readers. It seems that true memories come mostly in fragments—an image, a snippet of conversation, maybe a sequence of actions leading to what, in retrospect, seems a significant moment. That’s how memories come to us the first time, anyway—when a smell reminds us of a childhood moment, for example, or a sound takes us back to somewhere we’ve traveled. When we go back to those memories, though, they start to change. I read once that once we remember something one time, every subsequent memory is only a memory of the memory before.
What happens, I think, is that once we become conscious of a memory, we start to examine it for meaning. We zero in on one or two elements, invest it with a deeper emotion then it came to us with or, if it seems important, turn it into an anecdote or even a full story. It seems to be true that if you sit quietly with a memory, maybe start writing about it, you can remember many more details than you did at first. As your mind brings these details forward, though, it looks for connections between them, patterns, significance.
The question arises then: What happens to these memories once they’re brought to full consciousness? Are they really memories? Can we trust them? And if we want to write about them, how do we do so honestly? What form can we use to convey them as accurately as possible?
My favorite memoir is Childhood by the French novelist Nathalie Sarraute. I like it because Sarraute’s approach to “evoking” her childhood memories, as she calls it, is to put two voices on the page. The voices are obviously constructs and just as obviously two parts of her own mind. The first voice is the main presenter of memories. The second voice challenges the first, questioning whether the memories it presents are actual memories rather than something heard from someone else, forcing it to go deeper into difficult memories, and keeping it honest when it tries to turn an incomplete or less-coherent memory into a polished story.
Sarraute’s book is as much about how we remember our lives and what we tend to do with the memories once they come as it is about her own childhood. Among other things, she looks at where images or sayings that live in her mind originated and questions the views of situations and people (including their motives) she has long clung to. She seems to be saying, “I’m a mature woman now. I can look honestly at those early pains and influences I’ve kept at arm’s length or concocted a safe story for.”
One important determinant of what form memory takes in a memoir is how much the memoirist chooses to externalize the memory. Many memoirs are written as scene-scene-scene-scene, like traditional novels. Each scene is carefully composed, with all of the elements necessary to make it a scene: characters, setting, plot, dialogue. This is the way memory is usually presented in mainstream movies: Suddenly we are watching a scene in the past, not from the limited view of the character remembering but in full, with a full set of scenic details the character couldn’t possibly have remembered.
This movie approach is a convention, and many memoirs are written just as conventionally. We accept the scenes and the details in them because they engage us, drawing us into the narrator’s world. They conform, too, to how we expect stories to be told. We don’t think much about the mind of the person remembering; we simply live the stories being told, seeing and hearing and smelling the sensory details.
What Sarraute and other memoirists do, however, is take us more fully into the mind of the author. Rather than encouraging us to get lost in the story—to suspend disbelief—they focus on their minds at work: the conscious turning over and questioning of memories, the searching for meaning, the provisional constructing and even destructing of stories and images. The scenes and half-scenes they present can be just as vivid and evocative, but they don’t pretend that the sensory details they offer are necessarily accurate.
In any piece of personal writing that involves memory, there are two consciousnesses at work. One is the consciousness of the younger self in the moment of action or decision or even earlier contemplation. The other is the consciousness of the present, of the author as she’s writing about that earlier version of herself. In my classes I speak of this present consciousness as being thinner or thicker on the page. If it’s thinner, the story is generally more externalized, more scene-based, more story-like. If it’s thicker, the reader is more aware of being inside the mind of the author, where meaning-making and questioning take place.
This is a continuum rather than an either/or choice. Every memoir falls somewhere along it. Perceptive readers of memoir look for signs on the first few pages that indicate where this particular memoir stands on the continuum and read what follows accordingly. For, in writing memoir, we aren’t putting pristine, clinical memories on the page. We’re evoking a past, exploring self-creation, and searching for meaning in the life we’ve lived.
Readers often wonder if a memoirist is just making things up. Sometimes they ask this question out loud at author appearances. More often they ask it silently while reading a section that seems too fantastic or perfect to be true. Some readers grow uncomfortable when anything strikes them as beyond what a writer could have remembered, while others, maybe most, simply assume that memoir is like an autobiographical novel. Those in this second category don’t worry about whether any of what they’re reading is actually true as long as it seems emotionally true or true to their own understanding of life.
