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The Work of Memoir

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By Irene Waters

As you read this I will be sitting on the high seas, nearing the equator, out of range of the internet so I will start by apologising for what will seem my tardy response to any comments. Don’t worry I will get there and look forward to coming back to a conversation in full swing.

Initially, I was planning for this post to discuss what memoir is but decided that I have already written a post on the difference between memoir and fiction so instead I will direct you to that and write instead on the work of Memoir.

Have you ever thought about why you read memoir? Have you ever noticed that you read memoir differently to the way you read fiction? I know I do. I am supercritical with memoir if I find what is written to be unbelievable. If I discover after I have read a memoir that it is not true – I feel angry, duped, used. I never feel that way about reading a fictional work. We feel this way because we read believing the story to be true.

For the reader, a memoir can be a guide through the human experience. It may be an experience that the reader themselves is undergoing and they are looking for an insight into another person’s experience on which they can draw strength for what they are undergoing or give us an understanding of a different kind of life. We can learn from another’s true life experience as we know these real-life characters lived, and we can get guidelines from them as to how we can live our own lives. For the inarticulate, a memoir may offer expression of what they are feeling but which they find impossible to express. It lets the reader know they are not alone with what they are experiencing. Predominantly in reading memoir, we are looking for how the narrated “I” deals with situations to become the “I” of now. We are looking at identity creation. We are honing in on the reflection of memoir.

This brings us to what I find fascinating with memoir – all those different “I” characters. Have you ever thought about how the author – the narrating “I” is telling his/her story and yet is a different person to the person they are narrating – the “I” then or narrated “I” who is a constructed “I”. There is also a past or historical “I” who is the person who can be verified as having lived but this “I” cannot be reproduced exactly as they were in the past.  Finally, there is an ideological “I” who knows the cultural rules of the time. Identity is embodied in all these “I”s that we meet with memoir. P. Eakin said: “We learn as children what it means to say ‘I’ in the culture we inhabit, and this training proves to be crucial to the success of our lives as adults, for our recognition by others as normal individuals depends on our ability to perform the work of self-narration.”

If you are writing memoir are you aware of your “I” characters? I believe this is why people read memoir and why memoir is written. It is the biggest difference between fiction and memoir – the narrating ‘I’ as the present day person who does the remembering and offers reflections and interpretations of the past events allows us to see how the author’s “I” character has changed. If the memoir is a ‘coming of age’ story we will read how one ‘I’ changes to another. In a conversion narrative the ‘I’s will be separated by a chasm. It is not unusual for there to be circumstances where the “I”s don’t like each other or understand each other. This is one circumstance where third person can be used in the writing of a memoir (past tense first person is normal) as it shows the disconnect between the ‘I”s.

The modern way of writing memoir using fictional techniques I believe (and remember this is my opinion) detracts from the reason people read memoir. If you use all show, not tell you are allowing the reader to construct their own thoughts on how you got there, how your identity changed and they lose that important part of memoir – the reflection by the narrating ‘I’. This loss leads to the loss to the reader of the author’s gaining of self- awareness and the impact this has on their identity creation. This is one of the fictional techniques that I am loathe to encourage to the exclusion of telling. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Next month I will look at dialogue in memoir.

Please feel free to join in Times Past. This month thanks to a suggestion from Charli, we are going to stay at school and examine learning to write. Write a post of your own and link up to my Times Past Page, leave a comment in my comment section or in the comment section when Charli posts her memories of learning to write. Don’t forget to put where you lived at the time of the memoir, your generation and whether it was a rural or city area. Look forward to reading them on my return.


58 Comments

  1. Ritu says:

    Fascinating post Irene! Memoir is not my writing genre, but so much to think of!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Old Jules says:

    Interesting perspective. As a [mostly] fiction writer who has written books in first person and third person omniscient my personal view is that each has strengths, each weaknesses presenting a challenge to the writer and demanding changes in technique for handling every aspect of the work. But I believe a writer who can’t write fiction in first person that is believable enough to convince the reader [if only for the duration of the work] that the character is real and the work at least somewhat autobiographical, should use third person.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      That’s interesting about point of view and the believability of characters. I find that I get to close to my characters and third person helps me keep boundaries.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Old Jules says:

        I can’t argue with that except to say I’ve never found a way to keep from getting too close to my characters, first person, third person…. And eventually to keep them from running away with the plot I began religious adherence to a plot outline for the first draft on every long work. It doesn’t keep me from becoming too attached to my characters, but it forces them to stay inside the boundaries insofar as the plot is concerned. But that attachment to the characters is one of the agonies that causes me to swear every time I finish a long work of fiction that I’ll never do it again.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        I understand that attachment, Jules. Often characters can mess up my plans, and other times they help me fix it. I like flash fiction for letting characters come out and play without adherence to an outline, plot or outcome.

