Truth is considered fundamental in writing memoir. The work of Smith and Watson show that memory is not an exact memory of the past event but the past combined with the present, differences in history and ideologies of the time so rather than memory being existential it is a construct and will vary at different times and places. Recent innovations in brain imaging have shown that autobiographical memory shares the same part of the brain as visual activity. It is possible that this explains why, when you visualise a scene vividly, even if it is not true, that this false memory will be added to autobiographical memory. As our remembering creates our identity, then, is our self a fiction?
For me, this is the most interesting part of memoir for I believe that memoir gives us our identity. Memoir, when used as a book genre, refers to a part of a life story that is well told truthfully from memory using techniques commonly used in fiction. I would argue, however, that we are all storytellers of our life story only most people don’t write them down. Instead, we tell anecdotes (a truthful story about a real incident or person). These, to my mind, are the equivalent of a memoir in aural form. They are stories, usually well told from memory about a portion of our life. These, I believe, give us our identity.
There are two facets to identity. There is our identity that can be researched by anybody. Our birthdate, our parents’ names and occupations, later our own occupations, marriages, divorces and even addresses can often be found if one has the desire to dig deeply enough. But does that give you your identity? For the authorities maybe but not for those that come in contact with us. It gives the what of your identity. The second facet is not researchable but rather it is our personality and character and these are found through our actions but predominantly through the stories we tell of ourselves and these give us the who of our identity.
Our parents give us our first pieces of identity. They give us not only our name but our first simple stories. “My daddy is a minister.” That little story had me labelled a goody two shoes, someone to be mindful of language around and friendships slow to make. My Dad also told funny stories which I know I would have repeated as in those very young days, I had no stories of my own to tell, and I most likely wanted to be like my daddy who I adored. I didn’t tell my mother’s stories as I wanted to be more like my father than my mother. I don’t know what the first story I told about myself was but if I assumed it was one I still tell — about being quarantined from school and filling in the time playing the leper from the bible, jumping out on unsuspecting passerbys and telling them they were going to catch the dreadful disease my mother had because I was a leper, I’m sure that for some my identity would have taken on one of a non-caring individual for some I regaled it to and for others I would have been labelled creative.
We are selective as to what stories we tell and those we keep close to our chest. Some we know that if we were to tell we would be seen in a bad light, and the who we are of our identity would take a battering. This part of our identity changes over time. As in reading a memoir the author’s journey is followed until it reaches a point where it is irrevocably changed because of something that happens. It is, as Charli discussed in her prompt preamble, the hero’s journey only we are the hero of the story, our own story. If our identity weren’t to change as a result of life events I think it would be a poor, shallow life we’ve led when we can’t learn and grow and change.
Do you still tell the same stories now that you told when you were 15? I know I have a period in my life that will forever be closed to public scrutiny. It was at the time and it is now. I didn’t tell it then and I don’t visit it now. We edit what we tell but even so the stories we do tell reek of our essence.
When writing memoir this can create a huge problem for the author when writing a second memoir. The readership of the first memoir may simply not like the identity which the author has become in the second book and a totally different market may be needed.
If you are not convinced that your stories gives you your identity that is fine. Consider however those people who have lost their stories. Those with brain injuries and those suffering dementia. Those without their stories become empty shells. They retain their name, their race and nationality but their identity fades until they are no longer the person that we once knew. When they no longer have their stories they no longer a made up person – a fictional self.
I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on memoir and identity and hoping you will join in Times Past where this month we are looking at bicycles.
Although memoir is a true story of a particular part of your life, it must still have structure if you intend for others to read it. Firstly you have to decide what is the story that you want to tell. For most memoir writers it will be the most exciting, heart-pounding, significant time of their lives. For some, this may be their childhood to their coming of age (known as a bildungsroman) whilst for others, it may be an illness, an experience that happens later in life or it could be the relationship you had with a particular animal or a business venture you had undertaken. In reality – it can be any theme you choose. These days there are even immersion memoirs where a person will undertake some task or live amongst, e.g. footballers, for months and then write a memoir on this experience. For most of us, we know our story, and we know what has had the most impact on us, and that is what we decide to write about. For me – it was when my husband and I, as newlyweds, went into partnership with the paramount chief of an exotic island in the Pacific in the running of a small resort and tour business.
