Writing the Personal Memoir
When I started preparing for tonight's talk, I began to think about what invites writers into memoir. It seems to me a genre that welcomes the unexpected. Generally told from the inside, memoir is ostensibly a True Story, but it rests after all on a very shaky foundation, memory, a colander with as many holes as surface. The writer has to decide whether to leave the holes or whether to fill them with research and invention as one does in fiction. And these are not either/or options, but nuanced ones. The proportion of memory to invention or to research perhaps makes one of the differences between personal memoir and other kinds of narrative.
In these few moments I'm going to touch on what I have found to be the major features of writing memory: intention, process, and reading. I can best begin with my own experience and barely gesture towards how I see other memoirists working.
A personal note: I am a retired academic and spent my career teaching English composition and comparative literature.I had not planned to write in retirement but meant to study music theory, which I have yet to schedule.
Intention > Process. I began my book Custody of the Eyes two years ago with no intention at all. A particular memory flooded in one day, some family story I had told fairly often. I don't know why, but this time I decided to write it down. I did this every day until I had so much in longhand and in shorthand on scratch paper and then in a notebook that I got cranky and typed it into the computer because I was losing track of what I had. Then I became fussy about the right kind of notebook; an excursion to UW Bookstore followed. I composed by hand in the notebook, sitting, as usual, on the floor, for at least two or three hours a day, day after day, week after week, month after month.
As I typed the work, I line edited it. After a while I realized that I had a sizeable mess that I could not rearrange on screen. I went back to the floor with the printout, and in an effort to organize, tagged every section with a yellow post-it on which I wrote the identifiable theme or subject of that section. I spread the sections out in heaps and decided what the sequence should be. It was kinaesthetic rather than visual-shifting little stacks about. I fretted about adding things because each section seemed to arrive at a definitive ending and insertions destroyed the mood. At which point, I discovered that I had a lot of mood, of atmosphere. Sometimes I had a vignette, sometimes "only" a scene. So I had to decide whether scenes were indeed "only" or whether they were a way of showing place, and if so, how important was place? Was there to be a chronological through line into which themes fit or a thematic structure with chronological disconnects? Where and when does rumination fit into narrative? Having generated more questions than I could deal with, I took an occasional workshop at Hugo House, joined a writing group, and got a residency at Hedgebrook.
If you write as I did, because you like to and don't want to stop, then you are likely to work in vignettes, in scenes, in metaphor, and eventually you need to discover what you have been up to. Memory will get you to associative writing, but that isn't enough; you want evocative; you want your memories to touch other people. You will get interested rather suddenly in craft, but not until it feels as if you have recovered most of the memories.
So the plan comes about once you have generated a rough draft; you deconstruct that draft and then start to shape it. In short, it's all in the editing, with one exception, that your subject is yourself, a person of whom prior to the writing you may not have been fully aware and of whom you are certainly not in charge. And this comes back to the holes in the colander. Perhaps novelists take greater license with their characters and narrative than those of us who mine our own memories. But clearly, we are all inventing to some degree. Memory and the self-awareness it generates feed into the character the memoirist constructs for herself.
That has consequences. For example I "remembered" a story of betrayal that never happened. I made it up years ago, not in the present writing, but in my memory, and truly believed for years that my father had insisted on his wife's mother being sent away from our house in perfect health to a nursing home where she soon died. With tremendous tact, I never asked anybody about it until a year ago when I finally went looking for facts. Fabricating this non event speaks to my psychological need, and I have to decide as a writer whether that need is part of my subject. Perhaps I had accurately picked up some bit of resentment on his part at having her in our house. I wasn't there when my grandmother, who went on living with my parents, died in their house, in a different city, in a different country from what I had "remembered." Did I want to include this actual fiction in the memoir? No. I nuked it. There is a whole theme in that suppressed story that speaks to my father suddenly developing clay feet. In the memoir I chose to handle such feet as a political theme rather than an emotional one. I didn't feel that I could have made the false story funny, and I tend to handle emotion that way, so I just back filed it. One develops capacious computer files for dumping the false story as well as the elegant but unuseful one.
What you overhear and what you are told join what you remember. You get to make the decision whether or where you can use the memories of other people, your family or associates. For example, during a phone call from my brother in Vancouver, he got onto one of his philosophical rolls and delivered himself of one pithy statement after another. When he said "We live between eros and thanatos," I reached for a pen and pad. He told me that once when he was feeling hard done by, reproachful of her inattention to him at some time in his youth, he asked our mother whether he had been an accident, and she fired back with "None of you children were accidents; you were all incidents." There's a peerless one-liner that I desperately wanted to appropriate, not just for its delicious tartness but for its emotional richness as well. But she never laid any such line on me. Ours was a different kind of relationship. Actually I was the accident, a "caboose baby," mis-diagnosed as a case of appendicitis. My mother used the story to make a medical point; my turning out to be the baby of the family, a much wanted girl after boys in the middle was proof that when you're dealing with a surgeon, you should always get a second opinion. For now, I have told myself to omit this matter of my brother, the incident, wanting her attention and me, the accident, dodging her attention.
