Learning to Read the Truth in Memoir
Truth in a memoir is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happens.
Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, 91.
I sometimes think of the reader as a cat, endlessly fastidious, capable, by turns, of modest indifference and riveted attention, luxurious, recumbent, and ever poised. Whereas the writer is a dog, panting and moping, too eager for an affectionate scratch behind the ears, lunging frantically after any old stick thrown in the distance.
Patricia Hampl, “Memory and Imagination,” 27.
I want to tell a story here, a story about a course in form and theory of creative nonfiction that I am developing as a sister course to our graduate courses that focus on form and theory in fiction and poetry. My story is about teaching students to read memoir, but is also a story of my learning to teach students to read memoir in a setting very different from other settings in which I have used memoirs.
Early on in fall semester 2009, I run into rough water the graduate seminar in form and theory in creative nonfiction: we are talking about Amy Bauer’s “The Oil Man” when I notice two men at the far end of the seminar table whispering to each other with large smiles on their faces. Some might even say grins. Since Bauer’s essay is a rather chilling recounting, at least for me, of an encounter she had with another American one Sunday morning when she was doing a semester abroad in London, I do not understand the occasion for grins and ask, as I do when startled by unexpected behavior in any setting, “What?” One of the men turns back fully to the table and states as much as asks, “So someone can just say he remembers it, say it’s nonfiction and then do anything?” Before I can respond, the other man adds, “He has the right question. He does.” I urge them to say more, tell me more, and one goes on to say—something to the effect—that his way of seeing the world is very flexible, but Bauer starts off with “all these lies.”
For the life of me I cannot see what he is calling “lies.” I ask him to explain, and he reads from the start of the essay. “Imagine a girl walking down a street in Paris. The Champs-Elysées. The Eiffel Tower rising, stretching its flexed frame to a golden tip, in the distance. No, it cannot be Paris. I’ve never been to Paris—which remains a dark bruise inside me because fifteen years ago my younger sister went to Paris with my parents and I was not allowed to go” (260). Then he waves the back of his hand at the page as if to say there.
I look around the table and wait for someone to say something. No one does, for a range of reasons I suppose, but all eyes point to me. Eventually I say “Not lies” and talk some, not for the first time, about the contract between writers and readers of creative nonfiction. I do believe, like most of the nonfiction writers I know, that saying a piece of writing is nonfiction means that we have stayed as absolutely close to the actual details of events as we can and that readers should be able to trust that. In fact, agreeing to trust is the reader’s part of that contract. I know that some nonfiction writers feel it is fine to do composites of event or character, and I have not figured out how I feel about this approach for those who do it. I do not do it, at least not consciously, because I have never felt it necessary nor, for my own purposes, a clause I want to write into my side of the contract. I think fiction passed off as nonfiction creates drama and big headlines because readers who have kept up their end of the nonfiction contract feel they have developed intimate and trusting relationships with their writers. To find they’ve been duped hurts deeply, so deeply that great scandals result. I find it hard to imagine a fiction writer making big headlines for being outed for passing nonfiction off as fiction or having 19,000 copies of a book being recalled by a publisher as was Margaret B. Selzer’s Love and Consequences.
Class ends as I am muttering about the contract, no doubt with that trapped look teachers can get when they don’t know what to say, and the issue remains on the table for the semester as we soon memoir behind, in part because later readings simply do not raise this issue of truth and in part because I do not find the language at this time to say what I know about truth in memoir—and other sub-genres of nonfiction—to say this: Truth encompasses far more than the literal. The details of events, facts, exist as entities we must interpret. Perhaps because study of history in elementary and secondary schools in this country is so often about learning single versions of the past and memorizing dates, we don’t see that the work of historians is uncovering the how and why of events and involves much interpretation, nowadays with emphasis of giving differing versions of history.
