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By Irene Waters, Rodeo Leader
Memoir is a passion, so I’m thrilled to once again host the memoir section of the Carrot Ranch Rodeo Contest. Hoping you’ll tighten your saddles and put on your spurs and join in. [READ MORE…]
Last year we had Scars – this year?
“She Did It.”
Three little words can hold so much meaning and have so many stories that come to mind. For the memoir prompt “She Did It” write a true story or a BOTS (based on a true story) keeping in mind the tips on writing memoir.
- Every entry must be 99 words, no more, no less. You can have a title outside that limit. Check your word count using the net as this will be the one I use to check the entries. Entries that aren’t 99 words will be disqualified.
- The genre is memoir although BOTS (based on a true story) will be accepted.
- English grammar and spelling (American, English or Australian) are expected, but as long as the judges can understand the language, it is the story that matters most.
- And it must be a story — that is it must be complete by itself not a part of a larger narrative. Give it a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- The prompt is a prompt, and the three words don’t have to be used in your 99 words unless you want to.
- You must enter your name and email with your entry using the provided form below. If you do not receive an acknowledgment by email, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. EST on October 17, 2018. Entries are judged blind, and winners announced November 16, 2018, at Carrot Ranch. Please do not compromise the blind judging by posting your entry before the winners are announced.
- You may post a “challenge” if you don’t want to enter the contest, but don’t use the form to enter the contest. Only contest entries will be published.
Above all have fun.
JUDGES (read full bios at SPONSORS)
THANK YOU FOR YOUR ENTRIES! CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED!
This past year, Irene Waters has led us in thoughtful discussions of what memoir is as a genre. You can search her essays at Carrot Ranch under “Times Past.” Irene is one of several talented memoirists who also write flash fiction, and has published an essay in The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1 about writing across both genres.
With the Rodeo coming up in October, it’s a good time to mention what we consider “flash fiction” at Carrot Ranch. Weekly, we write 99 words, no more, no less. TUFF includes the ability to free-write, master the constraints of 99-words, 59-words, and 9-words, and to revise those constrained pieces into a polished story less than 1,000 words. Therefore, “flash” represents a shortened word count.
“Fiction” stands broadly for any kind of creative writing. Flash fiction can be any genre intended for any audience. It can be based on a true story (BOTS), an observation, a memory, an experience. Fiction is a general term that covers a variety of techniques, including dialogue, exaggeration, story-telling structures. While fiction covers imaginary people or events, writers are welcome to base their stories on true events, too from history to memoir. What matters is the art a writer creates with words.
To further discuss differences between genres is for another post. Suffice to say that Irene Waters often leads us in those discussions. And she’s going to lead us once again in a flash memoir contest for the 2018 Flash Fiction Rodeo. I’ll turn it over to her to give you all some tips and a what to expect from her and her judges.
RODEO #2: MEMOIR
Contest runs October 10-17
By Irene Waters, Rodeo Leader
Memoir is a passion, so I’m thrilled to once again host the memoir section of the Carrot Ranch Rodeo Contest. Hoping you’ll tighten your saddles and put on your spurs and join in. Last year we had Scars – this year? –make sure that you check in at the Ranch on October 10th when the topic will be revealed. I’m looking forward to reading your 99-word entries that tell a full story on the prompt topic. This can be a happy memory, a sad memory or a wherever the prompt takes your memory. It should be a true story given that this is a memoir contest.
Tips for the contest can be found in the memoir articles I have been writing for Charli over the last few months. Particularly pay attention to “dealing with others,” and consider using dialogue and high definition description.
I will be joined by fellow judges Angie Oakley who returns to again take the reigns and Helen Stromquist.
Angie Oakley. Originally from London, Angie moved around a great deal and worked as an English teacher in schools as far apart as Nassau in the Bahamas and Daylesford in country Victoria. She now lives in Noosa, which she finds a lovely place in which to do the things she loves: writing, reading, thinking, talking, and walking and skyping her far-flung family. She’s written a couple of novels, lots of articles and is always interested in the work of other writers. As well she has been known to offer her thoughts in a blog at http://spryandretiring.wordpress.com
Helen Stromquist. After finishing her nursing training in Brisbane, Helen worked in London where she met her husband which saw her living in Sweden for many years before eventually returning to Australia. Helen loves the arts and although she does not write herself, often finds herself editing articles for her family – one writer and one artist. She is an avid reader and is the convenor of a book group in Mosman, Sydney.
For those that do not know me – I’m Irene Waters, a memoirist whose first memoir Nightmare in Paradise is soon to be published. In the long road to publishing, I completed a MA, researching the sequel memoir. Until recently, when a creative hiatus hit, I have been a regular at Carrot Ranch since its inception and found writing flash a good way of honing writing skills. I enjoyed trying my hand at fiction and learning the creative writing skills that are part of that. I am also a keen amateur photographer and this along with my writing can be found at my website Reflections and Nightmares.