Early in the writing process you also need to decide for whom you are writing. Is your audience only yourself, your family or are you planning to publish and sell your memoir to the public. When I started writing my memoir the plan was that it was being written for my family. I included detail that interested them as they knew the friend that helped us load a pile of timber into a container that was eventually to be the house we built on the remote island. As I ventured further into the story my focus changed and I decided that this was a story that had wider appeal than just my loved ones. However, this change meant that the chapters I had already written had to rewritten to remove information that no-one, other than my family and friends, would have much if any interest in knowing. If, however, you are writing for your family then lots of detail about the family will be of interest to that readership. Early in my blogging I came across a chap that had published his memoir. I purchased it on Amazon only to find that this was a story that had been written for the family and had little appeal to the wider audience. It may have been worthy of some blogging of the more interesting aspects but I don’t think it should never have been put up for sale to the public without a lot of editing. If you are writing just for yourself then you can be free with details of a personal nature that might be therapeutic for you to acknowledge but should never be let into the public domain.
Having decided on a theme and a focus the writing begins. How you do this is an individual choice. Some people free write their first draft, just putting down all thoughts on paper. In the second draft, they add the structure. Personally, I write in a structured way from the start, but in second drafts I may change my starting point. Lee Gutkind, the father of creative nonfiction, suggests that you should open with a scene as it is crucial to draw the reader into the narrative immediately. Scenes are active. They show instead of tell and have dialogue and high definition scenes. Scenes and reflections on the effect that this has had on the author’s life should be put into the structure of the book. Again, this can be done in numerous ways either intermingled or set apart from each other.
Once the first draft has been written it should be re-read looking for the themes, focus, scenes, and reflection. If part of the narrative has nothing to do with the theme, even if it is a great story, get rid of it. If it doesn’t suit the focus, edit so that it does. Rewrite to create scenes where necessary and add reflection where there is none.
I would also suggest, as has Stephen King, Lee Gutkind, and many others, that reading memoirs that are of a similar theme to your own is a helpful exercise. Doing so allows you to see what works and what doesn’t work regarding structure. Sometimes the ones you don’t enjoy teach you more than those that you think are fantastic. Analyse what works and what doesn’t work. Reading is also useful when it comes to selling your book to a publisher as they will want to know – where on the bookshelf would this sit? Be able to tell the publisher who your memoir will appeal to. Mine will appeal to those that like travel memoirs, true-life adventure, small business and those wanting to make a change in their life. Knowing the themes and the focus will tighten your writing. I’m looking forward to joining in the discussion on your views of themes and focus.
The prompt for this month’s Times Past is a little different to those normally given. This month I am asking you to reflect on the biggest change in your lifetime. This can be a social change or a technological one or even one of both. Please join in giving 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 or by creating your own post and linking. Looking forward to your memories.
Television killed the conversation. That’s how I think of “family” dinners growing up. As an only child in rural northern California, my parents didn’t converse at dinner. Instead, my mother prepared the meal on tv trays, and we watch Laverne & Shirley, MASH, or Benny Hill — whatever the three networks televised between 6 and 7 pm.
Conversations happened elsewhere and involved other people. Often, late at night after a search-and-rescue call (my father was a volunteer) several deputies and other volunteers would converse around the kitchen table we never used for dinner. From my bedroom, I could hear the adults talk, and some of the harrowing stories they’d tell.
Coming from a story-telling culture, I grew up listening. Even now, I consider myself to be a story-catcher. However, I never really learned the art of conversation among non-story-tellers. I always enjoy meeting other story-tellers because we swap stories in a dynamic of your story/my story give and take. I’ve noticed that as more and more screens dominate our lives, we tell fewer stories and have less time for conversation.
When I met the Hub, I spent that first evening with him and his friends, listening to their stories. We laughed, and the camaraderie shared through stories enveloped us all that night. Often, I judge the quality of stories told as to whether or not I’m going to connect with this person. I liked his stories, a lot! Over 30 years, we’ve made our own stories.
And I think that’s what I miss, our narrative sharing, our personal conversations. The Hub suffers from a diminished focus. He tests in the one percentile, meaning 99 percent of his peers can out-focus him. One way he compensates is to tell remembered stories — it’s like living in the past.
