Saturday, December 4, 2010

On memoir

This semester, I learned that memoir isn’t about writing about an author’s entire life, just the important parts—the ones that helped shape who the writer would become as an adult. It also includes smaller moments that stick out in memory, the ones that are strong and detailed but the writer may or may not know why, such as Patricia Hample’s memories about a nun’s hands guiding her with piano lessons, or that same nun sneezing in the sunlight. We’re always remembering odd details about our childhood or lives that we think are just random moments. Sometimes, those moments have significance and we’re too close to them to be able to see it. It would take a reader to pinpoint why we remember what we do. The author may be able to write something that may at first have been random, and then, during revision or sketching out the scene, realize the larger impact the moment had on his or her life. Or it would take a third party’s interpretation to bring to light such significance.

I don’t think the memoir really ends with the last revision before printing. I bet there are many times during book readings or class discussions where an author’s eyes are opened to something he or she wrote but didn’t recognize. As educated readers, we’re coming into memoirs knowing what devices and techniques to look out for, and as writers we try to utilize them. But many times in my own writing, something comes full circle that I hadn’t thought of before. And when it comes to one’s childhood, there are many ways to see a string of events, as this class has illustrated.  

I used to think that memoir was simply a glorified journal. I’d been too used to things like Anne Frank’s Diary that when presented with Angela’s Ashes, The Liar’s Club, Stop-Time, etc., I expected them to be similar. I figured that memoir would follow the same literary techniques and elements that fiction or poetry follows, instead of having its own list. Were it not for the immature teacher who taught the creative non-fiction course for undergraduates, I’d lament more for having to drop the class. I have no idea if he even covered memoir, but it seemed that what mostly came from the course was individual essays. Indeed, many submissions to the campus literary magazine were individual, and nowhere did I find (unless I missed a few) any that stated the essays were part of a memoir. I wish memoir would have been covered in undergraduate courses, or at least introduced.

I don’t think anything in particular surprised me. Perhaps my journalism background prepared me for the steps one must take with writing memoirs. The rest I learned as the class progressed and took everything in the same vein, with the same mentality. If anything surprised me, it would be moments in the memoirs themselves. Perhaps what could have surprised me was the ability for the covered writers to include sensitive information, such as being sexually abused or raped, or family problems like a grandmother’s death and a mother and father’s alcohol addiction. Some things families may want to keep hidden, and it would take a lot of courage not only for the writers to admit something deeply personal and embarrassing about themselves, but the same information about their families. I don’t know if I’m brave enough for that, yet.