Still, Amy Bauer does start her essay in a curious way. In paragraph one, just past the spot where my student stopped reading, she goes on to explain why she was not taken on this trip to Paris and in doing so lets readers know that there existed then and still a strained relationship between her and her family. Readers need to know this fact because her familial relationship influences, somewhat strongly, her response to the Texas oil man she meets on her way to a London cathedral. Her second paragraph continues similarly to her first, offering a possibility the taking it back:
Imagine a girl walking down the street of New York City. Wall Street. The massive financial buildings made of stone and glass shining in the distance, rising like cliffs against a clear blue sky. No, it cannot be New York, either, because though I went there once when I was sixteen, I remember nothing but one street corner with two dumpsters and a battalion crowd thronging our car. Then, later in the evening with my uncle on Cape Cod: the long estranged brother of my father who had agreed, for just one night, to see my mother and my sister and me.
But that is not the story I want to tell, either. (260)
Bauer goes on to tell us it was actually in London that the story she wants to tell took place. She also tells us that she has written this story before, but always “moving it to somewhere else, changing the names, events, masking my identity,” always fictionalizing it. But this time, in this essay, she will set it in London because “that may be the only way the story can be told” (260).
Then she begins again: “So, imagine a girl walking down a street in London. It is Sunday. The streets are wide and empty. . . . The girl is walking alone in a soft, brown leather jacket, a black backpack slung over one shoulder, black boots. She is headed . . . No” (261). These are the clothes Bauer wears now, so she stops here narrative to re-clothe the younger Amy Bauer in her story to wear what she did then: “Baggy blue jeans, a hot pink sweatshirt with a hood. A huge neon green should bag that says Ciao! in black letters across the side of it” (261).
So much drafting, erasing, drafting in the first page and a half of “The Oil Man” forces readers into a sort of mental lurching. By all cues, Bauer is telling a story. Stories are comfortable texts for readers. Stories have at heart a forward motion, a linearity, and readers unconsciously expect that A leads to B then to C, and so on. Instead, Bauer instead offers a series of false starts with sudden stops, a pattern that runs counter to readers’ predictions, and she does so for reasons that seem unclear, even unnecessary. “So someone can just say he remembers it, say it’s nonfiction and then do anything?” the one student asks, with the second, equally frustrated, agreeing, “He has the right question. He does.” This question has hung with me because, ill-prepared and tired, my brain not so nimble at 9:30 in the evening, two and a half hours into this weekly class, I never answer it in any satisfactory way. It is an interesting question, even useful for re-entering the text had I thought to ask what the student meant by “anything” and gotten him to detail what he was seeing. Instead, we come back to Bauer’s “Oil Man” at the start of the following week’s class. I learn that she lost credibility even further with some students because a few paragraphs into the essay she makes a confession about her memory, a confession that triggers reflexive resistance with the force of a hammer tapping the patellar tendon; she recounts her meeting with the oil man on her way to look at a cathedral, then stops and says,
Now here’s the thing. He must be tall and dark for the purpose of the
story, because that’s the sort of character he was. But even more to the point, because I do not remember faces. Ever. It’s not just his face, because of what happened later, but any face. I remember places down to the finest details. Events are fuzzy, but I usually recall the high points: where they took place, what time of day, how I, myself, got from the beginning of whatever it was to the end. But people. Their clothes, their mannerisms, especially their faces: I have no memory for these things. Eyes and lips and nose get all muddled in my mind. Once I stood in a line behind my cousin in the grocery store and because he was out of context—not at my aunt’s house, not attending a family function of some kind—I could not place him. I knew I knew him, but I was stumped as to where I had met him and exactly who he was. This is a true story. (262)
So she is painting in details, painting the oil man into the essay with looks that suit his persona in her story. “But she tells us that she’s filling these details in,” I say to the class, “Just as she tells us her early starts are false.” The dominant question I need to answer has to do with why she feels she needs to include this material if it is fictive, and I know an answer then, but it will not be until after the semester has ended, with this and similar questions left floating in the room’s atmosphere, that I get to the words to answer these questions when they arise again. But what interests me most in all this, what I see as most important, is that I now recognize why I was unprepared with articulate answers and how I can go about teaching students to read the truths of memoir in ways that will lessen the kind of resistance I encountered in the form and theory seminar. That said, I would not want to deter the resistance completely because the chafing keeps us asking questions that take us deeper into understanding how memoir and the larger genre of nonfiction work, but I want to create sites of constructive resistance, and avoid the shrugging off of memoir that I feel some students did this semester as we moved into what seemed to be more trustworthy sub-genres, like literary journalism.