Conversation is awkward because he can only follow so far. New stories get mixed up because he doesn’t get the details right. By the third detail of a story I’m trying to share with him, he’s gone elsewhere. Focus leaves, zooming in an out on unrelated information, and I feel unheard. I also feel like he has nothing to new to say. It’s a frustrating place to be, especially when his memory is actually sharp.
He remembers, but focuses on the past I want to get beyond. He can’t focus on the future, and planning causes anxiety because he can’t do it. It’s almost like being time travelers who can’t share the moment, always somewhere different on the timeline of life. And the Hub is migrating toward a different screen. He plays Solitaire because it helps reset his brain after an anxious episode.
Conversations seem to get sucked into the vortex of screens in modern times. Give me a good campfire, and people willing to sit around it and tell stories and dream of the future.
This post is in response to Irene Waters’ Time Past memoir prompt and reflection on generation and geo-location. Leave a reply or link to it on her current post at Conversation Time.
I write memoir – my memories of particular times or events in my life. In this process, through no fault of their own other than being part of my life I write another person’s narrative.
Who are the other people in our story – firstly there is the “I,” and then because we don’t live our lives in isolation, there are those people whose lives intertwine. It is impossible to leave out these other people when we recount our memoirs, but we must remember that they are having their story written as unwitting real-life characters and as such are due a good deal of respect. So how do we deal with these people?
Ideally, we tell them that we are writing a memoir in which they feature. Don’t show them what you have written until the book has had close to its final edit. Where possible stay with them whilst they read the portion in which they feature. Don’t give it to them to take away. Get their opinion at the time they read it. This is the ideal way because if they take it away they may give it to others to read and the feedback you get may not be their own. If they object to anything you have written, then you must consider the costs to you of leaving it in the memoir. Is this a person you care about and you don’t want to lose their friendship? Is the passage they have objected to necessary to the event? Can it be reworded without losing the truth? Are you prepared to accept that you might lose a friendship? Letting them read is the ideal situation but is not always possible. Strangely, for those people who have done this the majority report that the person will usually find something they are not too happy about but it is rarely the item that the author has been worrying over.
I have not given my memoir to anybody to read who I featured in it. To do so poses some problems as we are geographically removed in some instances, I have no idea where some of the people are, and one doesn’t want to read it. I have given it to a lawyer to check that I have written nothing by which I could be taken to court and sued. I have also changed some names. I have been dead against doing this but suddenly I came to a decision that for minor characters, who could be hurt by what I have written and I have no desire to hurt them, it is easier to change their names. In the author note, however, I will make it quite clear that I have changed some names. I have also changed a name to make it easier for the reader to know who the character is in the scene. On Tanna, there were some people named Chief Tom. Some names can’t be changed, such as my husband’s. He will be my husband no matter what I call him and thereby readily identifiable. I asked him if he would like to read the manuscript, but he refused. The reason he gave was that if he read it, he knew that he would be saying “you should say it this way” and be trying to get me to alter it to fit his voice. As far as what I have written about him he trusts that he already knows my thoughts. He will probably read it after it is published, but it is possible that he doesn’t want to revisit this period of our lives.
If you do or don’t give it to the character to look at, avoid at all costs, labelling them in the narrative. For example, don’t say that Rebecca was an alcoholic – show what she does and allow the reader to determine what she is. If Gary is a paedophile in your opinion, again don’t label but show. Labelling tends to reflect poorly on the author, and it will be more than the character that will dislike you – your reader will likely form a bad opinion of you. Last month I suggested that we need to let time elapse so that the high emotion we feel close to the event can dissolve to allow us to write from a non-judgemental point of view. This is crucial.
A chap called Paul John Eakin suggests that we are taught by our parents at an early age the rules relating to the telling of life narratives. These rules are, to tell the truth, to respect the privacy of others and to be aware of the normative model of personhood. The first two are self-explanatory. The last refers to who you are writing about and your responsibility to them based on their level of normalcy. For example, if you are writing about your partner, you can be much freer with what you write because the partner can respond with his or her own memoir. This is not the case with those suffering dementia, brain injuries and children. Thus the level of respect shown to any vulnerable person must be immense.