You get information, misinformation, attitude, not always or obviously germane, and it all belongs in your files for use in some other work.
Process > Reading. Process, then, is not a shapely category, but one complicated by intention, by memory with its consequent self-awareness, and also by reading.
If you are at the beginning of your project, I would do nothing but write and would stay away from reading any memoir at all, or anything about memoir. Your own memory is the mother lode and until you feel you have run that seam out, you don't need to know what others have done. But as you learn about one memoir or another, do make a list of books you intend to read and do note which of the several kinds of memoir you end up studying, not just reading. As you pick up a book and put it down again, you want to understand what about it appeals or inspires or enlivens your imagination
I find that the memoirists I keep referring to, and on whose felicities I sometimes build a writing exercise or two are very often Catholic or ex-Catholics, as I am, all of them with deep attachments to the study of languages, history, and moral philosophy, and a number of them poets as well. Lapsed Catholics don't so much turn our backs on the church as migrate to its vestibule from where we peer in, interested and dismayed. Thus I am drawn to writers with a rather contemplative spirit like Annie Dillard, Eavon Boland, Patricia Hampl, Colm Toibin, Czeslaw Milosz, Li Young Lee, St. Augustine. Although I enjoy autobiographies like Rebecca Walker's Black, Brown and Jewish, I never give them shelf space, and I learn relatively little from them about writing. I avoid altogether medicalized narratives of suffering or abuse.
I'll take time here for three examples from my reading and what about them found a home in my own consciousness and sense of purpose.
(1) The coming of age memoir might well stop with the
protagonist arrived at adulthood. However, in practice, memoirists fairly often keep on, writing several books. This is particularly the case when the author, like Czeslaw Milosz, is writing not only the history of his own mentality but also of the places where that history was played out. His work chronicles his youth in Vilnius, in a place whose borders shift like fog, now here now there, sometimes in Lithuania, sometimes in Poland or Russia. He was a Catholic school boy who walked every day by one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish quarters in twentieth century Europe, and knew little of it until half a lifetime later, an immigrant in New York, he learned in that city what he had not realized in Vilnius. He was an exile in Paris, living among émigrés who quarreled there as much as they had at home over the same ideologies. He was a communist diplomat in Washington, D.C. representing Poland, Lithuania having been swallowed up again. Then he became an ex-communist and a professor of Slavic literature at Berkeley (where I never heard him speak as I was deep into romance languages at the time). He remained a practicing Catholic and had a ten year correspondence with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. And he was always a poet. His memoirs thus include the history of the various places of his exile, the politics, the ideologies, the literary loyalties, his writing life, and his religious life. His memoirs tell his mind in sharply realized places and times.
One consequence of reading several of his prose and poetic works was to give myself permission to offload material about the English-French divide in Montreal, my home town, and the ways in which it nullified any sense of my being black.
Whenever I got into the politics of my American parents in any detail, or the peculiarities of colonialism among a white population descended from the Loyalists and reinforced by immigration from the British Isles, it interrupted something in the main book. I never could sell any of it to anybody. The point that such material could make an entirely separate piece did not feel obvious to me until I had read a bunch of Milosz as well as Hampl, Dillard, and Toibin. All had material enough for several books. This difficulty about what to include may be a beginner's mistake, but it's one that reading can certainly help.
(2) The second book, Blood Dark Track, spoke to me about a writer in hot pursuit of what certain silences meant. This thoroughly historical memoir by Paul O'Neill concerns his two grandfathers, the one a Catholic carpenter in County Cork, an Irish man who planned a few political murders and very possibly committed one. He was jailed briefly on suspicion. The other grandfather was a Turkish citizen educated in France, a worldly man, rather dandyish, a hotel keeper in southeastern borderlands. He was imprisoned during WWII by the Brits when Levantines and Syrians were routinely assumed to be spies and sometimes were. O'Neill's grandfather was not a spy, but the British interned him anyway for two years under health wrecking conditions.
This large book is full of event. O'Neill has researched the memories and the records of many people, relatives and strangers, officials and private citizens in Ireland, Turkey, and England. Unlike Milosz, the writer's consciousness is not the main subject. Yet there are moments when O'Neill's sensibility does take the center, for example, when he gives us his own bemusement at the peculiar silence of his grandfather about the slaughter of the Armenians in 1922. This happened daily on the road that ran through his village. Streams of refugees pushed out by the Turks up country went past for days, starving, exhausted, burdened by children and old ones, attacked all along the way by unrestrained bandits, raped, beaten, killed outright.
