Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Memoir Writing: Part of the Collective Human Consciousness

A discussion has been going on about whose stories we should be allowed to tell. Is it right, fair, just, or despicable for someone to write a 'memoir' and write about other people who have no chance to speak up for themselves or have imput into what you write? Then the discussion, as most online discussions do, devolved into bashing memoirs.

What are we put on this earth for if not to learn something from the lives we live and share that information with others. Or at the very least, delve into the events of that life and find the truth hidden deep inside. I write personal essays -- a form of memoir in essay form. And being the kind of person who pays very little attention to myself, I've written the essays about my husband. After all, who have I observed any closer for the past 38 years than him? I have a whole series of 'real men' essays about him. Not bashing him, but starting with an anecdote and going from there. Like the time he left a tip at a small seafood restaurant in Central Florida and the waitress came running out after him. She stopped, hesitated, asked if he meant to leave that tip and when he nodded she thanked him.

I believe the moment frightened him. I know it did me because he's by necessity a very frugal man. Very. Our son was with us and just stared open mouthed. But the anecdote wasn't truly about a large tip, it was about a man who stepped out of his economic constraints and rewarded someone who worked hard to make our meal a pleasure. It was about being frugal in a generous way and making his family proud to know him. And it was an opportunity for a son to see his father with new eyes. Each essay may have started with a story about my husband, but it truly said more about me. My focus of my husband had narrowed and I had forgotten what a generous man he truly was.

So, when I finally had had enough of memoir bashing from this online discussion. This is what I wrote:
Memoir offers something that biography can't. If it didn't, then people wouldn't be compelled to write them. Or read them!

My brother and I grew up in the same house seven years apart. Obviously he a male, me female. We have the same parents and yet my brother and I are worlds apart in attitude and perception and just about everything else. So of course he will not see our childhood or parents or home the same way I do. And no one can see it the same way I do. It is MY STORY. Only I can tell it. Is it 'true' or 'factual'? I don't substitute things for effect. I don't exchange a cock fight when it was actually alley cats. But I do write it through my own eyes. Do I glamorize it? No. Is the focus narrow? Yes. Do I set it in the era drawing on what was going on in the world at that time -- yes. A personal essay and memoir too, work through things. The author begins at one point and is changed by the time he or she reaches the end. And the audience, if the piece is done well, get to see the change.

Do I censor it for fear of hurting someone's feelings? Sadly. Yes. But I do not advocate censoring 'self.'

We shouldn't worry about feelings especially someone else's when writing. It should all go on the page. Find the heart of your essay or memoir and then craft the story around that. But first you must be free to put it all down on paper. Ideally I write about my life. But most of the best essays I have written have actually centered on my husband. But it is me, looking at him and reaching conclusions. The conclusions are not about him though, they are about me and my perspective. Most of the times discovering things I never realized.

The best part about writing memoir is the treasure you uncover in the writing. I didn't know that the knitted potholder was about gender roles or that Snow Angels was about dying with dignity or that the scar on my thumb and washing dishes was about sisterhood and exchanging roles -- growing into my mother's hands. Yet, I think these kinds of stories about small things from one small insignificant perspective are vital in what makes us human.

Makes us connect. Makes us realize we aren't alone with these experiences and issues. A memoir starts discussions. Every time someone reads my personal essays there is a comment, "That reminds me of the time...."

Sometimes, often, the impact is so solid that it causes tears or laughing out loud or a phone call to someone they love but also hate. I'm not saying that my writing is all that good. I'm saying that things written from the heart touch other hearts.

And this whole argument about 'the good old days' were not so good. Well, it depends on what role you were playing during those good old days. Being a child with a sense of security, ignorance about economic class or hardships certainly is a different perspective than the father working in a steel mill and facing layoffs. A reader of memoir should be smart enough (it doesn't take much) to realize where the author/narrator is standing when looking out on this vista. And what is wrong with describing a perfect moment? For heaven sakes people these are memoirs and they are about memory and feeling and personal truth and growth and pain and society and relationships and perspective. No one else can ever write MY memoir.

What happens with memoir is when my memories and the readers touch and they can say, "Yes, yes, I get it. That's what it was. She put my pain into words...."

I'm involved with fabric artists through my blog Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles. They call themselves 'artists' which is a great word for freeing up self censorship. Perhaps we need to adopt that moniker and see what happens to our writings. Do we write for utilitarian reasons or for art? It is the same in fabric art. Are you making a beautiful quilt for the bed or to hang on the wall? Are you carefully following the rules with perfectly abutted corners and straight seams and precise quarter inch seams or are you working on transforming cloth into a butterfly or a face or a kaleidoscope? What is memoir but a use of words to take a life and find the meaning and significance and lessons learned to share with others....

Google memoir and see what you find. I found this site interesting in Columbia University News.

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