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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir

Blog # 26

The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir

My apologies for not posting this sooner. Holiday chaos.

Preface
In response to my last post (#25), “Tracking The Narrator’s Thoughts”, I received a thought-provoking comment from Stuart Rose, a reader. Paraphrased it reads

“… I puzzle over just how we can track our thinking on the page. It's a challenge to artfully insert our explicit thoughts into a narrative…. {but}there are only so many explicit, stand-alone statements we can make without losing the reader. Weaving our thinking into the fabric of concrete and narrative details seems to be vital. Much of the thinking has to be mingled with the story.”

Stuart’s comments eventually became a catalyst for my own thinking. Here’s an excerpt from my reply to him

“…. We’re reactive creatures, it’s true. And so, making our narrator’s thoughts and reactions more transparent (and seamless) is a big challenge… As memoirists we can only speculate. …about what our narrators might think and feel in a given moment or situation; which, in effect, means that crafting the story of a narrator's thinking is an act of imagination.”

Once again, this raises the tired, but still unresolved issue of what's “true” in memoir and what's been fabricated. The insistence that memoirists should stick to the facts and not invent, make things up, or otherwise embellish the narrative, is still something a lot of critics get all bent out of shape about. Those tactics, they claim, are the province of fiction and poetry.

Agree or not, clearly we memoirists need to think more conscientiously about the ways in which we use imagination (and memory) in our own narratives.


The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir
1
What distinguishes {literary writing}. …from journalism, is that inherent {in a literary text} is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.
--Eudora Welty

Contrary to what we’ve been taught, imagination is not exclusively about making things up. That’s “invention.” And to my mind, there’s an important distinction to be made between the two. Fiction writer David Malouf makes that case when he says, “Imagination doesn’t simply mean making things up; it means being able to understand things from the inside—emotions, events, and experiences that you haven’t actually been through but that you will have experienced by the time you’ve got them onto the page.”

Malouf is describing the difference between telling or recreating a story the way it happened--if that’s even possible--and transforming that story into (for us nonfiction writers) a fully rendered, fully imagined, memoir. And that transformation is an important part of what writing a literary memoir is all about.

2
I won’t tell you the story the way it happened. I’ll tell it the way I remember it.
--Pam Houstton

In effect, Pam Houston is implying that memory is an unreliable narrator. Hard for any of us to disagree on that one. We also know that imagination alters, even rearranges, the way we remember things. Yet, while being unreliable, I believe that memory is not necessarily untruthful.

Let me explain.  Read More 

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Tracking the Narrator's Thoughts: An Approach to Writing Personal Narratives

Blog # 25

Tracking the Narrator's Thoughts: An Approach to Writing Personal Narratives
1
Even thinking has—or is—a story. The right voice can reveal what it’s like to be thinking. This is memoir’s great task really: the revelation of consciousness.
--Patricia Hampl

Recently, at a writer’s conference, I was conducting a manuscript critique with a former (adult) student, a very fine writer and someone I’ve known for many years. She’d submitted a chapter from the middle of a memoir-in- progress.

In her abstract she writes,"When Kennedy was assassinated, I had a moment of clarity where I saw that no one is ever safe and secure one hundred percent in this world, no matter who they are, and the most important thing is to remain whole, literally and figuratively... That was a turning point in my life when my perception of “safety” changed forever. "

Having read that abstract in advance, I knew what her intent was. And in the chapter’s next-to-last paragraph, she writes about the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination; specifically how, when she was younger, the event effected her.

As compelling, as strong as the writing was, however, it left me with the feeling that something was missing. When I reread the chapter, I searched for but couldn’t find anything in the previous pages that foreshadowed this end-of-chapter revelation. For the most part, the first two thirds was about the narrator’s childhood and her adolescent struggles to overcome a congenital disability.

