Memoir Notebook is a monthly (sometimes more) column dedicated to longer or more complex works.
By way of our Memoir Notebook, we want you to meander, get caught up, find yourself taken to places you hadn’t intended to go (but are so glad, in the end, that you went). You’ll get thoughts on aesthetics, craft, latest issues, tips and books to read. But it will feel like poetic narrative. And sometimes it will simply be poetic narrative. Today, Wm. Anthony Connolly discusses how we might resolve the memoirist’s memory folly: by splitting the memoirist in two.
“The past is open to revision because memory is a function of present intention.” (Sam Keen in Telling Your Story)
I didn’t intend to, but I did. Memoirists do that kind of thing, sometimes intentionally, but mostly not.
A few years ago, I wrote a memoir based on an old writing assignment I got while in college from my writer mentor Maureen Stanton (author of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting and countless wonderful essays). The exercise called for me to firstly, recall a memory; secondly, reflect on the memory; and finally, mull over the significance of the memory.
So I came up with a memory—being scared of a mountain stream. I reflected on the memory—I was in my Daddy’s arms while my brother and sister were bent over the stream as if to lick the water. Mum took the picture. Finally, I thought it was significant because to my mind it was the first time I felt fear. It was on a holiday out west with Kevin, Denise, and our parents—my older brother Michael and sister Elizabeth Anne were not with us.
Or so I thought.
When the piece was published, Elizabeth Anne contacted me to ask if I wanted to see the picture of the event I described. Why, yes. Lo and behold, the scene I had described was almost spot-on. The trembling me in my Daddy’s arms, the mountain stream, everything—well, not everything, right? I had forgotten that Elizabeth Anne was also in the picture—she was on the ground bending over to lap up what to me was the stream of utter horror.
So, not exactly spot on.
Memory is like that.
That’s why when you’re writing a memoir, it’s best to have a policy that you’ll attempt to recall as best you can, but admit to yourself and your readers that it’s not always possible—though photographic evidence can help (so contact someone who might have a family snapshot). For, according to one of my favorite memoir theorists, Thomas Larson, “the goals of a memoir are simply this: “[it] emphasizes the who over the what—the shown over the summed, the found over the known, the recent over the historical, the emotional over the reasoned” (from The Memoir and the Memoirist).
Vladimir Nabokov “revisits” his autobiography for a reason—his memory could be utter fiction. “Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited, ” he writes in Speak, Memory. Yet he finds himself using it time and time again to fill the “spaced flashes” that memory affords though imagination is a “slippery hold.” Still, Nabokov is upfront and honest (perhaps this is what motivates his re-visiting his life story). He often uses the phrase “I seem to remember, ” and writes “It seldom happens that I do not quite know whether a recollection is my own or has come to me secondhand, but in this case I do waver, ” of an episode chasing a butterfly with his mother.
One possible avenue of resolving the memory folly is splitting the memoirist in two.
What? Sounds like sorcery!
Virginia Woolf, in her autobiographical essay “A Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being, suggests this startling and remarkable notion: “It would be interesting to make two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment. What I write today I should not write in a year’s time.”
Her meaning is that a memoirist must fight and make apparent this apprehension, this conundrum of two selves in one storyteller. Going back to Larson we find an acceptable answer. The best way to deal with tension between fact and memory, as one uncovers the tension in the course of one’s writing, it is to admit to the tension—not cover it up. This admission, Woolf and Larson suggest, will go a long way to improving memoir’s success in inviting readers inside the thoughts of one engaged with former selves. For Woolf, few memoirs succeed. “So many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things happen.”
No, don’t do that.
The memoirist must always remember to include the person, or shall we say, persons, to whom the very thing or things happened to, and the memoirist works as best as possible to include others who were there, too, and have a photograph to prove it.
The “Double I/Eye”
Part One: Write a brief 2-4 paragraph scene based on a memory in your life—the memory should be vivid:
- Write in the first person
- Present tense
- Be descriptive and use sensory detail
- Provide a sequence of events, action
- Give us a story and a sense of consequence
Part Two: Write a reflective narrative of 1-2 paragraphs from the “writer at her/his desk” perspective, looking back on the event describing the first part and seeking to understand the larger significance of the event. Use the prompt below for help:
Reflection: Why do you remember this day, event, moment, scene? What do you realize now about the scene that you didn’t realize that day? How did you feel then, and how do you feel now about the events in the scene? Who are you in this scene, and how are you different or the same now? What does this scene say about you, your family, or anyone in it? What does this scene reveal about your memory? Is the memory flawed or skewed in any way? How can you account for that?
Interrogation: Did it really happen this way? Is anything missing? How would another person involved in this event or experience tell it differently? What does this memory symbolize? Is the memory atypical or typical for you or for others? Is the memory true? Accurate? Did you exaggerate?
Imagination: If you could change the scene, how would you and why? How do you imagine what others are experiencing in the scene? If you can’t remember details, can you suggest what it might have been like based on what you know about the people, the times, the setting? If you stepped into the shoes of another person in the scene, what would you have that person say to you? If you could address that person now, what would you say to him or her?
Part Three: Take time to shape and blend the memory and the reflection in a second or third revision of this exercise.
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