Middle Grade Memoir
Speak, memory. (Vladimir Nabokov).
Taste oh-so bittersweet when
You remember them. (Memoir Haiku)
We devoted last week to poetry.
The purpose of reading and writing poetry is intended to improve your style––HOW you write.
This week we’re going to look at memoir.
The purpose of reading and writing memoir is to improve WHAT you write.
How is memoir different from autobiography?
Autobiography––in general––is an account of what happened. An autobiography tends to cover a broad period of the author’s life––often the entire life up to the point of writing.
Memoirs tend to focus in on specific events.
Generally speaking, writers write memoir in order to find out WHY things happened in their past, or what those events mean.
So, our goal is to revisit events that occurred during the years 8-12, and to explore what happened––and what it meant.
The great thing about memoir is that the more you write, the more you remember, and the more meaning you find.
Most of the topics relating to poetry are also appropriate to Memoir, including: Denotation and Connotation Stresses and Emphasis.
Metaphor and Simile,
Concrete Imagery, and
In fact a memoir can take the form of a poem, such as Nabokov’s Haiku above. In fact memoirs can be any length. They can be as short as a Haiku or book-length narratives such as The Diary of Ann Frank.
This is me writing memoir:
I grew up as a sort of military brat. The Second World War cast a long shadow over my childhood. The bookshelves in our home were filled with dull-looking volumes of war memoirs by generals, majors, and colonels, with long strings of medals after their names. I was excited by war movies, comics, and TV shows, but these books only seemed to provide details of terrain and military equipment, and lists of dates, events, officers who were present for the actions––and perhaps more importantly––officers who weren’t present. These books seemed only to serve as a reminder of what is apparently a truth about war, in that it is supposed to be boring for 99 percent of the time, and lethally terrifying for the remaining one percent of the time.
So these books left me with a negative feeling about the idea of memoirs, that they were mainly the tedious accounts of extremely vain men, that were probably of interest only to themselves, and perhaps to their families.
I had never been in a war, or done anything exciting in my life. I had never done anything anyone could possibly want to read about. I could not be less qualified to write memoir.
This is sad, as memoir writing is probably the most valuable form of creative expression available to writers.
Someone once said, “…anybody who has survived a normal childhood has more than enough material for dozens of books…”
Memoir is the most forgiving literary form.
It is the most adaptable and flexible literary form. It can take almost any shape: ballad, list, collage, rondel, and best of all, the monologue (sometimes known as the ‘rant’ or ‘tirade’).
In fact memoir is so flexible that it’s easier to define what it isn’t.
Memoir is not the essay you had to write in high school––or for comp––that you didn’t want to write, but had to.
Memoir is not journalism.
Memoir is not an argument, or an attempt (in French: j’essai––I try) to persuade.
Memoir does not follow the formal essay pattern of thesis–topic–sentence-conclusion.
Memoir is not a mere presentation of the facts.
Memoir might be a written record of true experiences, but it goes deeper than that. It is an attempt to find meaning beyond or within those experiences.
A memoir can be an inward journey of discovery in which the research and remembering can lead to unexpected destinations.
It has been said that Memoir is not a subway ride.
Or is it.
I lived in New York for many years, and like most people I got around the town by subway.
Why Memoir is the F-train.
Memoir can take far longer than you think it’s going to.
You can spend the time crammed in with characters who look familiar, and yet you can’t always remember why.
Memoir can lead you to unexpected destinations.
Memoir can suddenly turn around and head off in the opposite direction.
Or it can take you far further than you intended to go.
Memoir can let you look out of the windows at neighborhoods you will never visit, sometimes because they look frightening, or maybe just because you have no reason to go there.
With memoir you can get involved with a book you’re researching, miss your stop, get off a few stops further on, then get off and catch another train going back.
Memoir is clearly supposed to be true, but even that aspect has some flexibility. In Margot’s Diary by SL Wisenberg, we have speculation of a diary that doesn’t exist––namely the Diary of Margot Frank––Ann’s older sister.
What about Personal Essay?
Memoir and personal essay differ only in emphasis.
Memoirs are stories retrieved from personal memory with the author as protagonist––and they are usually, although not always written in first person.
The emphasis is on the story, and the ‘point,’ should emerge from the characters, settings, and scenes, rather than from the author’s reflections.
Personal essay is usually framed by memoir, but leads into a reflective exploration of the subject matter. The personal essay reveals why the author has a specific fascination with the subject matter, rather than writing about it because it is merely an assignment.
Both forms grow out of autobiographical experience, and it’s sometimes unclear whether one is reading a memoir or a personal essay.
Memoirs are often similar in length to short stories. Short stories are usually structured around a plot, and we read them to experience fear and pity as we follow the tribulations of the main character. We derive satisfaction from the story as we are vicariously redeemed at the end by the redemption of the main character. If the main character emerges at the end of the story from a great danger, then we feel the same relief and renewal that she feels.
If the main character finally finds true love, then we––for a moment––feel the joy of true love with him.
Memoir can also take us on a journey through great danger, or through rejection to love, but memoir is usually intended to make a point, and so, even though they often share much of the structure of stories (scenes, dialogue, suspense), they do not always need to.
One form of story that eschews plot is the ‘slice-of-life’ story, and this can be a useful form of memoir.
Slice of life is popular in fiction as it has no redemption. We follow our main character from rejection, to rejection, to more rejection. There is no ‘happily ever after.’ It seems more like real life, especially to readers in their teens and twenties.
You could say that Slice-of-Life is fiction that mimics memoir, but it can also genuinely be memoir, and I think it often is.