By setting the readers in form and theory the task of reading to describe and formalize the traits of memoir, the first sub-genre for the semester, I positioned them outside the genre as onlookers, analysts, critics. In the graduate creative nonfiction workshop I ran in this same semester, I set the writers the task of composing their own memoirs; I positioned them inside the genre. Both groups encountered the same occasion for issues about the nature of truth, but different questions arose in these two sites, the first group asking questions of what and why as observers—why is she giving us misinformation? why is she creating details where she can’t recall them?—the second group asking questions of what and why as doers—what has she accomplished here? how might this strategy work for me? In writing classes I ask students to read actively, aesthetically, to work on developing a vocabulary for talking about textual features, stylistic, rhetorical, as much to enable their use of what they read for their own writerly purposes as to enable them to talk specifically about they are doing when they write the cover letters I require with each draft. In the form and theory seminar, a class I am just coming into, I positioned my students as outside the genre and the texts they were reading by offering far fewer suggestions for how to read. The class was new to me and I approached it rather like I approach a first draft, organically, assuming I’d discover content and shape. As with writing, I set the scene—selected good and appropriate readings, ordered them to complement each other, mapped out a course with assignments that made sense to me at that time, roughed out some goals—all with room for revision. I set us afloat in memoirs to start, assigning chapters in Robert Root’s The Nonfictionist’s Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction to read as well. That text did not help in the ways I expected it to at the start of the course, perhaps because in many ways the rhetoric of his book positions its readers as insiders to the genre to some degree. In early classes, reading along with my students, I came to class excited by his book, hearing him says things I say, observe things I observe, felling both affirmed and a little jealous. He starts, “One of the things I’ve learned over the years of teaching and writing is that all discussions are determined by underlying assumptions” (1); I’m reading along thinking yes, yes, yes. I say that. Two pages later close to the end of a passage defining “creative nonfiction,” he writes,
In the third definitions I’m simply picking a fight. English departments tend to divide discourse into “personal” and “academic,” and privilege the latter over the former (“creative” discourse they ignore or isolate altogether). For me, terms like “personal” and “academic” aren’t very useful descriptors. Isn’t the opposite of personal “impersonal”? Shouldn’t the opposite of academic be “non-academic”? But then we’re back to defining things by what they are not. Moreover, such terms generate a false dichotomy. (5)
I am right with him, cheering him on, yes, yes, yes, but I find when we are discussing the book that why he is saying what he is saying is a mystery to some of my students and not particularly gripping. I think, now, that this was because a good number of the students are in their first semester, taking this class without the expectations I would have assumed—a particular interest in the subject matter, to start, not simply present because they registered later than other students and there were not open seats in other courses. But I could have anticipated all this and probably would have had I not been focused so fully on the newness of the course for me that I did not consider the newness of the course—and the nature of graduate courses in general—for students new to the genre, graduate school, or both.
In the writing workshop I give students far more strategies for reading and introduce topics that I know will concern them as writers. One topic for the semester is memory—how it works, how we can do memory work, seeing ourselves as archeologists shifting through the sedimentary layers of time and perspective and details and emotions. I start with memory day one in the workshops, talking about how I think my memory works and how those of us who are more experienced with the genre as readers and/or writers will argue that near 100% recall of what was said (as Truman Capote claimed and went to great lengths to prove that he had) is not something we believe people have. Rather, people can recall the content of conversations to some degree of accuracy, even conversations from deep in our pasts. I prompt them to write with the first line of Jayne Ann Phillips’ Machine Dreams. We talk about their responses, how what people say hangs with us when it strikes us important in some way, often with incredible accuracy, for the same reasons that events create “snapshots” and videos of sorts in our memory banks. For example, I have a very clear audio-video memory of Pop Doolin, our elementary school janitor who looked like an aged Popeye sans pipe, bursting into our fifth grade classroom near to two o’clock on November 22, 1963, sobbing, “Miz Baylus! Miz Baylus! The president’s done been shot.” But the next thing I recall is tripping over the horizontal telephone pole that marked the back of the elementary school playground as I raced to where my mother said she would pick me up after school. I ripped the narrow skirt of my Girl Scout uniform up the side seam. When I got to where she had said she would pick me up to take me to a special Girl Scout meeting, she was there and waiting in her gray Studebaker, even though it was an hour before school got out. I have no recollection of racing out of the building in a herd of children whose adults were too lost in the moment to control our running scared, though I know from overheard conversations that was what happened. I remember thinking how smart my mother was to know where to find me since I usually walk to school and might have easily ended up running down Riggs Road towards home. I remember that school was closed for what I think was the next week and that we watched the unfolding of the Kennedy assassination and burial in grainy black and white on our television, a portable on a wheeled cart, pushed or pulled into my younger sister’s room. She was ill at the time with something that made my parents hang blankets, one my father’s brown WWII blanket, over the windows. And for much of the week, much of my family huddled in that room, me sitting on the bed because my parents wanted me to catch what my sister had, so it must have been mumps.