The grandfather was fifteen or so at the time, and a man who all his life wrote letters and diaries, a man who left a written record of parts of his life, especially of his own arrest and imprisonment, a man nested in a large, talky, extended, literate, multi-lingual family, and there is no word from any of them on this prolonged genocide on their doorstep. O'Neill hears the silence in the documents that he is working with, that his relatives kept, that he translated or had translated when they were not in French.
There are similar silences on the Irish side of the family as among the survivors of the Englishman murdered by an undiscovered Irish man. O'Neill intuits something about the discretion of the Irish widow, his grandmother, and of the murdered man's English widow who has chosen to live out her life in the pleasant seaside Irish village where they lived. Both women leave certain knots uncut, refuse the interviewer some knowledge, and in consequence, secure a measure of peace.
In the end the book is wonderfully about minorities in unstable countries, people who must become adept in the arts of dissimulation and assimilation.
Why did I care? Because I have always been attracted to the literature of disguise and deceit, written around characters who are expected to remain at the margins. Thus Spanish literature, Russian literature, Cuban, anything where censorship develops elaborate deception, disguise and silences among people who, though ethnically in the majority, yet live like a minority. Any literature where gossip can be fatal. I care because I myself am tremendously assimilated, and have paid some costs for that, willingly.
I also care because I had a father who changed his name, invented a mythical family, left the USA whenever he got a chance--young man to old, passed as some other race when it would help. He was, in short, a picaresque hero. And he is key in my own memoir.
(3) I've one last memoir to comment on, one not so cerebral as Milosz or detached as O'Neill. Li-Young Lee's Winged Seed is obsessive, slightly mad. And that is what attracts me, his extremity. He is never funny, desperate more like, or outré.
Winged Seed tells the story of his immediate family in Indonesia and the States, and sketches in some of his ancestors in China. The author was a young boy when the government threw the sizeable Chinese minority of merchants and professionals to the wolves in the '70s. His father, physician to the president and other VIPs, was imprisoned and tortured, and his mother spent her days in supplication before one corrupt official or another, paying bit by bit for favors that were never delivered. Their house was stripped by soldiers and neighbors. Here is how he describes being a child in an empty house.
How did we become so small and our house so empty? We flew through the rooms, casting our voices everywhere, only to have them returned, doubly hollow. And every day the house grew bigger, until it seemed the very precinct of daylight. We lived with the no-longer-there, and the drastic removal of Ba, and the gradual going of Mu. A corner where a couch used to brood was so blank, to stand in that spot was to feel almost transparent. And to stand in the middle of the dining room where the six-legged rosewood hulk used to preside was to wobble as a slender axis about which a massive vacuum revolved.... We made our days out of nothing but waiting. We invented games. In a game called Come find us a blindfolded one sought her hidden siblings. But there were too few places to hide in an empty house, so we relied on silence and stillness to help us escape detection (152).
He explores various kinds of isolation and the weight of his family's past, again in scenes as richly imagined as any I have ever read. Certain of his images remain incandescent in my memory. I will tell only one: The feet of a peasant seamstress who hangs herself from the rafters in the cavernous hall where all the seamstresses labor in the service of a wicked ancestor of his, in China, in the kind of past that made revolution inevitable. The first thing the workers see when the room is opened in the morning, is the girl's white socks way up high in the dark back corner of the room where she would have bent over the sewing until her sight began to fail, and then she would have been moved up a row or two closer to the front of the room, and might have reached the daylight by the time she became blind, like the old woman who sits in the sunlight and tells the women stories.
I imagine Lee's hearing this story in a bare-bones comment from someone looking at an old photo of the respectable gorgon, his great-great someone, and eventually fleshing out the story and then adding it to others.
Memoir may resemble historical fiction in that the writer works the past with stunning immediacy.
I think you should set yourself a standard so that when you make a narrative from some fragment in your mind, you put in such details, write in such language as will lodge itself in someone else's memory, like permafrost.
Pay attention to memory and nothing but at the outset.
Edit, research, revise ad lib, chronically.
Read memoirs with acute self-awareness.
Read/study poetry and narratives.
Desert the work occasionally for other kinds of creative work like poetry, visual arts, music.
In 1998 Aura Cuevas retired from college teaching in San Diego. During her career she wrote conference papers on topics like women writers in the Italian Renaissance, but since coming back to Seattle has rediscovered writing of a different kind. She wrote program notes for a lecture series at Hugo House, published in The Stranger an introduction to the Song of Solomon, read a piece on James Joyce for Hugo House's Bloomsday event in 2002, a chapter from her memoir for Esther's It's About Time series, and had a residency at Hedgebrook where she worked on the memoir, Custody of the Eyes, for which she is now seeking a Canadian publisher. She is working concurrently on the memoir and on shorter non-fiction pieces: a collection entitled "Conversations" and an essay on pilgrimage.