In another course I’m teaching this term, students are writing memoirs. Thinking about their challenges, I decided to develop my points further for this course – although we’re mostly doing poems, and some short stories.
This is not universally accepted; there is, in fact, much argument among readers, writers, and critics about what’s appropriate or necessary in memoir.
The line between fiction and nonfiction (not only memoir, but other forms as well) is hard to identify. Some autobiographical novels are closer to “real” events (depending on whom you talk to) than many “nonfiction” memoirs.
Once we start writing about our memories, or from our memories, we risk replacing memory with interpretation. But we have probably (if Freud and others are to be believed) already re-interpreted certain memories a thousand times before we ever write them down. Perhaps our latest recollection of an event is merely a remembering of the last time we entertained the memory: a recollection of a remembering.
For now, I want to talk about some strategies for structuring our recollections; but these are also ways of recovering them in the first place. I think that when we talk out loud or write the memories down – when we do something social or physical, something that is more than sitting back and dreaming of the past – we study the lacunae, the gaps, as much as we do the threads of action and image.
Most of my memories, when I look, are bits and pieces; they are puzzles of 1,000 pieces for which I have maybe 100 pieces remaining – but often, just the right 100 pieces to reconstruct the rest, although with guesswork, myth-making, self-justification, forgiveness, transfer of blame, etc.
One structural device I call “topic/shadow topic.”
For both the writer and the reader, the mind plays tricks – and wants to be tricked. For the reader, often, it is best not to “tell” what we mean as writers too directly; or, not to tell it in discursive or direct terms in certain kinds of writing. If you write on one subject, but seem by the end to have actually written on another, that can be a more enlightening experience for the reader. Likewise, if you start out writing about one thing, but find yourself writing about another – you might have come more honestly or more effectively to that “shadow topic” than if you’d focused your sights on it at the start.
Some of what we call “craft” in writing is a way to successfully trick ourselves and our readers. You can frame your writing process, or your writing goals, in such a way that you increase your chances of coming to the “right” shadow topic. You might already know in certain ways what you want to say, but creative writers, including essayists, allow themselves to be surprised by their own minds. [Note: essay comes from the French word essayer, to try or attempt; it seems to bear the notion that writing of this type is really guesswork.]
How can you come to the shadow topic?
One way is to deliberately choose a certain armature, or scaffolding, for what you are about to do: if in a memoir about your mother you want to get at what it was about her that made her special, you might “look,” for a moment, at what that specialness is, and then turn away from it at an angle, and go into something fairly ordinary in your memory that has a built-in structure. For example, you might look inside your memory at some process your mother did repeatedly in memory: cooking. (I’m not trying to be sexist, by the way! I grew up in the late fifties and sixties, and my mother spent a lot of time in the kitchen.)
First, we can count on certain elements of such a memory scene to be archetypal, at least for a certain kind of reader: mothers in kitchens will be familiar as a shared experience, maybe even for people who didn’t experience it first-hand. Second, what mothers did in kitchens was repetitive and even ritualized, perhaps: when dinner would be started, what steps had to be followed in what order, her particular methods, who helped, what her favorite utensils were, the apron she wore, etc. (this scene is deliberately clichéd – but I want to emphasize the commonness of the scene.)
Enter into the scene, and paint it as carefully as you can – in memory, or right there on paper. Place yourself in the scene, but on the periphery; how old are you? Who was your teacher that year? Put everything in its place, give it its hue and texture, read the labels on the jars and cans, hum the jingles you heard on TV when the commercials aired. Recall the way the light entered the window above the sink in winter, when the sun set early; remember the sound the exhaust fan made above the stove; study the design of the floor tiles. And smells – what were the smells of spices, of the meat broiling in the oven, of the flowers in the vase that were three days old?
What was the rhythm of your mother’s work; how many tasks were running at the same time: stirring the pot, cutting the onion and wiping her eyes, listening to the evening news on the TV in the other room, wiping your baby sister’s mouth, who was feeding herself somewhat sloppily in the high chair? And you, you’re sitting at the kitchen table, doing your math homework: she stops to check on you, and encourage you, and then answers the phone, which she cradles with her chin on her neck while she returns to stirring; and then a laugh, at something the person on the phone just said…
So you get into the scene. Go much further than you will need to for whatever final episode you’re hoping to construct. Let yourself become entranced by the rhythms, sensations, and incongruent emotions of the scene (perhaps because the innocuous memory hides something more pointed. They usually do, I find; which might or might not be your shadow topic).
