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

Guest Blogger: Richard Hoffman. More Notes Toward an Essay on Memoir

Blog No. 28

Guest blogger Richard Hoffman is one of our most prolific, accomplished, and versatile authors. He writes fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction with equal dexterity and skill. And in addition to being an astute commentator on/about literary nonfiction, Richard is among the most gifted, accomplished teacher/mentors I’ve had the privilege to work with. MJS


In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his one prose work, Rainier Maria Rilke regrets that no one any longer has an individual death -- "One dies the death that belongs to the disease one has," he writes. Well, we've done this with our lives now, at least those lives recounted in memoir, and marketed via publishers' cumbersome sub-titles. Title, colon: A Memoir of X & Y; My Struggle with X; My Escape from X; My Life with X. How can we find the humanity so abundantly and variously evident in worthwhile books if we consign them to one or another cubby-hole like this? You can no more judge a book by its subtitle than its cover, though people seem to do both. So we read about experience that we think may shed light on our own because we have an event or an illness or a place or a trauma in common with the author, when what we truly have in common is our humanity and, ironically, we might learn more about that from a work that at first seems far from our usual concerns or our own chancy autobiographies up until now.

No matter the particulars of the life recounted, the memoirs I love are grounded in grief. "Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?" Well, everything, I would answer Yeats. Everything remains to say. It is all a celebration and a mourning of what vanishes. Grief, I have long believed, proves we are all one blood, one and the same creature, despite our beautiful and deadly differences. When they came upon Abel, inanimate, unresponsive, gone, Eve and Adam uttered a wail of shock and incomprehension that has never ended, and they became, in that moment, the parents of the human race.

Human beings, by definition, look for meaning in their experience. They look to their cultures to provide the categories of discourse that they may use to find meaning. From pull-down menus to the complexities of one’s mother tongue, the making of meaning is thus mediated by precedent and permission. Every memoir is such a precedent and permission for someone.

It’s paradoxical that when I sit somewhere and write, whether it’s by a stream, in a library nook, in a cafe, on a park bench, I am completely and utterly unaware of my surroundings, taken up as I am with what I’m writing (which may be about another kind of place entirely) so that when I close my notebook I seem not to have been there at all, but thereafter, whenever I look at what I wrote there the whole place will suddenly be present to me, in detail, including memories of smells and sounds. I might be led to the conclusion that the part of me that entrances itself with looking for words is in fact the oldest self I have, or from another vantage, the youngest, the child who first came to awareness and looked for words for what he saw, this paradox partaking of that quality of childhood that lets the world etch itself completely in memory while the mind’s attention seems wholly taken up with something else.

If I’m not reading, if I haven’t had adequate time to read, I can’t write, or write well, at any rate; I feel like a blindfolded man trying to paint.

It’s important, from time to time, to reaffirm the primacy of experience over words. We spend the majority of our time in a language web, its patterns defining our humanity, its contours and quality, but we are creatures first, always a bit feral, like cats hunting in a housing project.

Writing takes me so long because 90% of what I think is not what I think. It is cleverness, other people’s thoughts, advertisements, platitudes, prejudices, rhymes.

Childhood is an autumn forest of memories both deciduous and evergreen. Discreet remembrances change in relation to others which are also changing but at a different pace. The maples, for example, are dramatic and impassioned against a background of amber. A stand of beech is already gray and feathery. And the smell of a wood fire, elusive on the shifting breeze, reaches you again and again, always, it seems, from a different direction. All the while you hear the chunk, chunk of the woodcutter’s axe, and knowing him no friend to your remembering, and recognizing him as the very woodcutter of the stories, you tell of the growth of each tree, both the green and the yellowing. You tell of as much of the forest as you can while you still have time.

Always remember: we are shaped not only by what happens to us, but also by what we long for, what we desire. Be careful what you want.

I have heard all the arguments against memoir, including the unreliability of memory, the unintentional distortion of subsequent events, and the necessarily biased view of even the most credible storyteller. There is even a trump card that says that experience itself is, of course, chaos, and that as soon as you attach language to it you have falsified it. In this view, everything is fiction as soon as it turns into language. But to say this is like saying that the air we breathe is changed in our lungs — of course it is, and it is that change, that exchange, that keeps us alive. The same goes for storytelling, the primary way that human beings make meaning, noting consequences, chains of events, patterns, that we call true. Story sustains us. It is the way we integrate experience and, to use a term both physiological and editorial, digest it. It is, finally, not a question of whether some objective truth can be known, since even in the world of particle physics, we know now that the observer is always part of the event; rather, it is a question of honesty; not a matter of truth but of truthfulness.

So, here's how I see it — in writing a memoir, there are really three stories one must manage and coordinate somehow:

1. the story that, superficial as it may seem, is comprised of the objective facts — who, what, where, when, how

2. the story as you have painstakingly come to know it — often in the writing itself, often over many years of focusing and refocusing — as a way of making sense of the facts

3. the story one presents to readers, (a representation, i.e. a re-presentation) which is necessarily a compromise with the requirements of narrative (the map is not the territory) but one in which, it is to be hoped, the art redeems whatever distortions have been necessary. Here is where art, because its formal boundaries are less rigid and limiting, allows more of the truth and more of the truth’s complexity and emotional nuance to be communicated.

All three of these stories, and the relationships between them, are fraught with ethical pitfalls that must be negotiated with integrity. It is not merely a b&w issue of the truth vs. fiction. It is more complicated and more ethically demanding on the most elemental level. Popular media cannot begin to discuss such things; the simplicity and rigidity of their formats simply do not allow it.

If you are interested in memoir as a genre, then step out of this inauthentic debate which panders to the lowest intellectual common denominator in order to sell papers and capture viewers. Instead read the literary critics who discuss the genre seriously. This is why we have literary critics, after all. Read Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again; read Richard Coe’s When the Grass Was Taller; read Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist.

The truth deserves to be told with all the artfulness you would deploy in telling a lie.

We have a strange idea that the truth is simple, that it is something you blurt out. No artist or scientist would ever agree with that formulation! The truth is always something you arrive at after painstaking investigation, and the truth of our own lives is no exception. The memoir is governed by a radical honesty that accepts the facts as they are known and as they may be further discovered in the process of remembering, researching, and writing.

A memoir is not merely a record. It is a book, i.e. a guided imaginative experience for the reader turning pages. That it is nonfiction does not change this. Every artist must make compromises with the limitations of his or her medium. Here the medium is language, the vehicle is story, and the form is a book. I think the aim of one’s artfulness should be to illumine the life of the reader, even in a memoir.

You don’t know the outcome. You may think you know “your story,” but that only means you know either the story you’ve been told, or the one you’ve been telling yourself. The process is an attempt at discovery: how did I get to be the person who is writing this story? What forces have been at work, unseen, since before I was born? How do I inhabit history? How does history inhabit and shape me? It’s not about teaching your reader anything you think you know; it’s about making an inquiry into the mystery of your life that goes deep enough to be about the reader’s life as well.

We are all characters in a story, anyway, whether we write it or not; whether we understand it or not. The story is read vertically through generational time, and we know only a small handful of the other characters, some of whom may be influencing, by some wave they set in motion long ago, the arrangement of these words, these thoughts, even now.

Richard Hoffman is author of the Half the House: a Memoir, and the poetry collections, Without Paradise, Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club, and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Stories was published in 2009. His new memoir, Love & Fury, is forthcoming from Beacon Press. He is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.

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