Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Memoir Within A Memoir: H Is For Hawk

I finally finished Helen MacDonald's H Is For Hawk. I started it a long time ago, but then had to return it to the library. This time I was determined to get through. 

What had stopped me 1/4 way through?

Brilliance. Brilliance often stops me in books, more often than unreadability. When a book is really fucking good, I almost can't bear to keep reading it. For instance, this passage completely blew me out of the water, and made it both worth continuing and also exquisitely difficult to keep going:
Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try. ‘Imagine,’ I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, ‘imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it is like!’ I finished my little speech in triumph, convinced that I’d hit upon the perfect way to explain how it felt. I was puzzled by the pitying, horrified faces, because it didn’t strike me at all that an example that put my friends’ families in rooms and had them beaten might carry the tang of total lunacy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Small Messages and Details

Memoirists often struggle with figuring out what to include. A memoir, by definition, is not a story of your entire life. It is writing on a particular strand of your life - a recurrent theme or issue or approach - or focusing on one particular era. If you are including everything that is happening, it will not work.

However, you also need more than just the key stories. What might otherwise seem like mundane details - how you make your coffee, or did during that era, or how it has changed over time - could lend a lot of real human feeling and connection to the reader. And everything depicted in the memoir can carry the feeling of communication, the sense it was all included for a reason, even if - especially if - that reason is not explicit or overt.

How do we choose?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Lovely Limitations

Faith Adele, on nonfiction versus fiction:

It’s having to create a metaphor out of facts. I love the puzzle in that and the challenge. It’s like having to write a sestina, any kind of strong, dictated form. It’s got to end with these words, and have this long stanza – stuff like that. You have to create something that’s meaningful out of it and it’s not just an exercise. To me, nonfiction gives you the same sorts of limitations. You have these facts, but then you have to create art out of it with language and metaphor. I think it’s stunning because I am fascinated by the truth, and then I’m also fascinated by how fallible memory is. I love how I remember things and how I misrememeber things, and then how when your memory comes into contact with somebody else, it changes. I just love the process of memoir. It’s not really true, but it’s a truth. So I’m fascinated by that whole project and having to create metaphor and sense out of all this real detail.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Motel of Memories

Whenever we go back to her parent's house for a visit, my wife inevitably winds up in the basement, going through boxes. The thing is, at thirty-eight, she knows she's gone through the same boxes again and again. She will likely not find something new at this point - some object that will tell her a huge part of her past she doesn't recall, some amazing letter or pair of tennies or...anything, really, that she hasn't seen.

What does happen, however, is that her view shifts - how she looks at what she finds changes.
This is true whether what we are looking at is actual objects - artifacts, letters, memorabilia - or simply memories, flashes in our minds or stories in others' minds.

One of my favorite all-time books is called Motel of the Mysteries (this link shows some examples and discussion of the book, but the book itself is worth checking out). In the book, which is tongue-in-cheek, the author shows us drawings of rooms that are clearly from a motel of our current time, but as seen by archeologists thousands of years from now as a place of worship. The book is chock full of humor - like the toilet being interpreted as an actual throne. As a former anthropology major, this book helped voice some skepticism I had about how we interpreted other living - much less dead - societies and cultures.

In anthropology and in memoir alike, where we run into trouble is when we believe that the past, since it is done, is dead and frozen. When we believe that there is only one way to tell the story, that there is only one truth. This kind of freezing locks us into an impossible dance, into only one interpretation of how things went down, and also into our current lives as one single thing. This kind of singularity brings us comfort - "I was a victim then and am a survivor now" - but can highly limit the possibilities for growth, for relationship, for change.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Memoirist Live Twice

comic from 11/24/15 edition of Cat and Girl

“As writers we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it. ...This is our life and it's not going to last forever. There isn't time to talk about someday writing that short story or poem or novel. Slow down now, touch what is around you, and out of care and compassion for each moment and detail, put pen to paper and begin to write.”
-Natalie Goldberg
For this round of Read and Write, my students and I are reading the novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. We just finished reading her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? for the last Read and Write, and a few folks were curious how this novel, her first and mainly  autobiographical, would read next to her memoir, one of her most recent books and written in with an adult understanding.There is, as one would expect, a huge difference in not only style (and not all of it is accounted for by genre change) but also perspective. That is invaluable - and the later memoir does not dismiss the award-winning strength of the younger semi-autobiographical novel.

I love doing this, the few times we have an opportunity to do it. I love looking both at the span of a writer's work, especially in two different genres, as well as looking at how they tell their own story, especially when it comes to memoir. I think more people, despite the Cat and Girl tongue-in-cheek comic above, should write more than one memoir. Writing even about the same topic - a period of one's life, for instance - at different ages would produce wildly different books. As Goldberg notes, writers live twice - I would add, especially memoirists - and there's no reason to wait to write it. 

Maybe later you will wish you hadn't written that memoir when you were young and "didn't understand." But you did. You understood how you understood it then. Enough of thinking that the adult perspective, with time and space, is the right one, the only one. We need to witness throughout our lives, and if we wait only until we are grey, we will have changed our tune so dramatically by then that we lose the vividness captured in between.

Just starting now, in your sixties or seventies? That's ok! Nothing wrong with that. Start whenever you can. But especially for the "young" - don't wait. There's never too young to explore, investigate your own life through the lens of memoir. 

Heck, live more than twice. Live a few times. 

Be a cat-like memoirist, live nine times. 

However many times you tell and re-tell the same story, live your life and writing fully, pen to page.