Saturday, August 31, 2013

Learning from Jo Ann Beard

I ran into this article, after reading The Boys of My Youth and wanting more about her writing process. What I love in particular is the discussion of how she handles "creative non-fiction" in the first half of the article. The second half discusses her first fiction book, In Zanesville, which is also fascinating in the whole world of what-is-memoir-what-isn't.

Listen to her read one of my favorite essays here. It's called "Behind the Screen" and is a deep dip into childhood, told in the first person present tense, which is the way I am telling my own memoir tales - so far. Sven Birkerts introduced me to her work in his wonderful memoir book called On Time in Memoir, which I cannot recommend enough. He noted the ambiguity in the reviews on the cover of her collection - some calling it "a collection of stories," some, "memoir" and the actual filing being under memoir/essays.

As I continue to explore this line, the line that so many have explored before me and will be investigating for a long time, I invite along your comments and reflections: where is fact, where is fiction in memory? What's the difference between writing for process and editing for readability?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Memoir is Cannibalizing

Annie Dillard
This is a powerful quote from Annie Dillard, from the collection of essays on memoir edited by William Zinsser called Inventing the Truth, The Art and Craft of Memoir. It is so provocative I almost have nothing to say about it.
My advice to memoir writers is to embark upon a memoir for the same reason that you would embark on any other book: to fashion a text. Don't hope in a memoir to preserve your memories. If you prize your memories as they are, by all means avoid - eschew - writing a memoir. Because it is a certain way to lose them. You can't put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts. The work battens on your memories. And it replaces them.
Such a powerful passage. She goes on to say that it is because you spend so much time crafting the text - often more time than you spent in the actual experience - that in the end, like a photograph of a situation, you recall more the text than the experience. Really, I suggest reading the whole essay, and the whole book, but at least Dillard's essay, which is linked here.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tormented Urgency

This is an excerpt from Paul Auster's Invention of Memory, excerpted in Sven Birkert's The Art of Time in Memoir, which I simply cannot recommend enough...

Auster's own description of his feeling captures the tormented urgency that underlies this memoirist's enterprise:
 There has been a wound, and I realize now that it is very deep. Instead of healing me as I thought it would, the act of writing has kept this wound open. At times I have even felt the pain of it concentrated in my right hand, as if each time I picked up the pen and pressed it against the page, my had were being torn apart. Instead of burying my father for me, these words have kept him alive, perhaps more so than ever. I not only see him as he was, but as he is, as he will be, and each day he is there, invading my thoughts, stealing up on  me without warning: lying in the coffin underground, his body still intact, his fingernails and hair continuing to grow. A feeling that if I am to understand anything, I must penetrate this image of darkness, that I must enter the absolute darkness of the earth.

I often have written here, and on messages on Facebook, and mentioned in conversations, especially in the last year of running a critique group for memoir with some of my students, that memoir writing is hard. Just hard. Writing is hard, and big manuscripts are hard - writing a full-length memoir is both of those plus more. This is the more, what Auster says above, and something he doesn't say, but is there for me and all of the memoir writers I know - figuring out what is safe and what isn't, which darknesses will take me further away and which will get me closer to the truth.

I always tell my students - trust you will make it back. We are here for you. Go where you need to go and we will be here to welcome you back. Your mind will make its way back. But trusting that, as a writer, is harder, especially when you enter the way back machine into the past, and dig, root around in there looking for a fingernail or hair.

Birkerts describes the distinctions between therapy and memoir (the main one being the need for a narrative arc, even if the structure is lyrical - an overallness that doesn't happen at the time of digestion/cognition but through the process of writing/editing). But he also discusses where they overlap. Here's one place for sure - that tormented urgency to know the self, to figure it out, even if it changes nothing. To see, to feel, to sense for sure where the wounds are.