As I write these words, I am there. I can reconstruct bits of conversation between my parents and grandparents. My mother’s father, who lives next door with my grandmother, hates Catholics and Jews and Blacks and Democrats. In my three-year-old sister’s room, dark with wool blankets keeping out the light, my grandfather offers his opinions. My parents and grandmother remain silent. I sit in the near dark and listen. My older sister is not in this memory, though she may have been there. I have been surprised by how absent she is from my memory of the time before the married, perhaps because of the eight-year gap between our ages.
How I might read these memories would likely shift interpretively in the larger context of any essay I include them in, depending on why I choose to use them and what I want to explore. In one context, the ripped Girl Scout uniform might take on larger significance. I have a history of ruining good garments in dramatic ways and by doing so angering my mother, sometimes fiercely. Perhaps the fall over the telephone pole would find larger significance were I writing an essay about injuries caused by panic or about fright/flight response. Memory has a certain malleability like silver or gold; its meaning can be shaped and recycled, depending on the situation. As Patricia Hampl writes, “[M]emory itself is not a warehouse of finished stories, not a static gallery of framed pictures” (26). I understand this about memory and the nature or memoir and truth in memoir from the perspectives of one who has long read the genre, of one who has published in for eighteen years, and of one who follows the ongoing discussion of truth in memoir and nonfiction. But even knowing what I know, however tacitly, for as long as I believe I’ve known it, I managed to trip myself up when developing a course I decided needed a more scholarly (or counterintuitive?) approach, looking at samples of the genre more as artifacts to interpret than as invitations to read and write.
When I positioned the form and theory students as outsiders, I positioned myself outside of the genre as well because I was trying to look at it from the angle of a literary theorist, which I am not. I am a composition specialist, a writing specialist. Like many in composition studies (though long a reader of many forms of nonfiction, literary and not so literary), I came to literary or creative nonfiction as an adult through the first-year composition readers I began using in 1976 to teach writing courses as a graduate student. In such courses as in more advanced writing courses, whether teaching academic writing or creative writing, I have orchestrated discussions of essays foremost with goals of teaching writing students to read actively, aesthetically, as readers who are rhetorically conscious of how aspects of the texts shape their readings and as writers who can learn to identify the writerly choices texts can offer structurally and stylistically. My uses of readings have never wanted to consider the writers of texts absent. To teach writing, I need to get my students to consider why writers make the choices they do, start and stop where they do, include what they do and not include what they might have. I ask questions about how form and content work together, talk about tropes and schemes and rhythm and voice. For whatever reasons, I have never considered the way I think about reading and writing to be theoretical in a way that might fit in a course about the genre as literature. So just as I set my students up to read in different ways, I set myself up to teach in a way I don’t normally teach, a way I don’t normally read, and suddenly I found myself needing to talk about the nature of truth in memoir as an outsider to the genre with only having an insider’s experience to help me, experience that I have under-theorized.
At this point, let me say that one lesson I learned this fall semester is that what I do in writing courses and workshops is completely appropriate to talking about nonfiction as a literary form. The specific lessons I’ve learned from experience so far about the nature of truth merit a more articulate place in my writing courses, as they are now finding now in the early weeks of the current spring semester. But how I will teach students to read memoir differently the next time I do the form and theory seminar?