        Liked by 1 person

      • What I find interesting when writing fiction is how the characters can take over and it is as though they are directing the writing. Interesting what you say about third person and boundaries Charli.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t agree with you more Jules. A fictional work in the first person can be very powerful and if the writer is successful will leave the reader questioning whether or not the work was perhaps memoir. Jeffrey Eugenides did this very well in his novel Middlesex. In fiction there is a place for all types of things. Memoir their are some rules – the biggest being truth.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another fun topic, Irene. I hope you have a great time on the “high seas”.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Reblogged this on ShiftnShake and commented:
    Alphabetical Order, D. Avery

    I would have to go to school.
    Why?
    Because, while I knew some things, I did not know all things, and there they would teach me things.
    What?
    I would learn to read and write.
    Ok, so I went to kindergarten. No regrets. I met some good friends there. And I learned. I learned how easy it is to get in trouble with your good friends in kindergarten. And I learned to recite the alphabet. I learned it and then we just did it. Recite, recite, recite. Reading, I found out, was to wait until first grade. (The secret was, it was too late; I had accidentally figured reading out at home while looking at comic books. Shhh.) But by day it was that crazy disconnected string of letters that weren’t even categorized by their roles; their sounds and roles were still guarded secrets. We just learned to identify them by sight and their names. And that was fair, because not all my friends could read when they got home but at school we were all equal when it came to reciting the alphabet, though in fact Freddie could sing it more beautifully and faster than any of us. In another year, in first grade, it was less fair; he was still singing that song while the rest of us were all out of tune, scattering those letters and putting them into choppy combinations of sounds.
    But what about writing? Well that was where we recited on paper, drawing the letters, making them ourselves. We had to do this silently; Miss Koring liked silence a lot. Freddie kept singing the alphabet, he got in trouble for that.
    I figured out how to do this alphabet writing, and I did it just like Miss Koring showed us, one letter after another in that same order we sang them in. It was fun at first, mastering this skill, copying those letters onto the lined paper. We kept doing it. In the same order. In the same way. I started to get into trouble.
    Ms. Koring did not like it when Bs had wings and antennae drawn on them. I made it through the Cs, and even capital D. But lower case Ds looked like the musical notes that Miss Thorpe taught us, Miss Thorpe who let me do the chickadee-dee-dee part of the music lesson because of my name. Miss Koring did not like it when my lower case Ds danced up and down the lined spaces like musical notes, like flitting chickadees. EEEEeeee. Flying flags flapping on the Fs got me in trouble again. GGGGgggg HHHHhhhh III (am being so good) iii JJJJ jjjj . Miss Koring came back by. Kicking Ks caused conflict. LLLLLlllll. Looking though the window I could see majestic mountains mounded with snow, but I got in trouble for my rendition of the letter M. I’ll be good. NOPQRS, S started the sound of my surname, but I slunk sorrowfully when scolded for my slithering script. I should have known not to string taut telephone wires between my Ts, and to have just done them as I had been taught. Too late. UVW, whoa, here we go again, Ws, waves of Ws washing wildly across the lined paper. In trouble again; I couldn’t win. XYZ, Z end of the day, another day of school. I hadn’t learned much.
    I would have to come back.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. […] following is in response to Irene Water’s Times Past challenge. Read the rest of her post at Carrot Ranch for more discussion on memoir […]

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Norah says:

    Great post, Irene. Like you, I would feel cheated if I found the incidents in a memoir to be fiction rather than fact – why not just write a novel then. But all participants in a situation experience it differently. I think other members of my family may see situations we shared rather differently from the way I do. But who’s to say which of us is right and which is wrong? Our perceptions are true for each of us, however different they be.
    I also agree with you about telling more than showing. There’s not much point in writing a memoir if we have to fill in the gaps. It would be like talking to someone with dementia. LOL!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      I’ll be interested to hear Irene’s response to perspective when she returns from her cruise. I think we each have a right to express our truth as we experienced it. Many who are in denial, refuse to process and ignore details thus “remember” it differently. Often groups will collaborate in their denial because it’s more comfortable than facing hard truths. It makes it hard for the one who is willing to look at the higher dynamic and express what they experienced no matter how uncomfortable. I think when it comes to writing it in memoir, there’s a distinct difference between making up the gaps and taking the time to acknowledge that this is how you remember the experience, including the pieces where you might have gaps.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Norah says:

        Mmm. Your perspective is interesting too, Charli, as will Irene’s be. I like that you say, “we each have a right to express our truth as we experienced it.” I’m going to ponder that a little more.
        I agree that it’s important to leave gaps where gaps exist. They may be there for a reason.