The problem, I discovered, was that I never really got an overall sense of the how the narrator’s inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions led her to what, on a second reading, seemed more like an epiphany than an emerging discovery. As a teacher and editor, I’ve been privy to these kinds of omissions before. Usually, they occur in rough drafts. And often they emerge from a carefully constructed sequence of events rather than evolving from some deep inner confusion or uncertainty. As a practicing memoirist myself, I’ve been guilty many times of the same oversights.

2

The essayist gives you his thoughts and lets you know, in addition, how he came by them
--Alexander Smith

One of the qualities that distinguish a skillfully rendered personal essay or memoir from other literary forms is that throughout the narrative the "I's" thoughts and feelings are inherently transparent. Consequently, readers ought be able to track the evolution of the narrator’s thinking. In works of literary/creative nonfiction, it comes with the territory.

“Memoir, like fiction, writer Sue William Silverman maintains, “tells a story which needs an over-riding struggle and conflict. What does the author want? What is she struggling toward? Something also must be at stake. What are her inner struggles? Her longings, her fears."

The narrator of the chapter we're discussing does indeed suggest that something important is at stake. “That day {Kennedy's assassination},” she writes, “ I....knew for sure, that nothing and no one could protect me… because nobody, not even the most famous, important and guarded among us, were ever one hundred percent free from harm…Anyone at any time was liable to lose their balance, fall hard, and be swallowed up.”

It's a significant, powerful discovery, to be sure. And as I said above, the writing is compelling and skillfully wrought. Consequently, the reader in me badly wants to identify with and/or understand the impact of that discovery. To be more specific, I believe that what's been omitted from this segment is what Sue Silverman calls the narrator's “inner struggles... her longings, her fears.” In order then, for readers to enter the writer's thoughts, the narrator has to let us in on how, in retrospect, she's arrived at this life changing insight. Has it been percolating, or incubating, maybe even rattling around inside for a long time?

3
“…{In} an essay” Phillip Lopate writes, “the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some kind of understanding of a problem is the plot, the adventure.” I agree with Lopate. And so I advised the chapter’s author to allow herself more permission to make her internal thoughts and feelings more apparent, more evident. And I also made a mental note to do the same thing with a piece I was currently writing.

And I concur with the late critic/memoirist Alfred Kazin when he says that “an essay is.... an expression of the self thinking.... it is not the thought that counts” Kazin says, “but the experience we get of the writer’s thought; not the self, but the self thinking.”

I’ll add a final thought to the mix. In this genre, the subject or the events are less important than the writer’s internal struggle to make sense out of some pressing question, confusing experience, and/or perplexing situation. As a result, the connections between writer and reader (that is, between one human being and another) depend on our knowing how, where, and why the narrator locates and reveals his/her most urgent thoughts and feelings.

This is of course a matter of strategy and approach. But, I believe, it's a necessary, even an essential part of writing authentic personal narratives.
 Read More 

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Guest Blogger: Renée E. D'Aoust. Water the Rocks: A Few Writing Ideas to Unblock Your Heart

Blog # 24

Note: Renée E. D’Aoust will be our guest blogger for this next post.

Renée is a versatile, multitalented writer whose first book Body of a Dancer is a passionate yet clear-eyed memoir about her experiences as a modern dancer during the nineties when she studied at the Martha Graham Center in New York.

Her essay/post below, Water the Rocks: A Few Writing Ideas to Unblock Your Heart, is about a more mundane concern, one that all of us have experienced at one time or another; writer’s block.

MJS

1
At our northern Idaho house, I’ve surrounded the hosta plants and Siberian Bugloss with red rocks from Montana’s Hungry Horse River. (Please set aside your concern regarding the ethics of my stealing river rocks and transporting them across state lines.) My distraction: I like to water rocks. Red rocks, gray rocks, black rocks, striped rocks, flat, small, jagged, and big.