So saddle up October 10th will soon be here with the deadline for entries October 17th. The winner (and second and third place) will be announced November 16th.
Rules and prompt revealed October 10, 2018, at 12:00 a.m. (EST). Set your watches to New York City. You will have until October 17, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. (EST) to complete the Memoir contest. Irene, Angie, and Helen will announce the prize winner plus second and third place on November 16. Carrot Ranch will post a collection of qualifying entries.
Rodeo 1: Dialogue led by Geoff Le Pard and judges Chelsea Owens and Esther Chilton/Newton
Rodeo 3: Travel with a Twist led by Sherri Matthews and judges Mike Matthews and Hugh Roberts
Rodeo 4: Fractured Fairy Tales led by Norah Colvin and judges Robbie Cheadle and Anne Goodwin
Rodeo 5: The Sound and the Fury led by D. Avery and her judge Bonnie Sheila.
The Tuffest ride starting September will see 5 writers qualify to compete in October and is led by Charli Mills. For Info
I started off this series for Charli saying that I had already written about what memoir is and at the time I chose not to repeat it. However, in summing up for the last post in this series, I thought it is probably worth revisiting what a memoir is.
Firstly, memoir belongs in the creative nonfiction genre. These works are described as true stories that are well told. They generally utilise the fictional techniques of dialogue and high definition description of scenes. The truth is told in a way that is compelling for the reader.
Memoir is derived from the French term for memory. Memoirs also come from this word, but memoir and memoirs refer to two different things. The plural form is interchangeable with autobiography (the complete life story of a person in chronological order). Memoir, however, refers to a modern form of life writing that looks at only a part of one’s life and is told in the compelling way discussed in the previous chapter.
Although both autobiography and memoir are true, an autobiography tells facts that can be found by researching the life. The information should be verifiable. It is the history of a life. Memoir, on the other hand, is coming from within. It is the story of self and is how one person remembers a portion of their life. These memories are true to the author but are not necessarily verifiable by anyone else. When I write a memoir it is true to my memory but not perhaps to others. We all approach an event with a worldview that is our own, and the memory we will take from that event will be influenced by it, thus giving us different perceptions of the same event. This does not mean that anything can be made up. There have been a number of fraudulent memoirs written such as famously by James Frey and Norma Khouri. In these, the incidents in the book did not occur or were grossly exaggerated.
There has been an explosion of memoirs since Mary Karr and Frank McCourt each wrote their memoir, both of which are credited with being the start of the modern memoir boom. These paved the way for anybody to write their own story – we have misery, travel, dogs, celebrity, grief, illness memoirs and the list goes on and on and on. Memoir is often similarly seen in the nonfiction world to the way romance is seen in the fiction world. Why is this? Most likely because everyone has a story to tell and many who aren’t diligent in editing and writing publish. Sometimes people see it as narcissistic – to my mind, this is usually an unfair assumption. Those writing feel they have a story that may help others by the knowledge that they gleaned in their processing of what happened to them. This reflection is an integral part of memoir. Others write because they feel they have a good story to tell but again there will be a change in the person because of the event, and this reflection will be shown in the narrative. For those that want revenge or a cure for self, publishing a memoir is not the way to go.
How do you tell if it is fiction or memoir? The name of the author should be the same as the ‘I’ character in the narrative. Phillipe LeJeune coined the term “The Autobiographical Pact” whereby the author is the ‘I’ character and pledges to the reader that the narrative is a true story. The reader reciprocates by agreeing to believe the narrative is the truth. Reading memoir is different from reading fiction, and that abuse of trust hurts if the memoir writer does not tell the truth.
As for writing memoir – know your audience, know your theme and keep the focus narrow. Use dialogue and high definition descriptions of the scene, use small detail that only someone that was there could have known. Use your voice. Personally, I think there should be a combination of telling and showing so that the reader is left in no doubt as to how you changed as a result of the events being told. Always show unsavoury characters – let the reader be the one to decide that they are not too nice – don’t label or condemn. As a result, time may have to pass before writing. Time should be played within the narrative.
Before sending it out for publication – make sure that it has been copyedited and proofread. I hope in the writing you enjoy owning your story. Thanks Charli for giving me the opportunity over the last few months to talk memoir. There have been some good discussions, and although I have never wished to change anyone’s thoughts on memoir, I hope that it has given everyone some food for thought.
Times Past will continue monthly. Join in Times Past where this month we are looking at Horses and Childhood Dreams.
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.
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.
Rough Writer and memoirist, Irene Waters, flashes Noosa skies and fiction based on trure stories. Learn how a memoirist came to write fiction of many genres. Irene supports Carrot Ranch in many ways, extending the community’s outreach to make literary art more accessible. In the beginning, she was part of building that community.
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.
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.