        Liked by 3 people

      • I’m looking forward to Irene’s response on perspective too Charli. No matter what those in denial might believe or think or say, a memoirist has to tell the true story and stand by it. It is her/his story, nobody elses. The gaps are what they are, and can’t be embellished or made up. I would love to know what Irene thinks of telling the reader at such points, something along the line of ‘I don’t remember if mother was there that day, but I do remember rushing upstairs to my empty bedroom’ as an example. That’s what I’ve done in my memoir because I’m telling it as it ticker tapes through my head, moment by moment. It’s surprised me that only a few parts are hazy…I wish my memory in the present was half as good 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        I think that line you just shared adds to the authenticity of something that I’m reading. It shows the gaps as a part of the story. Thank you for broadening our discussion, Sherri!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks Charli. As well as writers, we readers want authenticity 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • From my response to Norah you can see I think we will all see an event differently no matter how innocent an event it is. Roger and I see our Vanuatu experiences slightly differently but we agree the events happened – the difference is in the detail and how it made us feel. Where gaps exist I think they should be left. Mary Karr does this well in her book The Liars Club. I know I have a memory that when I think about it makes little sense but to me it is what happened. I am going to put in an author’s note that this is my memory of the event although in a rational world it would not happen. As Vanuatu was perhaps not rational it probably did happen but it seems crazy. Having a strong visual memory may have prompted an erroneous memory. I just don’t know but as it is what I remember that is all I can write.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Norah, I agree, we all have our own perspective on what did or didn’t happen. I’ve come to terms with that in writing my memoir by coming back to the old addage of ‘owning it’. It’s my story, this is what happened to me and how it affected me and my decisions and actions and my reactions at the time. Writing from the ‘I’ I am now about the ‘I’ I was then. And yes, no point at all if it isn’t 100% true. Memoir is memoir is memoir, otherwise read a novel 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

    • Absolutely Norah although I think the famous frauds have all been because as memoir they held more saleability than the book did as a novel – so money is the answer to why. I also agree that each participant in an event will see the event differently (and if they didn’t there is something amiss). This is because we all come to an event with a background, our set of values, our belief systems and world view which will cause us to focus on slightly different aspects of the event. This will also lead us to encode different aspects into memory. Visual memory and memoir use the same pathways and if we can see something whether we experienced it or not we could well encode it as a memoir memory. Oliver Sachs did a lot of work in this field and he gives an example of his own – a war memory. In reality he was not in London at the time of the event but his memory of it is real and for him he experienced it. Another example is that some things we simply don’t remember but we are hardwired for story. If you attended a wedding and years later you were asked who was there because Aunt Winnie was always with Uncle Harry you will say she was there even though you can’t remember her being there because when your visual memory is activated you always see them together. There isn’t enough time to go into memory in a great deal of depth but when it comes to memoir all you can write is your own memory and make sure that the reader is aware that this is how you remember the events. You do have to be mindful of others whose biographies you are writing simply because they are attached to your memoir.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. So much enjoy your memoir posts Irene. I always learn something 🙂 I would love to talk with you more about ‘fictional memoir’. I am like you, I feel cheated if a memoir turns out to be not true, or embellished. Half truth may as well be no truth at all. As you say, how can we come away with the benefit of having experienced the world through the eyes of the narrator, shared in their journey and taken something meaningful away from it? I found at times, in my first draft, that I tended to embellish certain scenes in the description, getting carried away. I had to cut them all,because I realised they were written as if I was writing fiction. It was only here and there, but enough to make me realise that keeping on the path of complete truth as I remembered it is easier said than done. But once I did, it helped me stop veering off on a tangent! Looking forward to your return, hope you’re having a ‘whale’ of a time on those high seas Irene! Don’t forget to share all your pics when you get back! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Of course, I’m not the one who knows much about memoir but I believe the moment you put the word “fiction” before it the writing is something. That something else is what I write — creative non-fiction. It’s not full-on fiction but it uses the creative elements of fiction to embellish an experience. I fictionalize the life of a blue heron; I take someone else’s photo and write about it as if I were there and then say this is a response to a photo I was given. I don’t consider that memoir. I get to the memory and take a left turn into imagination. That is not memoir. But where is the line drawn? I can say the moment I go to imagination, it’s a creative work now a memoir piece. But what do the memoirists say?