Distraction with a hose. The green hose is a dragon’s mouth; the water, its language. I pour language over the pillars of my life. The problem expands. When sitting down to write, I become distracted. Instead of writing what I need to write, I write what I don’t need to write. Arguably, rocks don’t need watering. Plants do. Arguably, the new book needs to get written. More emails don’t need to be written. (Sorry email pals.) Oh, phooey. Does the world even need one more book? I get up, leave my desk, walk outside, pick up the hose, and water my rocks. I am dragon. Strong. I return to my desk.

Then I sit down to the new page, and I want to do everything but write the page. Take a bath. Bathe the dachshund. Walk the dachshund. Grade student papers. Prune some trees. Eat some chocolate. Water those rocks! They are dehydrated, I think. They miss the river. They need water. I pick up my dragon hose.

Distraction is familiar to all writers, and management of distraction is a skill all writers master. But what happens when distraction leads to anarchy, and the new page stays blank for months? What then?

Put as a question: how did I stop watering the rocks and return to the blank page of my new project? A memoir about trees and loss. A woman in the woods with a saw.

I’m a writer who has never looked kindly on writer’s block. To my chagrin, I thought writers who confessed to such frozen moments in their creative careers were weak, spineless specimens. Who wants to read words from a writer with no vertebrae? Although if a coelacanth wrote something called The Long Swim: Memoir of an Old Fish, I’d read it. Then I became a weak, spineless creature. No backbone. I wasn’t wise like a coelacanth, which can hide at the depths. I wasn’t strong like my imaginary dragon. I was a kleptomaniac: I had stolen rocks.

After the pages of my book project stayed white for months, and longer, closer to a year, or more, I cannot confess the length of painful time, well, I had to own the label: I have writer’s block. You have to accept that something is wrong and name it before you can move forward, right?

I tricked myself into thinking I was not stuck. Oh no, not me. I was writing book reviews, wasn’t I?! I was writing posts for the Women Owning Woodlands website, wasn’t I?! I was writing dance reviews, wasn’t I?! I was writing, for goodness sakes. But, really, I was turning in on myself, picking at my skin, eating lots of chocolate, and taking dachshund Tootsie on more walks than she needed or wanted. Oh, yes, I was watering those rocks. Faithfully.

I’d published my first book, Body of a Dancer, and as my brother put it, succinctly, in the way of siblings, “Basically, you pursued your dance dreams, and when you didn’t succeed at dance, you wrote a book about your failure, and that means you turned adversity into something lasting. Into art.” I liked thinking about those hard modern dance years in New York City. The struggle was all. I didn’t eat any chocolate then. Read More 

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Guest Blogger: Faye Rapoport DesPres: What Does This Have to Do with Writing?

Blog 23

Note: Faye Rapoport DesPres’ guest blog started out as a group of interrelated feelings, confusions, thoughts and emotions, and before evolving into a fully rendered inquiry I read it on May 9 when it first appeared in the Superstition Review. And I was so taken with it I asked Faye if I could reprint it on my blog, and she graciously said yes.
MJS

What Does This Have to Do With Writing by Faye Rapoport DesPres

Ten days ago two explosive devices were detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am sitting at the same desk where I worked last Friday during the daylong manhunt that led to the arrest of the second suspect in the bombings. The first had been killed in a late-night gunfight just three miles from the house I share with my husband. I learned of the events when I turned on my computer at 5:30 the next morning and saw the news headlines. Usually I try to write in the early hours, but I was unable to write after that. At six, my neighbor Mary called to tell me that her husband had heard a disturbance in the middle of the night. He hadn’t been able to sleep. Did I know that we were supposed to stay home and lock the doors?

My husband woke next and I told him what had happened. His cell phone beeped with a text message announcing that the mental health clinic where he works was closed. In fact, all businesses in the area were closed. We double-checked the locks on our doors, opened the window blinds just enough to let in a little sunlight, and spent the entire day inside the house.

You might ask: What does this have to do with writing?