First, as is no doubt obvious from the outsider/insider distinction, the form and theory folks need to write their ways into the genre as do the writing workshop folks. The first time around, I began with observer assignments, stylistic and rhetorical analyses. Those are useful assignments, but not the best place to start. Had the seminar students been working on a memoir or doing regular discovery exercises in response to prompts, as we were doing in the nonfiction workshop, they might well have come naturally to the challenges of framing and expressing emotional and perceptual truths and thus might have been less likely as readers now to the genre to get so caught up in writers’ lack of literal truths. We could have discussed Bauer’s choice to start her essay as she does and her need to color in the oil man’s features not on the battlefield of fact versus fiction but in the forum of reflection and meaning making.
So how could I have handled the resistance to Bauer more constructively (or should I just say “constructively” and forget the “more”)?
The two readers who questioned Bauer’s veracity most strongly did so in part because her start made them impatient with what they saw perhaps as games, a sort of writerly coquettishness. Later, when she confesses about her flaws of memory, she comes up against a common issue new readers of nonfiction tend to bring with them to the genre. Anything they distrust about their own memories or about the nature of memory in general they distrust in the memories recounted by nonfiction writers. Given too the way false memoirs have made the news and talk shows in the last few years, distrust of the genre is part of our popular culture. Thus while I and others familiar with memoir might read Bauer’s start to her essay as her saying that she has tried to tell this story repeatedly through fiction and that has failed her in some way, perhaps not allowing her the therapeutic engagement many associate with writing memoir. So she begins her essay by walking readers through her removal of layers of fiction like one might remove layers of oil paint to get at pictures buried beneath later pictures. Talking about why she might have chosen to do what she’s doing—a conversation I might automatically have with in a writing workshop—could help new readers of memoir see her start as working towards the truth by setting aside, one by one, the veils of fictions. I find truth in her frankness about the false starts because I can get to the perception truth I hear her saying: fiction has not explained this event to me so I am working away from those tellings to an honest account as far as I can construct it.
Likewise, I see integrity in her admission of certain problems with memory. Her story about not recognizing a cousin she saw regularly when he was out of context in a grocery store line is plausible and convincing. I have had enough moments of not recognizing people out of context to imagine that there is a person for whom remembering faces is a serious inability. But I also understand that as a person composing an experience, Bauer needs both to see this man whom she found attractive enough to that she let him go with her to the cathedral, hold her hand, and eventually lead her back to his hotel room. She needs to see him with the sort of features she imagines such a man would have. He is not overly predatory. As a reader, I suspect that had she pulled her hand back, told him to leave her alone, he might have done so with much if any disagreement. But she did not. She slipped into the kind of paralysis that an eighteen-year-woman, on her own in a strange city, might suffer when she lacks the street smarts that would help her interpret the situation effectively enough to protect herself. In fact, it is this paralysis that Bauer needs to explain to herself and to readers, and she needs to have an appropriate mental picture that would help her get back there, in her immature outfit, attracting the attention of this man Thus, as a reader I grant her permission to color in visual details in order to better characterize the oil man. She has an important story that she needs to tell and if making up minor details will help her do so because she needs to see the man and the features she imagines as meaningful for her (“He must be tall and dark for the purpose of the story, because that’s the sort of character he was”), I am fine with it, particularly since Bauer tells me she’s doing it. Speculation, hypothesis, what-ifs, imagination—all have valid roles in the writing of nonfiction. As the genre receives more attention of the sort I hope to see in the form and theory seminar, we may come to call some of these writing choices non-fictive devices just as we so readily call dialogue and characterization fictive devices. Developing a course in the form and theory of nonfiction requires a vocabulary that parallels those we use for analyzing fiction and discussing prosody. And in fact, that is what I see some of the handbooks for writing nonfiction working to accomplish.