      And I can’t wait to see Irene’s photos, too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • For a long time, I thought that was all I wrote too, creative non-fiction (and some poetry). The first piece I wrote for a writing assignment for a creative writing course was about walking through a deserted ruin on a Greek island. I took my actual, true experience years before and embellished it, turning it into creative non-fiction. Just as you do with your blue heron 🙂 But if I were to write it as a memoir piece (and it took a long time before I definied my book as a memoir, not realising that was what it was!) I wouldn’t turn left into my imagination, but look straight into my ‘carnal’ memory, and put myself inside my skin as it was then and write about the experience as I felt then as I remembered it. Not sure I’m putting this too well, but yes, I would say that the line between imagination and fact is a thin, but clearly defined one when crossing over into memoir. Of course, I am no expert, but I do love to get my teeth into this kind of dialogue. Thanks Charli! And yes, bring on those photos Irene! ❤

        Liked by 2 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        Carnal memory — that’s where memoir comes from! That’s a great explanation, Sherri. You’ve experienced writing from both and thus can differentiate what it means to stand on each side of the line between fact and imagination. That increases my understanding.

        Liked by 1 person

      • My thoughts on what you have said I’ve included in my reply to Sherri. Photos will be popping up regularly. Great discussion Charli. Enjoyed coming back to it.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Back but a few degrees below. Had a great holiday though with just a couple of reservations. Photos will be coming.
      Wonderful discussion to come back to. Fiction is fiction. It is made up. It may be taken from memory and not owned or characters may be based on a conglomerate of personalities you’ve met, life experiences but it is fiction. Creative non fiction is truth. Memoir is part of creative non-fiction. According to Gutkind – the father of Creative non-fiction – creative non fiction is a true story well told. Nothing is made up. It it is made up it becomes historical fiction, or fiction of some sort. For fiction to work it has to be believable so often the research for fiction is immense. In historical fiction if the historical facts are wrong the story loses any traction it had. Creative nonfiction on the other hand is the truth. if you draw out a continuum and write public at one end and private at the other end, memoir would sit at the private end and a book like Rebecca Skloot’s “Henrietta Lacks” would sit at the public end.Public because anyone could do the research and come up with the same facts. The story is true. Memoir is not able to be researched to that degree because it is someone’s memory and the effect it had on them and their identity. It is said that the best creative nonfiction is where the public moves towards the midline and the private also moves toward the midline. That is that in eg Skloot’s book she includes her own thoughts and the effect it has on her as she interviews Henrietta’s family. She brings some personal to the tale (yet it is still the truth). With memoir the addition of some world events of the time eg The beatles had toured or something that most people would relate to.
      The creative of creative nonfiction refers not to altering facts but the use of elements of fiction such as dialogue, high definition scenes and show not tell. Purists would say that dialogue has to be verbatim and does the scene. Most accept that these are made up aspects to the work but are in the style of what would have been said. Purists would say the use of these elements turns the work into a BOTS (based on a true story) rather than it being true nonfiction.
      For memoir the writer’s truth is paramount.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Get well soon Irene, and glad to hear that your holiday was wonderful for the most part. I’ve been eagerly awaiting your reply here and this is why! Thank you for again explaining what creative non-fiction actually is, and the way it embraces memoir. Love Gutkind’s quote, validating the truth of creative non-fiction so concisely. Must read ‘Henrietta Lacks’! I know we’ve talked about dialogue before and the impossibility of writing it verbatim in a memoir that goes back 30 plus years. I also eagerly await your post exploriing this further. There would seem to be differing thoughts about it; I noticed in Cheryl Stayed’s ‘Wild’ that she didn’t use much at all. But her ‘high definition’ description of scenes and show not tell is prevalent. As I go on with my memoir rewrites, the use of the elements of fiction becomes clearer. It is interesting to learn that creating and describing a scene that is 100% truth but contains those elements is considered by ‘purists’ to be a BOTS. But we can only write that truth from our memory and can’t possibly write it verbatim and exactly when it’s decades old. Fresh, and very much alive through our writing, but although it’s something that happened a long time ago, it’s still the writer’s truth, absolutely. Wonderful discussion, thanks so much Irene for sharing your highly valued memoir knowledge! I will be interested to read Charli’s further thoughts on creative non-fiction and memoir 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • I’ll leave dialogue for now as I will be posting about it but after this discussion I thought I would look at all the creative elements in the next post as well. If you write scenes that are 100% memory then that is what they are memory, your truth and as such they aren’t BOTS. It is those elements that you don’t remember that are made up that can be BOTS but when that becomes so is the debatable point. The consensus of opinion is that it is acceptable to make up dialogue (as long as it is of a style that would have been used) and to use high definition scene. The use of these it is generally agreed (apart from purists) to be acceptable and still have the work classified as memoir. When you have no idea to the type of dialogue the person would have used, no idea of the scene and if gaps have to be filled by supposition then these should be classified straight out as BOTS. Your work I have no doubt is purely memoir.