Some memoirists view memoir in this second way too. And they have reason. If memoir is based mostly on what a person remembers, and study after study has shown that our memories are terribly inaccurate, why not simply give into reality and compose a finely crafted piece of art from the building blocks of your life? After all, as soon as you begin to shape anything, it no longer conforms to life as it was lived anyway. Every crafting of scene or sentence, even every word choice, involves leaving something out. Memoirist and even journalists choose to focus on this rather than that, to emphasize this theme or viewpoint rather than that one. What difference does it make if everything isn’t technically accurate?
My thinking has gone down this road this week because the book my classes are reading is Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. The scenes in Beard’s book often contain details from early in her life that even a video of those moments wouldn’t have recorded in such detail. And she often pairs her memories with the details of what is happening in a related but different realm. For example, in one story she describes the movements of corn and a deer that she and her cousin will pass in a car at night, in the moments before the passing happens—movements she couldn’t possibly have witnessed. In another story she intersperses her own actions during a particular day with those of a coyote, which, again, will only cross her path.
This second example seems a more egregious transgression than the first—even if you believe that memoir is always based on faulty memory—because Beard follows the coyote through its solitary wanderings, goes inside its head, and says at one point that it is “in a good mood”! What, you might justifiably ask, is going on here?
In truth, it’s easier for me to defend what Beard is doing with the coyote than the seemingly accurate personal details she lays down in such number and fineness elsewhere. With the coyote, she is clearly imagining his world, no doubt from careful research, and using it to create a metaphoric comparison to her own wanderings and instincts. If a reader has no taste for any kind of fictionalization in nonfiction, even this might be unforgivable. But memoir writing is an art, a written art, and metaphor, analogy, comparison and contrast are long-standing elements in effective nonfiction writing. Beard’s imaginings of the coyote’s activities and world are obviously imaginings; they reflect not the coyote’s actual life but, through elaborate analogy, how she views her younger self while writing the memoir.
In her book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes: “Truth may have become a foggy fuzzy nether area. But untruth is simple: making up events with the intent to deceive.” She goes on to say, “Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences off the memoirist from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty….A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—or pump himself up for the audience—never learns who he is.”
We get no feeling in Beard’s work that she is trying to forge “false tales” or pump herself up for her audience. The impression we get, in fact, is that she is trying to find whatever way she can to convey how she felt in an earlier moment in her life, and how she sees that moment now. She trusts that her reader is able to discern where she has gone beyond strict memory—using details from a more general memory of habitual action to flesh out a scene, for example, or creating a contrast between a scavenging animal in a natural world and her own natural hunger while separated from nature by cars and bars and other human trappings.
There is much more to say here, and other questions to ask—about the use of made-up dialogue, for example, or the re-creation of scenes one didn’t witness—but I can cover only so much in one posting.
I’m fascinated by the idea of the Living Myth. I don’t mean ancient tales about warring gods or talking animals, but the stories we live by that help us make sense of the world. In this context, myths can be true, untrue or half-true. It doesn’t matter, because they are true to us. Some we follow consciously and some unconsciously. Either way, they play a large role in determining who we are. And therefore it’s important for memoirists and writers about others to recognize them.
For example, in Kim Barnes’ excellent memoir In the Wilderness, which my memoir writing classes discussed last week, her family is guided by their belief that the Idaho wilderness is an Eden of plenty. This belief—this myth—determines many of their decisions and even how they view themselves after their move to a city.
In this week’s class, we’re discussing Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, which looks at myth more directly. Momaday divides the book into three sections: 1. mythological stories of the Kiowa people, 2. historical information about the Kiowas, and 3. his own observations about his family, his people and the land they lived on. Only the third section is clearly memoir, yet all three sections help the reader see who Momaday understands himself to be. Perhaps as a nod to the blurring of the lines between the three ways of seeing himself, as the book goes on Momaday moves the mythological section out of obvious myth and into the realm of more recent stories while using more mythological-style language in his personal observations.
A Living Myth can be societal, familial or personal. In this presidential election season, we’re seeing all kinds of societal myths being bandied about. Political parties and candidates swear by them, latching on to those that have proven successful in motivating people and trying to shape new ones. The media are great societal myth creators and perpetuators.
I’m less interested in societal myths, though, than familial and personal ones. My students’ assignment this week is to describe a story their family tells about itself. I’ve asked them to talk about what the story tells the family about itself and what it tells them about themselves individually. When we come into this world, we don’t enter a virgin stream but rather slip into a river that has been flowing for generations. It is alive already with myths and tropes and beliefs. As we grow we ingest them, react to them and, if we’re self-aware enough, examine them to determine whether we want to embrace them in adulthood.
