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

Blog # 73. Re-thinking the Literary Memoir: Some Notes on Patricia Hampl's "Memory and Imagination" by Michael Steinberg


“Re-thinking Literary Memoir “ was originally a panel talk I did at the 2017 AWP convention in Washington DC. The panel’s title was “The Vein of Jade: What a Single Detail Can Reveal in Nonfiction. It was about how “the perfect, telling detail” illuminates works of literary nonfiction." In my craft essay, I 've extended “the perfect, telling detail” to include selected passages and scenes.


Blog # 73. Rethinking the Literary Memoir: Some Notes on Patricia Hampl’s “Memory and Imagination” by Michael Steinberg

Memoir isn’t for reminiscence; it’s for exploration. - Patricia Hampl

Some years ago as part of my preparation for an upcoming memoir workshop, I was rereading Patricia Hampl’s “Memory and Imagination,” a marvelous personal/critical essay I’d first encountered some twenty-five years ago. The original essay was published at just about the same time as the literary memoir was starting to receive more attention.

Back then I remember being struck by Hampl’s inventive approach to composing a literary memoir. And even more so in my current rereading of the essay.

Early on in “Memory and Imagination,” Hampl is discussing the early draft of a short piece, an essay/memoir that, according to her, wasn’t working. She begins by depicting, in very specific detail, a scene from the draft about her first piano lesson.

At the end of the scene–which Hampl describes as “a moment”–she asks herself why she’d remembered that particular incident (the piano lesson) and not other, more vivid, and possibly. more dramatic, childhood stories. She then tells us, “When I reread what I had written just after I finished it, I realized that I’d told a number of lies.”

In my rereading, this is where I became even more curious to find out where Hampl’s essay was headed.

As she reflects on that disclosure, Hampl also questions why she had invented the details of that piano lesson, an incident she says she had no recollection of. Next, she tells us that up until she’d written about that “moment,” she had believed that memoir was “a transcription, a faithful, accurate, rendition of a period or incident” from her past.

I have to admit that back when I started to teach and write memoir, I too believed something similar. And so did my students.

For many years in my memoir workshops, a majority of the autobiographical works, both by experienced and aspiring writers, were, for the most part, straightforward, chronological pieces-- narratives that attempted to reproduce the facts and literal events of a given story. And when I was editor of the literary journal, Fourth Genre, a good number of well-written, even compelling memoirs, that missed the cut, were also chronological and fact-based narratives; works that didn’t dig deep enough and/or go beyond the telling of a given story’s situations and events.

I was thinking about those things as I was reading the next few pages of “Memory and Imagination.” And here is where Hampl began to interrogate her own reasons for writing about the piano lesson. “I must admit,” she says, “that I invented that scene.

But why?” she asks herself–before answering, “Two whys; why did I invent? And then, if a memoirist must invent rather than transcribe, why do I–why should anybody–write memoir at all?”

Hampl’s question stopped me in my tracks. Because as he goes on to say, “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know. I write in order to find out what I know.”

To which she adds: “That’s why I’m a strong advocate of the first draft. And why it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what a first draft really is.”

This is the moment in my rereading of “Memory and Imagination” when I seriously began to re-examine my approach to teaching (and writing) memoir.

By “first draft,” Hampl is referring once again to the piano lesson–the scene she’d just described as “invention and lies.” This discovery she tells us, subsequently became the catalyst for her next draft, which she explains, is “an entirely different piece altogether.”

Which of course in retrospect now makes perfect sense.

Hampl goes on to say, “No, it isn’t the lies themselves that makes the piano memoir a first draft...” before adding that, “the real trouble is that the piece hasn’t yet found its subject; it isn’t about what it wants to be about…. what it wants, not what I want.”

Right then, I understood something I’d been feeling for a long time both about my students’ and my own work–something I’d been unable to articulate or pin down.

“The difference,” Hampl maintains, “has to do with the relation a memoirist–any writer, in fact–has to unconscious or half-known intentions or impulses…”

When I’d first read “Memory and Imagination,” I was neither experienced nor savvy enough to make the connection between the works my students were producing and the short piano lesson fragment Hampl was struggling with.

But, some twenty-plus years later, I now understand it. Because in my rereading of her essay, it became clear that Hampl’s disclosure about lying isn’t meant to give students permission to make things up.

Quite the contrary. In addition to expanding their thinking on/about memoir, Hampl is encouraging aspiring memoirists to make fuller use of their imaginations.

A few paragraphs later, Hampl writes, “We must acquiesce to our gift to transform our experience into meaning and value…” before adding, “You tell me your story, I’ll tell you my story.”

“Transform” is the operative word here. And to emphasize it, Hampl ends the segment of “Memory and Imagination” by telling us that, “True memoir is an attempt to find not only a self but a world.”

That last line segues to a more expansive, complex, and philosophical discussion on/about memoir’s range and scope. In the second half of the essay then, Hampl turns her attention to explaining and illustrating memoir’s potential to focus on important human concerns, as well as to engage with larger historical, social, cultural issues.

It seems to me that my sense of memoir as a legitimate form of literature might well have been altered, maybe even have been shaped, by what Hampl had written years ago in “Memory and Imagination.”

And for a long time afterward, those not-yet fully-understood insights continued to inform a good deal of what I’ve learned both about writing and teaching. Now, after rereading the essay, many of those beliefs have been clarified and confirmed.

I say this because shortly after I’d finished “Memory and Imagination,” I could see more clearly what had been missing from both my students’ work and from the “almost’s” we’d turned down at Fourth Genre. Those chronological memoirs I’d been reading were, in effect, first drafts; drafts, in other words, that had been shaped too soon; works, as Hampl had suggested, that haven’t yet “transformed…experience into meaning and value.”

While the overall question of “why write memoir” was what guided my re-reading of “Memory and Imagination,” I could also see that the essay was helping to remind me how important it is for us to learn more about what it means to read like a writer; to read a work from the inside-out; to read, that is, in order to gain a fuller understanding of how and why selected details, scenes, and images serve the writer’s intent, while at the same time contributing to that work’s overall shape and design.

This is, I believe, what Annie Dillard is getting at when she talks what it means to “fashion a text.”

And this is, after all, what all of us--teaching memoirists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers--aspire to accomplish in our own works, at the same time as we’re encouraging our students to do the same.

Michael Steinberg, founding editor of the literary journal, The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction has written, co-authored and/or edited six books and a stage play. In 2003/04, Still Pitching won the ForeWord Magazine/Independent Press Memoir of the Year. An anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Robert Root) is now in a sixth edition. His latest book is Living In Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan: Selected Essays and Memoirs 1990-2015

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