Ok. You might, in the first go, have discovered, or at least sensed, that other thing or things you want to get at. While you were distracted by the lulling rhythms and sounds and smells and colors, your mind relaxed, and let go of one of its treasure or one of its secrets.
Write often enough, and it will happen, even if not the first time.
But also, you will rewrite. Writers add, take away, insert, weave, jump out, jump back in – you can be in that kitchen, on that winter evening, but also leap years back or forward, as long as you feel for the unity that must ultimately be in place. Everything is connected to everything else; if we segue, or transition, carefully, we won’t lose the rhythm of the scene or the reader’s patience, either. That person on the phone while your mother was stirring: digress, since you are no longer that ten-year-old child, on what happened to her years later. The TV news is on: what were the day’s tragedies or absurdities; what was the sound of the newscaster’s voice? (Some things that your memory has hidden too deeply you will be able to rediscover as history; ask people, look in books, on the Internet, and recapture the historical part of your life at that general level – then, bring that information back down into the personal. Much of our lives is really “the world,” and has been recorded somewhere.)
Your passage, which might be many pages long if you go through the process above, will be rewritten, condensed, and rearranged. Like a film editor, you can splice in whatever develops a particular dimension of meaning in the passage. Things that seem unconnected on the surface might share some significance, pattern, or point of contact; in any case, much of the art of writing, as in magic, resides in the transitions and sleights of hand. Connectives, qualifications, reiterations, contrasts: everything is related to everything else, but the writer needs to find the relations that will matter within the work.
A process, like cooking, can get your mind into a certain space where it will be more open to meaningful associations. Partly, it’s because we already have the entirety of the “narrative” of a process in mind; we can relax our efforts as it tells itself, and within its interstices, encoded elements will (hopefully) become visible. The process, in this case cooking, is readymade with figuration: the kitchen is a charged space for metaphor, metonym, symbol, irony, myth, and anything else that shapes meaning and vision.
My wife is Japanese; so, for example, there would be no memory for her of her mother baking, because Japanese kitchens don't usually have ovens. They don't bake muffins or pies the way we do in the US. And even today, Japanese husbands or sons almost never do dishes! My mother-in-law was amazed and disturbed when she saw me doing dishes. But for me, one of the features of the topos of “mother in the kitchen” is “somebody besides Mother does the dishes.” That was one of the rules in my house.
So, some things would be similar, some different, but each of us could start from the initial element (mothers, kitchens) and create an elaborate, patterned, active scene from our memories and other sources of information (reading, hearing other people's stories of mothers and kitchens). Think of the topos, whatever it is, as a doorway; then, in that room, there are several other doors to go through, and many more through each of those. If you write by imagining what you say as a series of “spaces” or doorways to choose from, you will see that the main problem of writing is not “I don’t know what to say next” but instead, “I don’t know which of these many choices to make next.” It’s a problem of too many, not a problem of not enough.
Also, we can invert, reverse, take out, replace, and do other things that are simple, formal games we always play when we're being creative. For example, Gates puts his mother in a kitchen, but instead of cooking, the main activity he talks about is styling hair. That didn't happen in my mother's kitchen, but I can juxtapose the two things easily in my imagination.
Metonyms, metaphors, symbols: Gates' essay is not simply about hair. It's about how hair is an emotional, cultural, social, and even a political thing. He says "hair" and "kitchen" but he means "people" and "race" or "ethnicity." And maybe, when he started writing, it was his conscious purpose to talk about politics or race. Abut probably, if began writing from a sense of pleasure rather than purpose, he thought first of the kitchen, his mother, someone’s hair, a neighbor…one or more of the treasures of his childhood, worth nothing now but in the ways memory itself confers wealth; and it is through good writing that the wealth is passed along, without diminishing in the slightest.