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks Irene, and very much looking foward to reading more about the creative elements too. Yes, I can see the difference quite clearly now, you have explained it excellently. My memoir is definitely all from 100% memory. You were the one who first taught me about BOTS and why I’ve so much enjoyed writing flash here using BOTS from time to time. It’s great to be able to expand upon the story and scene and make ‘stuff’ up, but it does feel very different when writing from actual memory doesn’t it? What an amazing community we have here thanks to Charli that gives us opportunity to discuss all genres and come together through flash fiction!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Glad it has explained a bit clearer what the differences are. The community is amazing and we are so lucky to be part of it.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Definitely. Thanks again Irene 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        I have learned so much from this discussion and yet I ponder other aspects of it. Irene, you mention that a writer’s fictional story “…may be taken from memory and not owned…”Some memories can feel oppressive, and writing it through fiction can feel like a release as if the memory no longer owns the writer. Your post on March 9 is going to continue this discussion. Thank you! And good to have you back!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad you are getting something from the discussion. I know I certainly am and it is a good way to focus what you believe as you talk it through. The old adage every body has one story in them came about because it was common that the first novel written was taken from the author’s own life and yet now owned as being their own story. Many of Hemingways works were autobiographical and the characters recognisable and yet he wrote them as novels rather than memoir. Is it because he didn’t want to own the experiences, perhaps giving the experience to a character removes you from the experience allowing it to be written where to write it as memoir is just too painful. One thing that should always be done with memoir is allow distance. I will write a post on this. Would write more but off for Roger’s birthday dinner. Good to be back.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        The discussion of owning stories really creates a shift in my mind. And I suppose it explains why I always felt as if I wanted fiction — because I do want that distance. I want to explore ideas, emotions, and even experiences, but without having to make it “my” story. And with memoir, I struggle with memory. I’m kinesthetic and visualize internally so I remember differently from those who recall what was said and what it looked like visually on the outside. Not sure that makes sense as it’s just a way to describe how I think I recall differently from someone like Sherri who has these great sharp visual memories or my husband who recalls the exact words spoken. But I have excellent body memory so I can excel at something like Feldenkrais. Your comments about Hemmingway makes me feel more akin to him. I’ve always felt like a story collector but then I transform them into something else. And it’s not that I feel averse to truth, but I also feel that fiction is a way to discover truths whether personal or universal, but that is different from telling the truth of a memory. So interesting!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes memory is a big thing with memoir and who knows what actually happened. The point is that for the author it is what happened and it is this viewpoint that has affected future actions. I can understand why you prefer to write fiction although many of the characters and bits here and there you know happened in some form you can bring in a bit from here and something from there and that person who had nothing to do with that piece of story and your can put them in your mixing bowl and voila you have a wonderful fictional story that hits the reader where it is supposed to because there is authenticity in the tale you tell. It also allows you to explore how you feel from a point of safety as it is happening to that character and not you. In memoir which normally is written 1st person past tense there are a couple of notable memoirs such as J.M.Coetzee who wrote in the third person to give himself distance from the work and because I think he wanted to emphasize the disconnect between who he was then with who he is now. Yes it is interesting and I’m glad we all write different genres as we can then learn so much from each other and who knows – a new literary form may emerge as a result.

        Liked by 1 person

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