I sit and listen to news of blisteringly cold gales, snow falls, and marvel at photos of these dumps of snow on Facebook and Instagram. We are still in summer here with no evidence of autumn being around the corner and no doubt those in the northern hemisphere will be wondering if they will ever come in from the cold.
This puts me in mind of memoir as a genre. Will it ever come in from the cold and be given the value it deserves. Despite Frank McCourt and Mary Karr who are credited with being the first to move memoir up a notch in people’s estimation, memoir is still talked of in hushed tones. Writer’s of memoir often seem a little embarrassed that this is the genre they write. Other writers might quickly say, “I don’t write memoir.” What is the problem with owning our own story? Is it a lesser story because it happened to us? Does it say something about us because we want to tell it? No story has to be told and if yours is one that you don’t wish to share there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. We do share our stories though. Every anecdote we relate is a small memoir told in an oral tradition. I researched memoir for my masters and discovered that memoir as a genre is new to scholarly examination. I also discovered that not many realise that memoir is captured in the genre creative nonfiction.
What is creative nonfiction? Lee Gutkind, the father of creative nonfiction, describes it as a “true story well told.”
The best creative nonfiction in Gutkinds opinion is where the public (books such as True Blood, The life of Henrietta Lacks) moves closer to the private end by giving some personal detail and the private end (which includes memoir and personal essays) includes some public information.
If we are looking at ‘true stories well told’ where does the creative come in? It does not mean making the story up. Once you do this, you have moved from nonfiction to fiction. The creative has been found to cause some confusion, and other names (narrative nonfiction, literary nonfiction) are often interchanged in the hope of giving a little more clarity. The creative is referring to using storytelling techniques from fiction to tell the true story. There are three major elements used: 1) dialogue; 2) high definition descriptions of scenes and 3) manipulation of time. It was these features that McCourt and Karr used skilfully creating a true story that people wanted to read.
In memoir writing, it is now widely accepted that all these elements are acceptable despite being made up elements. Dialogue serves the same purpose in memoir as it does in fiction. It develops or reveals the people who are in narrative, moves the plot forward and gives immediacy to the moment being described. From the readers perspective, it puts them in the scene. For memoir, it is accepted that the dialogue used will be of a style an in a manner of what would have been said. The essence of the dialogue must be true to memory even though the words are not remembered. At the time I was examining dialogue for my thesis I was reading many purists and questioned if dialogue was used, did it change the genre from memoir to BOTS. Painstakingly I counted how much dialogue was in a large number of memoirs – Frank McCourt used the most with one book 22.64 percent and another a whopping 47.74 percent. Most used less than 10 percent in a first memoir and less than 20 percent in a subsequent tome.
A similar finding is possible for high definition description of scenes. Mary Karr was a master at these descriptions such as her description of the doctor: “He wore a yellow golf shirt unbuttoned so that sprouts of hair showed in a V shape on his chest. I had never seen him in anything but a white starched shirt and a gray tie. The change unnerved me.” Despite these types of vivid description Karr could not remember everything and had huge gaps in her memory:
“Because it took so long for me to paste together what happened, I will leave that part of the story missing for a while. It went long unformed for me, and I want to keep it that way here. I don’t mean to be coy. When the truth would be unbearable, the mind often blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head. Then, like a smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.”
The two different memories don’t gel, and yet we accept the doctor scene as true. It gives us an entry into how Karr felt as a child. Again, these high definition scenes are now accepted as belonging in a work of memoir.
Next month I will look at time. I’d be interested to hear what you think about the inclusion of dialogue and high definition scenes in memoir. Do you think that the inclusion of these elements make the writing come alive? Do you feel you get to know the author better through dialogue? Do you think there is a point where there is too much dialogue? I look forward to hearing what you think.
Please join Irene Waters at her blog Reflections and Nightmares with a monthly memoir writing prompt that gives us social insights between generations and geographical locations. Along with your response, give your location at the time of your memory and your generation. An explanation of the generations and the purpose of the prompts along with conditions for joining in can be seen at the Times Past Page. Join in either in the comments (here or at the current Times Past Monthly Prompt) or by creating your own post and linking to Trees: Times Past.
Irene Waters is a writer from Queensland, Australia, whose pastimes include dancing, reading, and playing with her dogs. Her main writing focus is memoir. Her writing has appeared in Text Journal and Idiom23 magazine. She is the author of two memoirs, Nightmare in Paradise, and its sequel After the Nightmare which she wrote as part of her thesis. Her Masters is a research degree, examining sequel memoir from Central Queensland University. Irene is a Rough Writer and contributor to The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1, including an essay on memoir.