The other person that you must show consideration to is yourself. The person you are narrating is not the present day you, but he or she is capable of creating a crisis of emotion in the present day you. Just the other day I was searching for something and thought it might be in the court documents. I sat down and read the entire file which consisted of letters and court records. I thought I had dealt with our time in Vanuatu and was surprised at the level of anger and hurt reading these documents brought out in me. If you are at risk make sure you have a support system in place that you can call on if necessary – that may be a friend or professional help. I vented on Roger.
This month’s Times Past looks at a facet of life that can only exist if there are other people in the memory – family conversation – where did it happen? This also draws on your memory of place. Often by dragging back visions of particular rooms or places little stories and details will come unbidden. I hope you’ll join in, giving 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 is at the Times Past Page. Join in either in the comments here, in my comments section or by creating your own post and linking. I’m looking forward to your memories.
High in the Sierra Nevada mountains, winds a highway known as “4” or Ebbetts Pass. From the river valleys carved into the box-canyons of the eastern slopes, this highway connects the California Gold Country with that of the Silver Comstock. A right road of commerce, it now connects logging operations with mills and urban tourists with scenic destinations.
I never really cooked with my mom. More like she instructed me to prepare recipes like enchiladas and beans or sopas (a Portuguese roast served soup-style over crusty French bread, topped with fresh sprigs of mint that grew wild in the creek below our old mining-era house). She did most of the cooking, and I worked the cash register at night in her general store. But I learned enough.
Highway 4 passed her store and wound all the way up over the 8,000-foot mountain pass to where my father had a logging camp in Pacific Valley. He worked this Forest Service project for three or four years. When I was 13, I announced I would go find my own job because I no longer wanted to work in the store where I had stocked shelves, bagged ice, stacked firewood and served shifts as a cashier since I was seven.
Note: I now understand why the county staff often asked if my parents followed the child labor laws. I think they had some sort of good-ol-boy immunity.
Anyhow, my father approved a transfer of my labor from the store to his logging camp. I was dismayed because I had a job offer to ride for the local ranch, pushing stock up the trails to keep the cattle in the summer pastures. We compromised — I’d rise at 3 am and ride in the logging truck up that windy pass to arrive at Pacific Valley by dawn and work until noon. After lunch I’d be allowed a two-hour break until we left with a load of logs at 2 pm, getting home in time to saddle my horse and ride up the Barney Riley to push any strays back up the hill.
That summer, over my two-hour break, I read all the Han Solo series, every comic book I could get my hands on, and the summer reading list of classics for eighth-grade. Every morning I cleaned. Yep, sure as shit, I scoured that valley.
Let me pause a moment and explain the phrase “sure as shit.” Evidently my great-grandmother Clara Irma Kincaid passed down that verbal arrangement. Some people descend from proper biddies, from classy ladies. I come from a woman who said sure as shit so often it’s ingrained in me. When my recently long-lost cousin used the phrase, I realized its reach.
I use it for emphasis and to add a tone of anger. Sure as shit the female goes to work in the logging camp and has to clean the valley. I didn’t get to do any of the exciting logging activities or learn to operate a chainsaw. Nope. I got to clean. Cleaning meant dragging brush and bending over repeatedly to pick up any broken fragments of limbs. I raked and piled slash that my father would later burn.
His job was to reclaim a mountain meadow that had become overgrown with trees after the strip-logging of the mining days. It’s gorgeous now, and I want it known, I cleaned that meadow in a summer when I was 13.
What do Pacific Valley and my parents’ occupations have to do with tea in China or cooking with mum?
On the surface, not much. But deep down, it’s the roots of my cooking influences. My mother, always busy with the store, taught me to cook from a distance to help ease her woman’s work (though laundry was something she never relinquished or explained to me). My father, on the other hand, was a man caught between time. He was born after the mountain men of western culture, and before it was cool for men to be foodies. So, I learned the basics from mom, and creativity over a logging campfire with dad.
And that explains why my children get excited about the phrase “cooking with mum.” To them, it recalls our camping experiences when I prepared menus like this:
- Sausage Soufflé
- Strawberries & peaches
- Cowboy Coffee
- Salami Rolls
- Sliced Tomatoes & Pretzels
- Rice Crispy Bars
- Jamaican Jerk Burgers
- Rum-Spiked Grilled Pineapple
- Watercress & Cranberry Salad
Or the Thanksgivings in which we spend weeks preparing in advanced to stuff ourselves like the turkey on the table. Or the way I use Penzy Spices, answer recipe questions in texts or make healthy vegan food taste decadent.