It’s been ten days since the bombings and I can’t seem to shake the effects of what happened. This is not surprising; everyone in Boston seems to know someone who was affected by last week’s events. An old friend of mine had just left the finish line a few minutes before the blasts; she saw the explosions from her office nearby. A receptionist who greeted me last Saturday at a local business told me that her uncle, a police officer, arrived in Watertown just after the gunfight. The woman who took my blood at the doctor’s office on Monday said that she knew people working in area hospitals who would be haunted all their lives by what they’d seen and heard. Paul Martin, a Paralympic athlete who has run the Boston Marathon numerous times and whose memoir, One Man’s Leg, was the first book I edited, sent an email saying that his college friend had lost a leg at the finish line. And a few minutes ago I felt my body stiffen when a helicopter flew over our house. Two helicopters flew low over our neighborhood last Friday, just before the second suspect was apprehended. I realized later that one of those helicopters must have been carrying the thermal imaging equipment that located the suspect beneath the tarp that covered the boat where he was hiding.

No, I haven’t shaken any of this yet.

But what does this have to do with writing?

It is the haunted feeling that I have right now, the same feeling I have had for the last ten days, that compels me to write personal essays. It is a shaken feeling, or a curious feeling, or a constant reliving whether conscious or not, an inability to let go of an event, a memory, or even just a thought. The event might have occurred yesterday, or it might have occurred thirty years ago. But on some level I have not been able to shake it. And so, eventually, I write about it.

The best teaching writers I've worked with often tell me that writing personal essays is, at its heart, a form of inquiry. You start with the intention of revisiting a memory, re-telling an event, or relating an observation, but really you are searching for what it all means. Your goal is to find, as essayist and memoirist Vivian Gornick would say, the story behind the situation. The process is never as simple as you think, at least for me it isn’t. But in the end, if you stick stubbornly with your subject and explore it with all your guts, you learn what is behind your need to write about it – and it’s not always what you expect. Read More 

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Guest Blogger: Mimi Schwartz: Halfway Through a Story

Note: Lately I’ve invited selected writer/teachers to fill in for me while I’m recuperating from hip replacement surgery. My current guest, Mimi Schwartz, is a highly regarded writer, teacher, and scholar who has worked in this genre for much of her professional life. Mimi and I have been colleagues and friends ever since we began teaching freshman composition back in the 70’s. It goes without saying that she’s one of the teaching writers whose work I most admire.

Moreover, along with Bob Root, the late Wendy Bishop, and Lad Tobin, Mimi Schwartz was one of the earliest practitioners to use elements of creative writing in her composition classes. That, along with the 1980's teacher-as-writer movement, are responsible, at least in part, for some of the more innovative approaches we're now seeing in the teaching and writing of creative nonfiction.
MJS

Blog No. 22

Halfway Through a Story by Mimi Schwartz

I was on a roll. I knew my topic: living in a historic neighborhood. I knew my purpose: an opening for a collection I’d been publishing as stand alones over the years. All combined memoir with history or politics, including the politics of writing creative nonfiction. If this new essay worked as I hoped, I might just have a book I’d call When History Gets Personal.

I began writing easily with this beginning:

"I live on a cul-de-sac in Princeton, New Jersey an old white Colonial (actually Colonial Revival), built in 1903 by the president of Evelyn College that is no more. Evelyn College was supposed to be the sister school of Princeton University down the street but was closed for ‘moral turpitude’ and/or for influenza before World War I. Either way, it is now a two-family house instead of a girls’ college meant to be what Radcliffe was to Harvard."

A few pages in, I went to the Princeton Historical Society and got great stuff on Evelyn College. And on George Washington, who stayed five houses away on his way to crossing the Delaware River. And on Albert Einstein who, in the 1930s, gathered in the corner house for discussions with friends. I quickly filled six pages.

But on the top of page 7, I started cleaning closets (two days). And revising my Web site (four days). And inviting friends for a long weekend. Only after the last load of sheets and towels was put away did I confirm what I already suspected: I had landed in the no man’s land between nonfiction that gives information and memoir that recreates personal experience and was overwhelmed by the information part. The “I” had been pushed aside by research and didn’t like being there.