Beyond these familial myths, however, are personal ones that have an even greater hold on us. We turn the origin stories of these myths into nuggets we polish and repeat over time to ourselves. These often become our so-called “chestnuts,” the often-embellished stories we tell at parties, but there are many more that we never speak of except to ourselves. They tell us we’re shy because we feared speaking up in grade school or we’re always spurned by others because we weren’t picked for a team sport in high school or we’re clever rather than book-smart because we have succeeded despite poor school grades.
Identifying these myths—which can come from religion, politics, place of origin (think of how many myths there are about being from the South), tragedy, success and any number of other sources—is crucial to understanding oneself or others when writing about them. They are lights we navigate by and it’s hard as hell to change them, even when we recognize them. That’s why political discourse keeps falling into the same old ruts, and we keep falling back on old patterns.
Some of what I’m calling myths are, of course, sources of wisdom. Some allow us to navigate our world successfully. Some are vital to staying alive. And they can provide a great deal of comfort as we seek to make our way in life.
For it’s the completely new, for which we have no myths to guide us, that can truly frighten us—or, if we’re receptive and self-aware, excite us and open new vistas before us.
In my memoir writing classes last week, we discussed Vivian Gornick’s fine little book on personal writing, The Situation and the Story. In her introductory section, Gornick explains her idea that all of the raw material used in personal writing and even what we might normally call the story itself—the plot or action—is just “situation.” No matter how extraordinary what we want to write about might be, it won’t have an impact on a reader until we discover what we have to say about it. What its meaning is to us. What our emotional journey through it is. This is what Gornick calls the “story” and I sometimes call the journey: the writer’s personal movement through the material.
In her great new book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr uses different language for what seems to be the same distinction. She talks about outer experience that needs to be shaped and an inner conflict, even an “inner enemy” ( a writer’s “psychic struggle against her self that works like a thread or plot engine”).
Gornick talks about finding the right “persona,” the version of ourselves that can best tell the story to be told. “Its tone of voice,” she writes, “its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject; yet at the same time the way the narrator—or the persona—sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen.”
It is this intimacy between subject and the narrator’s particular vision—or voice—that makes good personal writing compelling. In praising George Orwell’s personal writing, Gornick cites his “wholly successful fusion of experience, perspective, and personality.” Karr says bluntly: “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice.” She calls voice the “delivery system for the author’s experience.”
“Voice isn’t just a manner of talking,” Karr writes. “It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving that naturally stems from feeling oneself alive inside the past.”
Both writers emphasize, each in her own way, making—and expressing—such an intimate connection to one’s material that both the experience being written about and the writer’s way of viewing it—and life itself—come alive.
In order to get to this kind of intimacy, Gornick says in her section on memoir, the writer must ask clearly and truthfully: Who am I? “On that question the writer of memoir must deliver,” she writes. “Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.”
Here’s where things get interesting, I think. When beginning a memoir, Who am I? is not the simplest question, even to ask. Yes, it’s the writing itself that tackles the question, the “depth of inquiry” taken on. But what “I” is the writer seeking to know? Is it the “I” that is writing in the present moment or the “I” that is central to the tale being told? Is Who am I? an enduringly existential question that can be answered once, or is it a provisional question, leading to a provisional answer? And if I achieve clarity on who I was back then, in the time I’m writing about, does that mean I’m any closer to knowing who I am today? Or is it the relationship between the two—the then-I and the now-I—a memoirist is really seeking?
These questions are especially important to me right now because I’m writing about a period in my life other than childhood, which is the subject of most memoirs (or at least first memoirs). I was an adult already then, even old by some determinations, yet I would not say that who I was then is the same as who I am today. I’m interested in exploring who I was then and how I came to be that person but also in how that period shaped the person I became after that.
One other thing I’ve been thinking about this week: You can’t approach writing a memoir as a writer only, thinking about how to construct it so it has the most impact. You have to approach it first as a human being, seeking to understand yourself in a way you haven’t before. Maybe this thought is self-evident to many, but it’s easy for a writer (and writing teacher) to get caught up in form and audience and expression too soon. I suppose it feels safer to enter the dark with pen in hand.