Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Learning to Teach Memoir

As a person who teaches memoir, people often think (wish?) I had a higher degree in English,  Literature or Creative Writing. I have had many feelings of inadequacy about my Bachelors in Anthropology and French. But mostly, I have found that my students trust me more based on my energy and the way I hold the space for them rather than on my "qualifications", especially since the focus in my classes is less on writing as product and more as process.

Lately, in the last year or so, I've been stretching my wings more and more in helping students with latter stages of the process, working towards creating product. I've had to plow through much fear about inadequacy and how much can I charge for something I am just starting to do now, etc, etc. But what I find in going further with students' writing - editing, critiquing, guiding larger projects towards finishing - is that I learn as I go along and so do they. Even better, we teach each other.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the image of a Mahayana teacher is someone who is a "spiritual friend" - someone just a few steps further along the path than you.* This means that the further along the path I go - closer to editing/publishing, etc, the more peer-like my students and I are. When someone comes into a beginning workshop and has never practiced writing in this way, there's a pretty big gap between us as practitioners - though not as humans, of course! But for those students who just finished a four-day retreat with me, that gap is far smaller than it used to be or can be in other situations.

I have benefited from this, and so have they. So much co-learning, alongside clear enough boundaries to keep me holding space and structure. 

Recently a student/client person in this category - long-time practitioner, working on her memoir in a small critique group I run, very committed to our community and practice and to me as a teacher - articulated to me yet another important nuance. This is something I have explored in my own writing memoir, as she knows, but she stated it so clearly it startled me:

"A question that keeps coming to me is how to show the vast chasm between how I appeared/acted in the world and how I perceived myself."

This is, if you've been reading along for awhile, one of the most interesting aspects of memoir to me. Later, this same student said that her stories are "slippery" - they keep changing character, angle, as she explores them and writes them. In particular, the insight above lead to us discussing all the vast chasms, including but not limited to:
-gaps between how she remembers relating to her mother and how she actually did
-gaps between not just how she thought of herself and how she was then, but how she has thought of herself since then, and how she thinks of herself now (at particular era she is writing about)

In other words, fundamentally, the gaps are between the stories she has told about herself and her world, versus what "actually" happened. "Actually" because who knows "what happened" and yet, the story version(s) she has told for years have been her truth. Some of them she is resistant to letting go of, even as they come apart at the seams, even as it feels liberating in a certain way.

Not all memoir addresses this, nor does it have to. Plenty of people write down the stories they have told for years and don't go back to "research" themselves.** Plenty of folks do work hard on trying to get to "what happened" and depict only that, not the meta stories about the differences between then and now and how we tell the stories. However, the memoirs that are most interesting to me at least hold attention to this, somewhere in the background or mind of the writing, even if its not the main story. Sven Birkerts, in his wonderful book, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, addresses this issue a great deal. He insists it is necessary to show not just some distance from the self we were then (have a "now" self who is seeing, showing growth) but also encourages reading and writing memoir that points to this human "double consciousness". He discusses how this doesn't always have to come in the form of verbalizing epiphanies, and is a part of the subtle craft of memoir:
Pledged like all memoirists to Mnemosyne, the muse of memory, those who recount the legend of self-formation must reckon with the fact that their deeper story is, too, discontinuous, that the events  they would recount only to disclose their significance over time, once it comes clear which aspects were meaningful in the light of eventual outcomes. In one way or another, then, the narrative must convey the movement of awareness. This can either be done directly, through staged epiphanies, or else suggestively, through various kinds of juxtapositions; both, as we'll see, allow for some manipulation of the reflective voice.
The other insight related to this is tied to how the writing of a story changes in the process of actual writing - the process, and the product both. Again, back to Birkerts for some insight. One wonderful passage, in reference to Jo Ann Beard, goes like this:
If the earlier sections are more clearly defined, more strictly contained in their time frames, the later ones increasingly reflect the layering of time and powerful incursion of memory. There is nothing proportional or shapely about the whole.
The student and I spoke about how different eras of her life are coming out differently - not just as writing but in her writing process. This makes sense: the more "cohesive" narrative of 0-18 (similar in Beard's essays) came out more cohesively; adulthood, with all of its random eras and fragmentation, is appearing more in this way in her process. 

Can we tell a "proportional or shapely" whole story about our lives, even if our lives themselves haven't been such? Of course. It's not only possible, a lot of readers find it preferable. And yet, I fear that some writers, in doing so, try to turn their lives into something neat-looking. I, myself, prefer to hear more about the stories themselves.

It's not just the stories that interest me, but how the stories we tell change over time, how the telling itself changes. That's where the juice is, for the writer - and that's where the juice is for me, as their teacher.

*Whatever this means. It's not linear, of course, but I take it to mean "has been practicing or studied more than you have", in a non-competitive sense.

** I have at least one published memoirist friend who has told me that there is no way in hell she would look back into old journals when depicting an era in her life. She was shocked that I would do that. I can't imagine doing it another way, though I encourage students to do it in whatever way suits them best.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome to see you writing about the changing place you write from. The previous sentence is grammatically incorrect but you get my point. :) We didn't always make happy faces out of colon and parenthesis marks but that works nicely now too. I mean not if you want to be taken seriously as a righter, but seriously.... nice to see some words from you on all of this.