Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Pair of Essays That Point to the Same Paradox

I came across two totally separate essays this weekend that both express important aspects of things I have been exploring on this blog. One is a recent piece from Dani Shapiro; the other is an essay from 1999 by Patricia Hampl.

Dani Shapiro's piece is on It was posted last week, in fact. It is entitled "Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me On Facebook." I actually found it the morning it was published, which just so happened to be the morning I woke up late after finally reading Shapiro's memoir Slow Motion, which I have been hearing about for years. I stayed up for four hours past my bedtime reading it and it was worth every last crick in my neck. Holy shit. Great memoir.

This "Open Letter" of Shapiro's is pointing at the same thing I have been discussing here for over a year now - what is fiction and what is fact in memoir, where's the line (if there is only one or any at all) and, though I have not talked about this as much, where can a reader feel mislead if they "find out" that the memoir is not totally factual.

Here's just one paragraph:
(W)hen I am working on memoir, I burrow deep into a small, dark place inside me, no larger than the head of a pin. This dark place contains within it all the sorrows and confusion of my life: the death of my parents, the loss of most of my family, the harrowing illness of my infant son. When I burrow into that place, it expands and becomes oceanic. It fills and fills the room in which I write until it is the air I breathe, the water in which I swim. It becomes everything. I live inside the memory of whatever it is I still need to know. I try to shape a story – the only redemption available to me – from memory. In doing so, I attempt to make my life coherent. Are any of our lives truly coherent? Of course they are not. Screenwriters call this “the second act problem.” Our lives are composed of one damned thing after another. We live in a random, merciless jumble, and those of us who write memoir – along with those of us who read memoir – are looking to make music out of that jumble. This is why we have in our canon magnificent memoirs that are about only one aspect of a writer’s life. Say, William Styron’s depression. Vivian Gornick’s relationship with her mother. Tobias Wolff’s boyhood. The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we?  We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts. Listen to me closely, because here is where I apparently have enflamed you so: it is not the job of the memoirist to present you with a dossier. If you want a dossier, go to a hall of records. I’m sure it will make for scintillating reading.
I call this question: "What's the Truth?" because of course, if you are a part of any family or group of friends, you know that everyone remembers a different version. And even within ourselves we recall different versions - there's no way to have a 100% accurate recall.

That's where Patricia Hampl's essay Memory and Imagination comes into play (follow this link to read a PDF). She actually takes us through the process of writing a first draft of a memoir fragment - about learning to play piano as a kid - then debunks her own memory, bit by bit: that girl wasn't in my life at that point, I didn't know my dad played violin yet, etc etc. It is powerful and clear and delightful.

In particular, there's a line where Hampl states that she knows for sure she wasn't using a particular brand of piano lesson book. She goes on to say, "In pondering this "lie," I came to see what I was up to: I was getting what I wanted. Finally." What an honest and refreshing moment of revelation about how we tell all our stories in our lives - regardless of whether we are writing memoir or just talking to ourselves or loved ones.

Hampl also mentions and explores the difference between the value/feeling and stored memory/image. She says,
Over time, the value (feeling) and the stored memory (the image) may become estranged. Memoir seeks a permanent home for feeling and image, a habitation where they can live writing (this bit of) memoir I did not simply relive the experience. Rather, I explored the mysterious relationship between all the images I could round up and the even more impacted feelings that caused me to store the images safely away in memory.
Thank you, dear intelligent and delightfully direct women writers. You are telling it how it is - which is to say - complex, but clear somehow, at the same time.

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