Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Memoir: Fact/Fiction Redux

It's coming on strong - as it has been for the last couple of years: What's Up With Memoir?
Is it fact?
Is it fiction?

This is becoming a theme in this blog, which is ok with me. Here's a just-found article (new-to-me) on Why Some Memoirs Are Better As Fiction. I think he clarifies a point that Le Guin makes that I wasn't getting through her dismissal of any conversation recounted=fiction, never truth. Taylor Antrim, the article's author, points out that memoir can become a short cut - a weak version of story telling, where authors are not held accountable for making solid characters. They pick and choose from the cherry tree of literary styles/methods, and leave behind the most solid storytelling.

I could give him that. Now, re-reading Le Guin's essay, I can hear where she is coming from better. He also points out there's a long and respected tradition of auto-biographical fiction (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath being a big one). So now I am feeling out - what would be better done as fiction?

This liminal space, this mixing of style and manner, content and intent, is risky for sure, and it is only getting riskier. The more I personally work on memoir, the more I want to write in present tense, dropping the reader and myself into the moment without reservation. Some kind of truth is coming forward that would not if I kept writing in the past tense, or "about" conversations instead of the conversations themselves. Do I not entirely recall things or recall things incorrectly? It's a given.

Can we write memoir knowing that's a given?
What's the line between what is acceptable and what isn't?
Between "emotional truth" and factual lies?
I have a lot of journals, some of which contain actual interactions with others. I am curious when I encounter them what I recalled incorrectly. I know that is not just a possiblity but a likelihood.

But I don't want to write fiction. I want to write memoir and I want my story to be taken as such. I appreciate Antrim's notes on responsibility of the writer, and would like to apply them to my own work. More helpful fodder for writing strong memoir. I am, however, certainly writing memoir.

What if we *accept* that likelihood and create a new form, well, that's already been created: more memoir than fiction, more autobiographical than projection, and yet. Well.

I am fine with what Le Guin notes in her essay - as soon as we encounter actual dialogue, we know that it's not factual recall but emotional recall. However, here's where she and I diverge: what if, instead of at that moment we trust the writer less (as she says she does),  we recognize what they are doing, the style they are using, and continue with that understanding? 

We read the memoir knowing the memoir is based on emotional recall and not factual. We accept that the parameters of memoir have changed, while still holding folks accountable for outright lies and manipulations. 

We use memoir as a chance to notice how memory works, how minds work, and stay curious instead of sticking to former concepts of how personal stories should be told?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Digging in the Dirt/The Body Under the Rug

A student sent me a link to this article in the Opinionator (NYT). It's title is very apt - for the Peter Gabriel video above, for the content of this blog post: "The Body Under the Rug."

It's the most recent in a long line of many, many articles and opinion pieces on memoir, especially in the NYT. It's all the rage to rage on memoir lately, and I am very interested in the direction it is taking. I am very interested in the direction memoir is taking, period. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines in his book Creativity (2004), innovation is based not only in what is created but how it interacts with what is already - or isn't already - available.

I hate to say it, but I think what has been happening lately is that the "Reality TV" form of innovation has taken over in memoir. Which is to say: the more I confess, the more shame I out, the more fresh the memoir will be. Fresh as in fresh meat.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Knowing Mind

Chicago Graffiti, February 2013
Natalie Goldberg, my writing+dharma teacher, speaks frequently at retreats about the significance of reading authors' works and seeing their minds. When we read aloud raw work to one another - something that has just now been written, unedited, we really see raw mind - whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I believe this to be true. Brand new writing is especially powerful and vulnerable, even if it is written about a topic which is not particularly vulnerable or is complete fiction (as if that even exists). Published work, as I have been exploring here, is also significant in terms of knowing a writer's mind. Obviously, memoir, a non-fiction and also entirely personal/intimate form, seems to be the ultimate source of "knowing someone's mind."

But is it?

In the process of publishing memoir, a lot of editing happens. A lot of adjusting timelines, changing vulnerable personages into composite characters. Whether you are LeGuinian about this or not, nowadays the trend is certainly towards lyrical styling, or towards using "creative non-fiction"/fictional techniques to write non-fiction content. For instance, I am writing about my early sexuality and intimacy, and the style my critique group and I have found to work best is intercutting scenes from childhood with adolescence and adulthood. This is not your mother's narrative - not straightforward, not linear in time or even in mind. It is a bit how I work, but it is also how the story works best - I am adapting my writing to fit what the story needs. Perhaps this is some of the "dishonesty" that LeGuin speaks of in her essay in Wave In the Mind. It certainly adds a layer of complexity - never a bad thing, just something to take into account - to finding mind when reading memoir.

How my ordinary, daily mind works is to leap from idea to idea. I am a linker, not a cutter, though as I age I appreciate more and more the honesty of recognizing ideas as less and less "like" something else and simply appreciating them as is. When I write "naturally," off the cuff, I freely and widely associate - quotes from authors come to mind, references to other eras of my life. But this way of associating my early readers found distracting. And quite revealing. I would write a passage about spending time with my father, and slice in all kinds of oblique references or currently-unneeded info. Yes, this is how my mind works. Yes, it does show my mind to the reader. No, it doesn't make for solid reading. It took away from the intensity of the story and scattered the attention all over the place. My resistance was clear, and while that is a significant part of my story, it makes for sloppy writing and reading.

Now, in adapting the writing to just the stories, without distractions inside them, at anywhere from 2-9 pages a pop, then slicing them into each other, I am preserving some of the same quality of my mind - it's tendency to leap and associate - while creating a much more readable style. As soon as a brave member of my critique group announced that all she cared about in the chapter about my father was our story, and none of the distracting elements (this meant cutting out half the chapter as it was), I knew she was right. I wasn't sure how I was going to make up for a lot of lost words, or explain more expository elements without so many distractions, but I knew she was right. I could - I can - show my mind as is, but on the more sophisticated level where my writing needs to be in order to publish.

Natalie Goldberg often says that we are "closing the gap" between what we think we write and what we write, who we think we are and who we are, as we write this way: in Writing Practice, in Contemplative Writing. Sometimes people poo-poo this as secondary writing, journaling, practicing. However, the only way I've been able to see what is really going on and what really needs expressing is to get it all out on the page, and then to pull back. You can take it or leave it, but my writing mind isn't the same as my everyday mind. It's better. A lot better. More clear and kind, sophisticated and smooth. But it is honest and it is really me. No fakery. No pretending. And when I connect my writing mind to my ordinary mind, I give my ordinary mind the chance to "improve," to realize I can be better than I am, unify myself on a higher level. The level of understanding my ordinary mind doesn't even realize I have inside.

The level of real, true knowing mind.