My natural inclination when stuck is to keep rewriting the beginning. It is procrastination in the form of a battering ram that assumes the front door will open or fall down.

“I live in Princeton, New Jersey in a cul-de-sac of five houses. Mine is #4, an old white Colonial (actually Colonial Revivial) that was built by the president of what was Evelyn College….

“At the end of our street is what was a college, Evelyn Place, and we live in an old white Colonial that was built by its President in 1903.” Read More 

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Guest Blogger, Patrick Madden: Finding My Way

Blog No. 21

Guest Blog: Finding My Way, by Patrick Madden

Pat Madden is a first rate writer, editor, and teacher, who, in my opinion, is also one of our foremost scholars on/about the evolution of the personal essay

Note: In the last two entries (# 19 and 20) I've written about how simply retelling a story the way you remember it differs in significant ways from following the unbidden discoveries and surprises that often appear when we're drafting our personal narratives. Pat Madden's essay, "Finding My Way," is another take on this notion. Instead of sticking to his predetermined plan, Pat elected to follow wherever the writing was taking him. As a result, he discovered a richer, more complex approach to composing the piece.

Finding My Way

So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter—I begin the first memory.
— Virginia Woolf “A Sketch of the Past”


One of the earliest writing lessons I learned (I refer to creative writing, not elementary school writing) is this: that I should allow my writing to guide itself instead of beginning with my conclusion already in mind. This is common advice, something you’ve likely heard yourself, but I repeat it here because I can remember how I struggled with it, how I tried to believe it in theory without putting it into practice. And I see again and again student pieces that seem to be transcripts (sometimes elaborations) of a predetermined narrative and meaning with no room for detours from “the point.” The writing in these is sometimes very clean, even beautiful, but it simply serves the goal, without being part of the process.

Now I would not say that I have arrived at any fully formed writing abilities, but I have learned to trust in the notion that I should write without knowing where I’m going. Whereas I once tried to express in words the lessons I’d already processed from highlight-stories I’d experienced, I now attempt to find or create connections between seemingly dissimilar things that flit into my consciousness coincidentally. The act itself is as fun as it is rewarding, and even when it fails, it gives me good exercise.

One recent example, among many, came to me as I was sitting in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario watching the Uruguayan national team play a World Cup qualifier match against Ecuador. I knew I wanted to write something about Uruguay’s improbable and, frankly, amazing soccer tradition, going back nearly a century and including two Olympic championships followed by two World Cup championships, and I wanted to tie this to the team’s recent resurgence as a FIFA powerhouse. Soccer is a great source of pride for Uruguayans, and I, who’ve lived in the country for four years and who’ve married a Uruguayan, share the sentiment. But I did not want to write a straightforward narrative (“I went to the stadium to watch Uruguay play against Ecuador… It was a 1-1 tie… Let me tell you about Uruguayan soccer history…”). So I kept my eyes and ears open in the stadium for other entry points to help me essay the theme instead of simply writing the story.

I thought I found my hook when I was startled by a loudspeaker promotional jingle playing all through the stadium during the middle of the match. It was hawking ball bearings. How strange, I thought, that someone would think it worth their advertising pesos to blast such a commercial to a stadium filled not with auto mechanics or race-car fans, but futbol aficionados.  Read More 

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Planning For Surprise (Part Two)

Note: This is Part Two of the long overdue June 3 entry, #19, Expecting the Unexpected, a post about importance of discovery and surprise in writing personal essays and memoirs. In that post, I left off at the point where I’d scrapped a 300-page draft of Still Pitching, a memoir that was becoming a long, chronologically driven linear story rather than a reflective, exploratory narrative. The arc of that draft begins in the narrator’s childhood and ends when he turns 50. Which, in my opinion was reason enough to stop and rethink what I was doing. Since I took so long to post this one, it might be a good idea to give #19 (6/3/13) a quick look before reading #20.

