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Writing the Literary Memoir

When you set out to write about yourself, you'd better have something
to say... and have the confidence to say it!

by D. J. Herda

Of all the subjects available to you as a writer, the one you know best is yourself: your past and your present, your thoughts and emotions, you strengths and your weaknesses.  Yet, "you" is very likely the subject you try hardest to avoid writing about.  Why?

Well, nobody knows for sure, of course.  But the pros would make book that you simply don't have the courage.  Writing about yourself takes tremendous chutzpah on two counts.  First, you need to have the confidence to give yourself permission--the "right"--to do something so "egotistical" as writing about yourself.  Second, you need to be able to take the heat resulting from your decision.

The first obstacle to overcoming the "you" factor is simple enough.  You're a writer, and your job is to write about what you know.  You know yourself better than anyone else on earth (assuming you're not schizophrenic).  Therefore, you have the right--bordering on an obligation--to write about you.  (Sort of a warped take-off on Kirkegaard ... "I think, therefore I am a writer.")

The second obstacle is less subject to rationale.  Either you have enough intestinal fortitude to expose yourself, your thoughts, your desires, your innermost you to the world, regardless of what the world may think, or you haven't.  If you fall into the latter group, nothing I can say is going to make you write a memoir.  But if you fall into the former, here are some tips to help you get that memoir off and running on the right foot.

1.) Recognize that, along with  having the "right" to write about yourself comes the responsibility to do it properly.  You absolutely may not write poorly or incorrectly.  Few readers have the patience for slopping workmanship or lazy crafting, particularly as they pertain to a writer's own memoirs.  If you're not a good enough writer to make a good enough showing, take lessons, and practice, practice, practice.

2.) Forget about writing for an audience.  The non-fiction memoir is literary in nature, not genre-driven.  By that I mean its goal is to flesh out the meanings, the makeup of the people about whom you write (numero uno being you, of course).  If you try to satisfy your audience by gearing your writing toward them, as you might a detective or romance or sci-fi novel, you're going to get screwed.  Memoir readers read memoirs to learn something about someone that they never knew before.  The only way you can give your readers what they want is to write from your psyche, from your perspective, from the inside-out.  If you end up writing for your reader or for an editor, you'll end up not writing anything of merit for anybody.  If you write for yourself, you'll reach the people you want to reach--the memoir readers.

3.) Writing a successful memoir is directly proportionate to one's age.  I don't care how exciting a life even the most extraordinary 14-year-old has lived, it isn't varied or deep enough to hold an audience of one past page 17.  What reader, really, wants to read about the school sock hop or that weekend's basketball game? 

Of course, that doesn't mean that young writers shouldn't write memoirs--or at least attempt to do so.  At any age, the creative act of writing is a powerful psychoanalytical tool that often sheds light on the depth and nature of one's desire to write and the ability--or lack thereof--one possesses toward reaching that goal.  Thinking in terms of memoir--reaching back to recall something that happened last year, last decade, and remembering the feelings created by the event, the triggers that unleashed them--is a tool one develops more fully in time.  Once learned, its mechanisms will pop up at the most remarkable of moments.  A free-reigning memory is almost always good for material when all other avenues fail you.

Working once on a literary mystery entitled The Death and Life of Hymie Stiehl, I had just entered a passage where the protagonist (ostensibly moi) had made arrangements to have his friend, Hymie Stiehl, interred.  While going over the last-minute details with the funeral director, Mr. Elgars, something struck me.  And out it came poring--the memories of Aunt Mary.  And into the book they went:

I looked at the man [Mr. Elgars] standing next to me more carefully now.  His eyebrows were thin and weak, his lips practically nonexistent, if present at all.  He wore a white shirt with a tattered collar held in place by a silver-studded pin and a tie the color of the sea on a moonless night.  In his lapel, a carnation carried the smell of death.  I know.  I had smelled it once before, on my Aunt Mary--fat Mary, they called her—at her wake.

One of the reasons she was so fat, of course, was that she ate like a pig.  And not just ordinary food.  Oh, no.  Being of Italian-Polish descent, she ate gnocci and sauerkraut, pigs' feet and cacciatore as if it were going out of style.  She had the same smell about her as Elgars, even as she lay in the casket, peering up at me through sealed lids.

Fat Mary had always liked me, I guessed because I had been scared to death to go near her when I was a child and had to be dragged to her home to visit, kicking and screaming, by my parents.  Inside, she would lure me with pleasant talk of beautiful young children with wholly beguiling manners and wait until I was within striking distance.  Then, from her straight-backed chair set to one side of the kitchen table, she would lunge at me with those two stumpy tentacles and snag me, unsuspecting and amazed that anyone so large could move with such grace and alacrity.  Once she had snared me, she would reel me in, her prized catch of the day, and breathe that awful breath on me, all the while squeezing me until I was sure the eyeballs would pop right out of my head.