Cooking with mum is the verbal phrase I passed down, if not the actual activity. Cooking with mum means visiting with me in the kitchen or at the table. It’s about sharing meals and presence.
And it’s a better phrase than the one I received. Sure as shit.
Join Irene Waters with her monthly Times Past memoir prompt that compares the experiences of generation and place.
By Irene Waters
My almost ninety-year-old mother rings me every night. A habit that began many years ago both to ensure that she had someone to talk to every day and from a safety perspective. Too often the elderly fall and are not discovered for days. Every day she tells me minute by minute how she has filled her day. She is autobiographically using time to chronologically map her day. When her day is complete, she asks me what I have done. I pick out bits that may be of interest to her, starting with that which I consider to pack the most punch. I may also join a few events making one, such as meeting Donna five times that day and getting some different bits of the story each time. It is easy just to conflate time (join them together) and tell it as one. I am giving her memoir and with my use of time making the narrative interesting and compelling.
Last month we looked at dialogue and high definition description as a fictive element allowed in memoir writing that is acceptable when it is in the style of what would have been said at the time. Time is another element that can be used creatively in memoir. However, there is much more to time than simply technical aspects which create a compelling narrative.
You cannot divorce memoir from time as memoir deals with the duality of time – where the narrator looks back in time to understand the past from his present position. There are three different purposes for writing memoirs. Firstly, there are the “lyrical seeking” narratives, where the memoirist is trying to come to terms with lost experience. Secondly, the bildungsroman (coming of age) that often relate torrid circumstances. Thirdly, there are those narratives where the author has an overwhelming need to write what is purely a good story. Each of these types deals with time differently. The lyrical seekers combine ‘then’ and ‘now’ whilst in the bildungsroman the past and present are separated, often using flashback strategies.
Unlike time in auto/biography, time in a memoir can be manipulated. It does not have to follow a chronological order starting at birth and finishing at the end (biographical works) but focuses on a particular theme which can take place over a long or short period of time. The narrative can be started at the beginning, the middle, or the end – jumping backwards and forwards in time or, alternatively, the past and present can be written together. Birketts, who wrote The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again believes this use of time is the difference between a good and bad memoir.
By conflating time, that is writing several events as one, allows the author to have a smooth flow in the narrative and for the reader removes any boredom caused by repetition of repeated events. Additionally, vivid memories don’t follow a chronological time frame and may be presented as recalled by the writer with movement between past, present, and future. Mary Karr demonstrates this as she struggles to allow the past to surface. She jumps back and forward in time creating a tension and compelling the reader to continue reading to find the answers that Karr, herself, seeks from memories which are deeply hidden.
For the memoirist, time has some other important functions. As a memoir contains both memories and reflection, the passage of time before the memoir can be written is essential, as this distance allows the events affect upon the author to become known. Additionally, it can be a difficult reliving experiences that caused the narrator such pain in the past. Distance may be needed to safely revisit the situation. Memoir can be used as an agent of healing, but I believe that these valuable cathartic memoirs are written for personal consumption only and not for publication.
Time is also an important factor when writing a memoir about other people. Memoir should never be written close to an event when we are still wielding an axe we wish to grind, wanting to pay back someone who wronged us. Enough time must elapse so that we can deal with these difficult relationships objectively and ethically. When writing people who have adversely affected our lives it is better to objectively write, showing the reader rather than telling them, allowing them to determine a person’s character through their action rather than being told what the character is.
Time can also change what we write. The culture that we live in may have changed their views on what is acceptable allowing a different version of the narrative to be told (this happened particularly with slave narratives). Time may also change our perception of ourselves. We might not like the ‘I’ of the past. Virginia Woolf wrote in her memoir Sketch of the Past “…it would be interesting to make the two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment. What I write today I should not write in a year’s time.”