I am thinking again of Robert Root’s The Nonfictionist’s Guide which frames his discussion of how to write in the genre in philosophical discussions of what Root sees as a “poetics” of nonfiction. Using Root’s nomenclature, I would call Bauer’s imagining of the oil man an “act of commission”: “altering facts or inventing information” (189). Acts of commission no doubt have many forms. Root evaluates two—changing names and collapsing events—determining that there are justifiable reasons for both, say to protect someone in a story or to “make clearer the overall impact of the events,” but certainly, as we see with Bauer, there are other possibilities (191). When disbelieving readers question a writer’s need to create details that are not factual, having a framework for understanding and evaluating the reasons for doing so is important to teaching students to read through to the complex truths of memoir. Identifying and evaluating a range of commissions would be one step towards achieving the kind of systematic understanding of nonfiction that makes generating theories of the genre possible. It strikes me that a crucial consideration in evaluating acts of commission are whether writers alert readers to what they are doing and whether their justifications are convincing.
Consider Charles Brock’s evaluation John D’Agata’s act of commission in his recent book, About a Mountain:
Unfortunately, there’s a problem.
At the heart of a crucial section, D’Agata writes, “There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.” But the accompanying endnote reads: “I should clarify here that I am conflating the date of the Yucca debate and the suicide that occurred at the Stratosphere Hotel. In reality, these two events were separated by three days.”
Maybe there’s a claim that since the Obama administration is shutting down Yucca anyway, and since D’Agata is sensitive beyond fault to the Presley family, and since the book is so aesthetically impressive, there’s no harm in doctoring dates—espcially since doing so gives the book a better hook, and thereby (perhaps) a better chance at finding readers and keeping Levi’s memory alive. . . . But he shimmies too close to the flame. In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, this problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites—a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open. (1-2)
So here is a criterion for evaluating acts of commission: doing so for artistic purposes alone is not acceptable. Perhaps a second criterion here has to do with writers admitting acts of commission in timely ways.
Memoir is about personal truth, and personal truth is never literal. Language is as dangerous to truth as it is useful. Writers use it, replace it, erase it, run with it, then read it to see what they have caught in their lexical net. The writer uses language to discover what there is to remember, what there is to say about it, always risking falling short or going too far. In “Memory and Imagination,” Patricia Hampl deconstructs a draft she has written which is rich with metaphorical truths about her past yet admittedly a mesh of fictions and hazy recall. “Here I sit before a yellow legal pad, and the long page of the preceding two paragraphs is a jumble of crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order. A mess. The mess of my mind trying to find out what it wants to say. This is a writer’s frantic, grabby mind, not the poised mind of the reader ready to be edified or entertained” (27). In this way, Bauer’s textual backing away from false details and stories she does not want to tell is worth attending to stylistically. Writers of memoir tease our ways through veils of memory, discovering details, and groping through interpretations until we come to what we and perhaps those who might share our memories can trust. In fact, it is quite common for nonfiction writers to address issues of memory as they tell their stories. And if we see that the most important story in an essay is the story of the writer’s mind as it makes meaning (interprets experiential data), wrangling with issues of memory during the telling of stories makes welcomed sense. This is a natural part of storytelling, one most of us are familiar with in the daily giving and accepting of stories in conversation.
Bauer gives us the emotional and perceptual truths of a woman looking back to herself at 18 and piecing together how it could be that she met a fellow American in London on her way to do some sight-seeing, ended up going back to his hotel with him, both knowing and not knowing the outcome. She shows how she was complicit in her seduction, yet innocent. We know the story from somewhere, our own lives or other lives. There are many truths to this story. The man is not at all a sympathetic persona, but he is not evil. The girl Bauer shows us is not concerned with crying “Foul” and, as a reader, I finds her as innocent at the start of the memoir as at the end. She is guilty of youth, confusion, fantasy stimulated by unhappiness, and the inability to know quite what is happening or how to handle it or what she wants. But for readers expecting the facts and nothing but, Bauer’s intellectual journey and her careful stepping off into her essays’ terrain do not measure up as factual. They are facts, facts of human experience. It is a fact that young women can find themselves prey to such men and handle their capture badly. We could probably collect data and find a statistical predictor. But we should not need to. The truths of autobiographical writing are generally part of, ratified by, a shared body of knowledge, which brings me to this thought: perhaps for readers who are not yet practiced at pondering human experience as analytically as some, perhaps older, people do, the world still seems manageable and measurable. I have found myself wondering at times if personal nonfiction asks something of readers that is more difficult for those with less life experience. It may very well be one experience to read a disturbing story about an alcoholic brother who meets a sad end in a novel and yet another experience to read a about an alcoholic brother who met a similar sad end in a piece of nonfiction. Learning to read memoir is an exercise in confronting the messiness of human experience. Learning to read memoir well may require readers not to simply have encountered messiness in their own lives, but perhaps to have worked at making sense, meaning, of it.
