Speak Memory (Vladimir Nabokov).
Taste oh-so bittersweet when
You remember them.
This section of the class is Creative Non-Fiction. It will span four weeks. There will be 8 writing exercises, one of which you will choose to submit as part of your final portfolio.
During the previous section of the class we learned about writing poetry. Most of the topics relating to poetry are also appropriate to Memoir and Personal Essay, 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 the Haiku above. In fact memoirs can be any length. They can be as short as the above Haiku, or book-length narratives such as Ellie Wiesel‘s prose poem, ‘Night.’
We will look at ‘Night‘ later in the class, but for now this is me writing about Memoir.
Our khaki childhood soared on the wings of Spitfires. With our arms spread wide and our guns blazing we would race across the chain of hills that overlooked our town, scattering rooks, sheep and seagulls in our slipstream.
My father had commanded a Stuart Tank in World War Two, and he remained enclosed in thick armor for the last seventy years of his life. My mother had stayed in South London for the Blitz. Each night she went to bed under a reinforced billiard table, and lay awake listening for the stutter of the Doodle Bug flying bombs.
My mother never really came out from under the billiard table, but when she did, she’d learnt well from the Nazi war machine, and her preferred method of attack was Blitzkrieg.
Even in her seventies she would hide upstairs, and wait patiently for my father to show a little vulnerability, then she would come screaming out of the bedroom, and stoop in for the kill.
We felt bad for Father, but if he managed a timely retreat inside his thick steel turret, my mother would bank steeply and with a roar she would Blitzkrieg us instead.
And if that failed it would be a Kamikaze attack––but that’s another story.
It’s frequently been pointed out that war is 99 percent boredom, and 1 percent terror. The ratio of my khaki childhood was probably a little easier––about 80 percent to 20 percent, but that’s still quite a lot of boredom. The bookshelves in our home were well camouflaged, and provided some protection from attack, and relief from boredom. They were lined with squads of war memoirs by generals, majors, and colonels, with long strings of letters after their names.
We always hoped that the books would relieve some of the boring 80 percent of our childhoods, with accounts of the terrifying 20 percent, 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.
So these books left me with a negative feeling about the idea of memoirs. They seemed to be mostly 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 definitely 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 always intended to be an argument, or an attempt (in French: j’essai––I try) to persuade, even though it often is.
Memoir does not follow the formal essay pattern of thesis–topic–sentence-conclusion.
Memoir is not really journalism. Both memoir and journalism present the facts, but memoir explores the facts for meaning. You could say that memoir is honesty, whereas journalism is truth. What exactly that means will be something we’re going to look at in a few minutes.
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.
To reference our exercise from a couple of weeks ago on Anti-Metaphor: Memoir is not a subway ride.
Or is it.
I lived in New York for many years, and commuted to work every day on the F-Train..
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.
Memoir and 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 memoirs 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 these days as it has no redemption. This is especially true of Young Adult Fiction. We’ve become a little mistrusting of the Hollywood-esque structure of romantic comedies. We can predict the plot points, and predict the ending, and we no longer feel that these happy endings have any relevance to our real lives.
In a slice-of-life story we follow our main character from rejection, to rejection, to more rejection. There is no ‘happily ever after,’ and this structure 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, and there’s an entire body of literature devoted to crafting fiction that looks like memoir, and we can talk more about that when we get to the Fiction section of the class.
For our first reading, here is Margot’s Diary by SL Wisenberg:
Obviously memoir has to be true, or it isn’t memoir.
Or is it obvious. Perhaps memoir has to be honest, perhaps truth and honesty are not entirely the same thing. This essay is about Margo Frank, sister of the more famous Anne Frank.
Both Margo and Anne kept diaries. Anne’s diary survived the Holocaust, went on to be published, and has sold millions of copies.
Margo also kept a diary, but hers disappeared.
What SL Wisenberg has done in this essay is to attempt to piece together what might have been Margo’s diary based on what we know of her from Anne’s diary.
It’s not strictly truthful, but the author makes no secret about what she’s trying to piece together from events that really happened, and the tragic tale of a girl––or in fact a young woman––who lived through them.
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.
Write a double-spaced page.
Try to write in scene, which means use sense impressions only.
Go to the specific moment when the put-down happened, and show it to us through action and dialogue. Resist the temptation to explain anything.
Don’t worry. If you don’t know what I mean by writing in-scene we will explore it in the next class.