Having said earlier that time must pass before writing a memoir letting too much time elapse may be detrimental also. It is a generally held belief that memoir is more prone to becoming irrelevant to a readership than does fiction. As readers often read memoir to see how another has dealt with a particular situation, perhaps following the path taken by the memoirist over time or for the inarticulate using these narratives to express how they feel, as time elapses at least some of these situations may have ceased to exist because of, eg, medical advances, political change, etc., thus making the memoir outdated. Memoir, I believe, will always give a social commentary of interest to social historians and other researchers.
Time is important in memoir, and a subject I touched on slightly in this post – dealing with others is also a crucial consideration when writing memoir and that will be the topic of next months post.
Please feel free to join in Times Past. This month we are going to look at cooking with Mum reflecting on whether our childhood experience affected our cooking as an adult. 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.
2017, Virgin, Utah (Rural)
Monkeys once flew over stunted juniper trees. I squint into the rosette of a setting sun and etch to memory the squared-lines of a mesa that had served as an Air Force Base in southern Utah. I never saw the monkeys who tested ejection seats after WWII, but I saw the gnarled desert trees.
Trees-rings mark my memories.
2016, Coeur D’Alene National Forest, Idaho (Wilderness)
Beyond tall pines squats a vault toilet. I have none of my own but a pressing need to use it. Between me and the trees, an angry bull moose swings his antlers. If I crap my pants before he stomps me to death will they think I was scared? Being homeless terrifies me more than a blustering forest moose. “Haw!” I shout, and he runs off to the river willows. I make it to the vault in time.
On other days, I squat behind the trees.
2012, Elmira Pond, Idaho (Rural)
Tamarack pines tower over 120 feet tall. Throughout their life-cycle, they reach for heaven but plunge into spring-fed pools instead. Eventually, their wood breaks down, and they form peat in the boggy ground. Thousands of years go into this cycle. On the edge of the tamaracks, the peat bog flashes like a signal-mirror to passing migrant waterfowl. I have moved to this paradise after 14 years in the suburbs. I’m out west again. Freedom!
Like the tamarack, I don’t see the fall coming.
2006, Minneapolis, Minnesota (Suburbs)
It’s ridiculous that I’m paying $70 for a balsamic fir Christmas tree. I long to poach a tree at night from the forest like we did in Montana.
I don’t have much to say about trees in the suburbs.
1996, Elk Horn, Montana (Abandoned Mining Town)
Kate maneuvers her van over potholes and exposed boulders as we wind our way up to 6,600 feet in elevation. It’s not as high up as where I lived from age seven to eighteen. But the view over the tops of the forest trees to the Boulder Valley below is magnificent. I’m researching a story I’ll never finish. As Kate and I trace our finger across weathered granite gravestones, we fail to consider our own mortality.
We think there will always be trees and time to write.
1986, Wolf Creek, California (Wilderness Area)
My dad is taking me and my fiancé fishing up Wolf Creek. Buckaroos-turned-lumberjacks like to tell stories. He tells my fiancé how we were driving up this rugged two-track five years earlier talking about the growing mountain lion population. My dad recounted how he responded that lynx were in these Jeffry Pines, but we’d never see them. He then laughed and finished up the story about how a lynx ran right across the two-track. “It happened right here,” he said as we turned the corner.
And a lynx ran out of the trees. Again.
1976, Hope Valley, California (Wilderness Area)
Twenty miles into the wilderness past the resort my great-aunt and her husband Milt ran, my Dad logged. He grew up on ranches across Nevada and California, a rambling buckaroo existence. He hung up his spurs and took on a chainsaw. We lived in logging camps in the summer, but my Mom ran a store in the small mountain town below so every morning we’d leave the forest. This morning my Dad stayed in the camp trailer bed with a herniated disc and a bandaged head from a widow-maker – the dead top of a tall white pine that snaps when a tree is felled, often killing the sawyer below. Dad lived but herniated his back. Now Mom leans in to kiss him goodbye. Crunch…she steps on his only pair of glasses.
They say bad tidings come in threes.
Like the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria. My Dad once showed me a tree he felled, and we counted the rings back to when Christopher Columbus invaded America. Trees keep the record. And I’m certain they have better memories than I do. But I keep the heart of the stories alive. Me and trees, we have had many high times and healing together.