Blog No. 20

1 Planning For Surprise

It's a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know. What keeps me sitting at my desk, hour after hour, year after year, is that I do not know something, and I must write in order to find my way to an understanding.
--Marcie Hershman

After the big cuts, I was left with some fifty pages on/about the narrator’s childhood and adolescence (ages 7-17). That was all the raw material I had to work with. With no over-arching plan in mind, I was, in effect, beginning over. And this time, literally in a state of not knowing.

The question/speculation that guided the new draft still was, “Is there some deep-seated connection between the narrator’s being a kid baseball pitcher and a mid-life memoirist?” And the answer still was unexamined, still unexplored.

I recalled what Patricia Hampl said to me a while back (a comment I’d mentioned in post # 19). “Knowing your story is the enemy of the developing narrative,” she said. At the time, it made sense, yet I wasn’t quite sure why.

Once I got the new draft going though, I slowly began to figure out what Hampl was driving at. Yes, all of us do know our own stories. But in my case, what I didn’t know was how to write it and what it meant. And when you think about it, isn’t that what we hope to discover through the writing?

Duh! Still another example, I’m afraid, of something I was regularly preaching to my students and neglecting to pay attention to in my own writing.

First, in rereading the remaining fifty pages, I discovered that a former baseball baseball kept reappearing every few pages. He was a gatekeeper I’d written about several years ago. But I hadn’t thought much about him since.

“Why him again?” I wrote in my notes, “and why now?”

Thinking about that coach tripped off other unexpected associations. When I reread the fifty pages a second time, I noticed an abundance of references to Jackie Robinson, as well as to the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, and New York Giants, the teams I followed as a kid. Teams l'd also written about some time ago.

“Haven’t I already put that stuff to bed, as well?” I asked myself again. Well, apparently not.

That’s when the surprises began to appear; and sometimes in bunches. First, following a hunch, I set the narrative between the years from 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier, until 1959, when the Dodgers and Giants moved their franchises to California. During those years, the three New York teams dominated the game, winning the World Series ten times in eleven years. And it wasn’t lost on me that those years also constituted a good piece of the young narrator’s childhood and the majority of his adolescence.

I wasn’t sure where all this was taking me, but the draft, it seemed, was leading me into uncharted territory. And so, I cautiously followed.

It’s my belief now, that had I not discarded the chronological narrative and confined the new narrative to childhood and adolescence, I wouldn’t have stumbled across the following associations and connections. Read More 

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Expecting the Unexpected: The Role of Discovery and Surprise in Personal Narratives (Part One of a Two-Part Post)

Note: Dzanc Books has recently published my memoir, Still Pitching as an ebook reprint. For those who are interested, you can find the ebook edition of
Still Pitching on Dzanc Books, Amazon, Kobo Books, and Barnes and Noble: Google Still Pitching: A Memoir A Nook Book-Barnes &Noble

Blog No. 19

Expecting the Unexpected: The Role of Discovery and Surprise in Personal Narratives
(Part One of a Two-Part Post)

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Teaching Personal Essays and Memoirs

No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader
---Robert Frost

Lately, I’ve found that a number of well written personal essays and memoirs don’t succeed largely because the writers, especially the most inexperienced ones), try to force a predetermined--most often, chronological--narrative onto the page.

Many of these narratives fall into a predictable “this happened, then this, then this…” arrangement, a modus operandi which quickly becomes predictable and repetitious. When I ask writers why they’ve chosen this particular strategy, many respond with a version of “because that’s the way it happened.“

More often than not, a straight-forward chronological approach is a good fit for a subject that the writer already both knows something about and understands, like, say, a family story or a piece of reportage. Other narratives , we know, (mostly personal essays and memoirs), can begin with an uncertainty; that is, they grow out of a expressive, exploratory impulse, closer in intent to the feeling that produces lyric poetry, and, in some cases, poetic prose. These works, in other words, come from a sense of not knowing, where the narrative takes the writer into often unpredictable places.