For our first reading, here is little of Margot’s Diary
Write about a time you felt put down by someone arrogant or bullying. Try to analyze why this particular person got to you. Connect to to your inner life.
Here are some excerpts from the Diary of Anne Frank
July 8th 1942: “At three o’clock (Hello had left but was supposed to come back later), the doorbell rang. I didn’t hear it, since I was out on the balcony, lazily reading in the sun. A little while later Margot appeared in the kitchen doorway looking very agitated. “Father has received a call-up notice from the SS,” she whispered. “Mother has gone to see Mr. van Daan” (Mr. van Daan is Father’s business partner and a good friend.) I was stunned. A call-up: everyone knows what that means. Visions of concentration camps and lonely cells raced through my head. How could we let Father go to such a fate? “Of course he’s not going,” declared Margot as we waited for Mother in the living room. “Mother’s gone to Mr. van Daan to ask whether we can move to our hiding place tomorrow. The van Daans are going with us. There will be seven of us altogether.” Silence. We couldn’t speak. The thought of Father off visiting someone in the Jewish Hospital and completely unaware of what was happening, the long wait for Mother, the heat, the suspense – all this reduced us to silence.
July 9th 1942: “Here’s a description of the building… A wooden staircase leads from the downstairs hallway to the third floor. At the top of the stairs is a landing, with doors on either side. The door on the left takes you up to the spice storage area, attic and loft in the front part of the house. A typically Dutch, very steep, ankle-twisting flight of stairs also runs from the front part of the house to another door opening onto the street. The door to the right of the landing leads to the Secret Annex at the back of the house. No one would ever suspect there were so many rooms behind that plain grey door. There’s just one small step in front of the door, and then you’re inside. Straight ahead of you is a steep flight of stairs. To the left is a narrow hallway opening onto a room that serves as the Frank family’s living room and bedroom. Next door is a smaller room, the bedroom and study of the two young ladies of the family. To the right of the stairs is a windowless washroom with a sink. The door in the corner leads to the toilet and another one to Margot’s and my room… Now I’ve introduced you to the whole of our lovely Annex!”
August 21st 1942: “Now our Secret Annex has truly become secret. Because so many houses are being searched for hidden bicycles, Mr. Kugler thought it would be better to have a bookcase built in front of the entrance to our hiding place. It swings out on its hinges and opens like a door. Mr. Voskuijl did the carpentry work. (Mr. Voskuijl has been told that the seven of us are in hiding, and he’s been most helpful.) Now whenever we want to go downstairs we have to duck and then jump. After the first three days we were all walking around with bumps on our foreheads from banging our heads against the low doorway. Then Peter cushioned it by nailing a towel stuffed with wood shavings to the doorframe. Let’s see if it helps!”
October 9th 1942: “Today I have nothing but dismal and depressing news to report. Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork, the big camp in Drenthe to which they’re sending all the Jews. Miep told us about someone who’d managed to escape from there. It must be terrible in Westerbork. The people get almost nothing to eat, much less to drink, as water is available only one hour a day, and there’s only one toilet and sink for several thousand people. Men and women sleep in the same room, and women and children often have their heads shaved. Escape is almost impossible; many people look Jewish, and they’re branded by their shorn heads. If it’s that bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway and uncivilized places where the Germans are sending them? We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed. Perhaps that’s the quickest way to die. I feel terrible. Miep’s accounts of these horrors are so heartrending… Fine specimens of humanity, those Germans, and to think I’m actually one of them! No, that’s not true, Hitler took away our nationality long ago. And besides, there are no greater enemies on earth than the Germans and Jews.”
October 20th 1942: “My hands still shaking, though it’s been two hours since we had the scare… The office staff stupidly forgot to warn us that the carpenter, or whatever he’s called, was coming to fill the extinguishers… After working for about fifteen minutes, he laid his hammer and some other tools on our bookcase (or so we thought!) and banged on our door. We turned white with fear. Had he heard something after all and did he now want to check out this mysterious looking bookcase? It seemed so, since he kept knocking, pulling, pushing and jerking on it. I was so scared I nearly fainted at the thought of this total stranger managing to discover our wonderful hiding place…”
November 19th 1942: “Mr. Dussel has told us much about the outside world we’ve missed for so long. He had sad news. Countless friends and acquaintances have been taken off to a dreadful fate. Night after night, green and grey military vehicles cruise the streets. They knock on every door, asking whether any Jews live there. If so, the whole family is immediately taken away. If not, they proceed to the next house. It’s impossible to escape their clutches unless you go into hiding. They often go around with lists, knocking only on those doors where they know there’s a big haul to be made. They frequently offer a bounty, so much per head. It’s like the slave hunts of the olden days… I feel wicked sleeping in a warm bed, while somewhere out there my dearest friends are dropping from exhaustion or being knocked to the ground. I get frightened myself when I think of close friends who are now at the mercy of the cruellest monsters ever to stalk the earth. And all because they’re Jews.”
May 18th 1943: “All college students are being asked to sign an official statement to the effect that they ‘sympathize with the Germans and approve of the New Order.” Eighty percent have decided to obey the dictates of their conscience, but the penalty will be severe. Any student refusing to sign will be sent to a German labour camp.”
March 29th 1944: “Mr. Bolkestein, the Cabinet Minister, speaking on the Dutch broadcast from London, said that after the war a collection would be made of diaries and letters dealing with the war. Of course, everyone pounced on my diary.”
February 3rd 1944: “I’ve reached the point where I hardly care whether I live or die. The world will keep on turning without me, and I can’t do anything to change events anyway. I’ll just let matters take their course and concentrate on studying and hope that everything will be all right in the end.”
July 15th 1944: “It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them.”