Graphite in My Arm
A piece of graphite is lodged in my upper left arm. Even at age fifty, the broken pencil tip remains visible. When you open a package of new pencils, the cedar smells like a lumber yard. Whenever we drive over the Sierra Mountains to visit my mother’s family near Hollister — a six hour trip of listening to Johny Cash, Tammy Wynette and the Beatles on 8-track tapes –, we pass by the lumber yard in Jackson. I inhale deeply the scent of pencils.
For a long time, I didn’t know I had graphite in my arm. I thought it was lead. When I learned to write, I made errors with the lead tip and erase them carefully with the eraser dark red like Dyntene gum. I don’t like Dyntene, but my mother chews it. I don’t eat my pencil eraser, but I recall classmates who’d bite them off.
Lead worried me. For years I watched the black spot on my arm, looking for signs of lead poisoning. I don’t recall where or when I learned about lead poisoning but I recall the fear gripping me. I didn’t want to have to explain to the adults why I wasn’t practicing my writing homework.
I was fiddling. My arm was the fiddle, my pencil the bow. With an enthusiastic thrust across the imaginary strings, I poke the pencil deep in my upper arm. It’s a wound I hid, a scar I’ve never revealed.
But it was my first true lesson in writing — it’s not the shape of the letters, but the depth one is willing to go to extract a story.
This is in response to Irene Water’s latest Times Past memoir prompt. Join in at the comments here or on Irene’s post, giving your location at the time of your memory and your generation.
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.
This is my own reflection on my experiences with high school graduation. Rough Writer and memoirist, Irene Waters, has linked her monthly prompt, Times Past to the Carrot Ranch Community in an effort to offer a greater breadth of writing opportunities. Literary art can take many forms and creative non-fiction is one. You can join in with Irene’s prompt at her blog site, Reflections, and Nightmares.
Join in an be sure to include your generation and location (rural or urban, country). I’m a Gen-Xer from a rural area in the US, reflecting upon my millennial children’s graduations in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
When I think of high school graduations in the ‘burbs of the Midwest, I think of how wasteful the expenditure on the parties. We are talking the equivalent of a modern wedding. When I graduated, it was typical for families to have parties go out to dinner, but it was something the immediate family did. My own graduation came at a difficult time in my life and I did not enjoy let alone experience such celebrations.
When my kids each graduated, I was most proud of the fact that they were going to college. I come from uneducated roots and was the first in my father’s family to ever go to college. My children watched me graduate from college and it never occurred to them to think they wouldn’t go. High graduation was important, but not take-a-loan-from-the-bank important to celebrate.
We were the anti-graduation party-poopers of the ‘burbs.
While neighbors scrubbed garages clean and rented huge tents, tables, and chairs, and coordinated with other neighbors to not host parties on the same day (yes, there exists an entire season of grad parties), we celebrated with less pomp and circumstance.
My eldest graduated from an environmental science alternative school known informally as the Zoo School. She and most of her classmates placed importance on their scientific studies and held events like The Recycled Prom where students attending dressed in clothing from thrift stores not the $500 dresses at the Mall of America. They were not materialistic.
However, my eldest daughter graduated naked. Good thing she had a cap and gown, for that was all she wore to step upon the stage to accept her diploma. I didn’t know until I hugged her afterward.
My middle daughter also graduated from the Zoo School but wore a dress. Her graduation infamy came a few weeks later as she was moving out of our house and she accidentally caused a mattress to ignite when one of her friends flicked a cigarette butt and it caught in the box spring of the mattress. Flames lit up the back of their truck in full sight of the swanky grad party going on next door. They stopped, grabbed a garden hose and doused the flames as part-goers gawked.
Embarrassed and not sure what to do with the sodden mattress, my daughter and her friends dragged it around to the backside of the house and propped it up to drain. After they left and it dried enough, the mattress rekindled! And it caught our house on fire. Good thing the grad party was happening next door. Fire trucks arrived and my next door neighbor ran into the house to rescue our pets. We were fortunate that the siding was all that burned.
No one has forgotten the graduation party that the Mills Family tried to burn out.
My son did not graduate from the Zoo School because he wanted to run cross country for our public school. Not only did he not want a party, he didn’t want to walk to receive his diploma. He said college mattered, not high school. He graduated from college twice, once with a BA and again with a Masters. I was there to see him walk both times proud of his accomplishments.
We went out to dinner.