An example of that messiness: this week I had participants in an advanced undergraduate workshop each bring a photo to class for a writing exercise. I asked them to tell the story of the photo. I had my own, a picture of me, eight, then blonde hair glistening in April sunlight as I stand facing the camera. In my hands I hold, just right, a kayak paddle. On the sandy beach in front of me lies a kayak my mother and grandfather made from a kit, wood frame, waxed red canvas top, waxed gray canvas hull. The red of the kayak matches the red of my cotton jacket, a boy’s jacket handed down from someone. My grandfather stands to my left, a step further back than I am standing from the boat, my boat, my eighth birthday present. My head comes up to his second rib. He is a big man, tall. His right hand grips my right shoulder. The Severn River spreads out behind us, the color of tea near the shore. We are both beaming. I am about to take my maiden voyage and when I do I will glide at good speed past the end of the pier into this wide part of the river and feel an exhilaration I will later understand to be an utter sense of freedom. I could keep going and going to the Chesapeake then the Atlantic and across to England, France. I could never go home.
When I look out from the photo to where my mother and father stand, Dad taking the picture, my mother cannot quite look at us. She is deeply angry at my grandfather with whom she built the kayak because she had gotten it for my father and herself to build. Together. In the evenings, moments on weekends. But her parents live next door, followed her soon after she and my father moved away from Ellicott City to the Severn, followed, moved next door, and she feels smothered, caught, kept a child. She is angry too because she could not tell her father to leave the kayak kit alone. I know well that I was aware of the anger and its reasons then. I know that the infinite joy I got from that little boat always made me feel a little disloyal to my mother.
When we finished the exercise and some of us shared what we’d written, most of the stories dealt with who was who in the photos or where a scene was. When I read mine, several students became upset on my behalf and felt sorry for that little girl with the kayak. A few came up with similar stories of being a child whose experience was complicated by the actions and emotions of adults. A few looked at what they’d written about their pictures and told what else they could have written had they looked around the edges or glanced out of their photos, as I had. I fully believe that had we been a fiction workshop and the prompt had been to tell a story about the photo rather than the story of the photo, students’ reactions to what I wrote and the ensuing discussion would have gone in quite a different direction. I believe, also, that beginning the form and theory seminar with similar exercises would have helped students engage more effective with questions about truth because they were encountering those questions with more experience with memoir than they might otherwise have had.
Judith Barrington writes:
In memoir, the author stands behind her story saying to the world: this happened;
this is true. What is important about this assertion is that is has an effect on the reader—he reads it believing it to be remembered experience which in turn requires the writer to be an unflinchingly reliable narrator. . . . Readers tend to look for, even to assume, the autobiographical in fiction, but they also recognize the writer’s attempt to fictionalize, just as they recognize in memoir the central commitment not to fictionalize. (27)
She is describing experienced readers of memoir here. New readers, however experienced they may be in others genres, need to learn how to believe in “remembered experience” and “recognize . . . the central commitment.” Writing reflectively about their own memories offers a natural path to recognizing the nonfiction commitment and understand the complexity of telling truths.
Barrington, Judith. Writing Memoir: from Truth to Art, 2nd Ed. Portland, OR: The Eighth Mountain Press, 2002.
Bauer, Amy. “The Oil Man.” The River Teeth Reader, Nos. 1-2, Fall 2008/Spring 2009. In
Joe Mackall and Daneil W. Lehman, Eds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009, 260-269.
Brock, Charles. “American Wasteland.” New York Times, February 26, 2010.
Hampl, Patricia. “Memory and Imagination.” In I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land
of Memory. New York: Norton, 1999.
Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,
Root, Robert. The Nonfictionist’s Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction. New
York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.