In a Fourth Genre interview, essayist Scott Russell Sanders says,


"Too often students think of the essay as a vehicle for delivering chunks of information or prefabricated ideas. I want them to see the essay as a way of discovery. I push them to take risks on the page, to venture out from familiar territory into the blank places on those maps. {And so} I get my students thinking about puzzles, questions, confusions, what excites and bewilders them."


By ”familiar territory” Sanders is referring to writing that sticks too closely to already known facts and events. Whether it’s a chronological narrative or a lyric piece, in my own teaching I try to nudge my students to go beyond and/or get beneath the narrative’s surface, because, I’ve found, that’s where the richest surprises and discoveries lie.

While I’m not against using chronology as a structural principle, in my writing workshops I try to give student writers--no matter how young or old-- permission to use their lives and personal experience as raw material, catalysts for exploration and discovery.

As poet Stephen Dunn says, “your poem effectively begins at the first moment you’ve startled yourself. Throw everything away that proceeded that moment…”… Dunn adds, “mostly we begin our poems with our ordinary workaday minds, these minds burdened by the conventional. And if we’re lucky we discover something we didn’t know we knew {and/or} find phrasing that couldn’t have been available to us at the outset...”
What Dunn is saying about writing poems, applies, I believe, to personal essays and memoirs as well.

11
Writing Personal Essays and Memoirs

I do not sit down at my desk to put into {writing} what I think is already clear in my mind. I should have no incentive or need to write about it...We do not write to be understood. We write in order to understand.
--C. Day Lewis

By nature and disposition, I’m an essayist/memoirist. So most of my personal narratives begin in confusion, in a state of not knowing. In other words, they  Read More 

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Family History Meets Memoir - Part 2, by guest blogger Rebecca McClanahan

This post is Part 2 of a two part entry. See # 17 below for part 1.

This month’s guest is Rebecca McClanahan, a writer/teacher whose poetry, literary nonfiction, and essays on/about the genre I’ve always admired. Her piece below, Family History Meets Memoir grows out of her latest book, The Tribal Knot, a poetic, deeply human, family memoir.

Note: Anyone who follows this blog and is interested in learning more about the genre and its craft, I urge you to look into the River Teeth Conference, May 17-19. Rebecca will be one of the keynote speakers and I’ll be on a panel about structure in memoir.
River Teeth Conference

Blog No. 18

FAMILY HISTORY MEETS MEMOIR - Part 2 by Rebecca McClanahan

3. Re-enact history for your readers.

Reconstructed or imagined scenes can enliven your family history memoir, filling in the blanks that remain after the research is complete. Consider these possibilities:

• THE TELLING OF THE TALE: This type of scene grows out of an interview or conversation between you and another family member or informant. Whether you transcribe the conversation word for word or rely solely upon memory, your goal is to give the reader a sense of the storytelling moment itself. As in most effective monologue or dialogue scenes, the words spoken are often not as important as the manner in which they are delivered. As you write, include details such as pauses, voice inflections, repetitions and gestures. When you asked your uncle about his duty in the Vietnam War, did he look out the window, light another cigarette and change the subject? These clues are part of the telling of the tale, as are details about the interview environment. Was it a stormy afternoon? What song was playing on the radio? When the phone rang, did your uncle ignore it, or jump up to answer it? Was your uncle’s ancient dog sleeping across his lap? Put the reader in the moment with you, any way you can.

• RECONSTRUCTED OR IMAGINED EVENTS: Just because you weren’t present at an event—for instance, your great-aunt’s 1904 wedding—doesn’t mean you can’t write a scene based on the research material you’ve gathered. Build on what you have, whether it’s a photograph of her wedding dress, a letter or newspaper clipping, the weather report from that January day (easily accessible from archival sources), pages from that year’s Sears catalog, or memories of your conversations with your great-aunt. Create the scene that might have been, should have been, or even—if you enter the territory of negative space—what could never have been. As you write, create as full a scene as you would for a fictional story. Describe the sights, sounds, smells and textures you encounter. Let us hear the voices of the characters, watch them move through the room. Just remember to supply navigation tools for the reader. Phrases such as “I imagine” or, “In my mind, the French doors open into a parlor,” alert the reader that you are moving into reconstructed or imagined scenes.

4. Draw upon your personal connection to the facts.

Ask yourself, “Why am I drawn to this subject at this particular time in my life?” Quite often, events in the author’s life trigger an interest—even an obsession—with family history. Perhaps you recently received a cancer diagnosis or gave birth to your first child, or your parents are entering an assisted-living center. Although the author’s life is not usually the central focus of a family history memoir, his story often intersects with those of the family members or ancestors in the spotlight.

If you decide that a current situation in your life relates to your family history, you can weave that situation into the larger narrative, as Terry Tempest Williams did in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. You can also create a double-strand text, alternating your present-tense story with your ancestors’ histories. Your personal story can even form the narrative timeline for the book, with family research details carefully selected to illuminate your own account.

Yet even if your personal story remains in the background, your stake in the proceedings should be clear, or, to paraphrase Rust Hills in his discussion of the peripheral narrator in fiction, you must be “the one moved by the action.” You are the reader’s guide through the text, and he will probably sense your personal connection through your selection and arrangement of research details, your voice and tone, and even the rhythm and sounds of your sentences. Here are more explicit methods for revealing your connection to the research:  Read More 

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Family History Meets Memoir - Part I, guest blogger Rebecca McClanahan

This month’s guest is Rebecca McClanahan, a writer/teacher whose poetry, literary nonfiction, and essays on/about the genre I’ve always admired. Her piece below, Family History Meets Memoir grows out of her latest book, The Tribal Knot, a poetic, deeply human, family memoir. This posting is Part I of a two part entry. Part II will be up during the first week of May.

Note: For anyone who follows this blog and is interested in learning more about the genre and its craft, I urge you to look into the River Teeth Conference, May 17-19. Rebecca will be one of the keynote speakers and I’ll be on a panel about structure in memoir.
River Teeth Conference

Blog No. 17

Family History Meets Memoir - Part I

“So, you’re writing your family history,” people said when I mentioned the book I’d been working on for over a decade. “Not exactly,” I answered, not sure of what to say next. Although I’d been poring over hundreds of century-old ancestral letters and artifacts in my search to understand my family’s past, I knew I could not claim to be a historian or even a genealogist. I kept envisioning all the gravestones I’d left unturned, and the scraggly family tree with all the missing branches. No, I finally decided. I am definitely not writing a family history. What I’m writing is a family history memoir.

Here’s the difference: The primarily allegiance of a family historian is to the research itself—to gathering, organizing and recording as much information as possible. When you write a family history memoir, your primary allegiance is not to the research itself but to the larger story you discover through the research, a story that in some way connects to your own. This does not mean that research is not important, or that you play loose with the facts, but rather that you use the knowledge you’ve gained to create a text that is more than a “just the facts, ma’am” report, a text that might appeal to a broad audience of readers.

How do you do this? How do you use research to enrich your memoir and create an artful, lively text that combines your own story with the story of your family or ancestors? Some writers do little or no formal research, relying on their memories of past events or stories passed down. Others conduct extensive searches involving archival documents, site visits, interviews, library and online records, and other sources. But whether you have inherited trunk-loads of ancestral documents, as I did, or only a few family anecdotes, you can use that research to create an engaging memoir. Here are five principles and techniques that helped me while researching and writing The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change.

1. Organize your findings around your main character.

In a family history memoir, your main character can of course be a particular person—such as an ancestor or family member or even (in rare cases) you, the author—but it can also be any other central focus that drives your story. You may decide that your main “character” is actually a place, event, time period, relationship, physical object, image or recurring question. It could be 1930s Detroit, the 65-year marriage of your grandparents, the forest you played in as a child, the specter of alcoholism throughout generations, or, as in the case of my book The Tribal Knot, a physical artifact that embodies your memoir’s main themes.  Read More 

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