Part of the reason I dreaded her so was her size, of course.  She stood five-foot-three and weighed five hundred pounds, easily.  Four-eighty on a good day.  She wore three or four chins as comfortably as most people carry one.  Her eyes were set so deeply inside the folds of her cheeks that it sometimes looked as though they were closed permanently.  But when she moved, or, worse still, when anyone else around her moved, she would draw her head in their direction as surely as a handful of metal filings are lured to a magnet, and you would know after all that she could see perfectly fine from behind all those layers of fat, thank you very much.

So that was a good part of my repulsion.  But there was more.  There was the story.  The tale of a young man--Adolph, I believe his name was--who had been a doughboy in Europe during World War I and, while on a leave of absence from the war, had taken to frequenting a certain dance hall known by the name of That's Fats, or something to that effect.  Inside That's Fats, he discovered a most remarkable thing.  All of the twenty or so women who periodically climbed the steps to the stage--the broiling spot lights casting eerie shadows across their faces, their limbs, their torsos--were fat.  Enormously fat.  They were called The Beef Trust.  I could only imagine why.  The lead dancer, naturally, was Fat Mary.

Well, as my grandfather, who--it just so happened to be--was the brother to Fat Mary, liked to tell it, when Adolph the soldier first laid eyes on Mary the Fat, sparks flew.  Or maybe fat grams.  But whatever they were, Adolph knew in an instant that he had finally met his fate.

So he dated her once or twice, poked her a few times in between--how, I can't imagine, since Adolph was four-feet-eight and weighed in at a scant eighty-five pounds--and then brought her home with him to Chicago and married her.  He set the two of them up in a comfortable brick bungalow on Chicago's great if economically undistinguished South Side, and proceeded, like all good Italian men of little-to-no upbringing, to pork every available woman in the neighborhood.  And a few who were unavailable, if you know what I mean.

Well, it didn't take long for Fat Mary to catch wind of Adolph's indiscretions, and when she confronted him with the evidence, he calmly proceeded to pluck a belt from a hook inside their bedroom door and beat the living hell out of her.  After that, Fat Mary would periodically show up at various family functions with bandages stretched across her cheeks and ice packs tucked beneath her chins. 

All of which made her that much more alluring in my eyes, I can assure you.

So, while I stood beside the casket, looking down at Fat Mary and thinking about how badly she looked but how lucky she was to be free at last, I could not help but inhale the thick, pungent, sickening smell of all the herbs and spices, the strange conglomeration of meats and vegetables mixed in with her Italian-Polish heritage, the odd combination of sweet and stinking cheeses that she was wont to devour on a regular basis and which, I was convinced, continued to rot long after they had passed down her esophagus, through her gigantic stomach, and out into history.  And that, I was convinced, along with the sweat that poured out of her constantly--even at death--was what made up that smell.

Now I realized that I may have been wrong all along, because for the first time in nearly twenty years, I smelled that smell again.  This time, it was coming from Elgars.

I would not--could not--have written that at 14.  Hell, I doubt that I would even have recalled it until I was 45.  Time has a way of making us more conscious, more cognizant of those things that happened to us when we were young, melding one set of reactions, feelings, and dreams with another to produce a perfectly wonderful anecdotal tale.

4.) There's a thin line separating memoir from egotism.  A small dose of ego is healthy; no writer can go far without it.  Egotistic writing, however, is a bane, and a memoir is not a license to commit mindless prattle.

How you come to enjoy the one while sidestepping the other is a means of simply avoiding the excesses and making sure that every single component in your memoir serves a useful purpose.  Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence and with pleasure.  But see to it that all of your details—people, places, events, anecdotes, ideas, emotions—are there to move your story along steadily.  If they fail to do their job, the reader will stumble over them and fall, and you will look like a conceited ass.

Why write a memoir at all, if doing so is so risky a business?  Mainly because no other nonfiction form goes so deeply into the roots of personal experience—to all the drama and pain and humor and surprise of life.  Great memoirs are some of the finest reads you'll ever enjoy--books such as Andre Acimans Out of Egypt, Michael J. Arlen's Exiles, Russell Baker's Growing Up, Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments, Pete Hamill's A Drinking Life, Moss Hart's Act One, John Houseman's Run-Through, Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, V. S. Pritchett's A Cab at the Door, Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, and Leonard Woolf's Growing.  Now that's writing.

5.) Focus is most effective when honed to its narrowest point.  What creates power in a memoir is the book's concentrated illuminating beam.  Unlike an autobiography, which busies itself in laying out the entire life of a person, a memoir assumes the reader is less interested in the whole than in a tiny slice of it--a period within the writer's lifetime, an experience to be savored, examined, sniffed, tasted, remembered, and possibly even related to.

The effective memoir writer takes us back to some corner of his or her past that was unusually intense—childhood, for instance—or that was framed by war or
some other extraordinary social upheaval.  Baker's Growing Up is a box within a
box, two stories for the price of one.  It's the story of a boy growing up, set inside the story of a family battered by the Depression.  Nabokov's Speak, Memory, regarded by some as the most elegant memoir ever written, elicits memories of a boyhood in Czarist Russia, a world strewn with private tutors and summer houses that the Russian Revolution would soon enough relegate to the pages of history.  It is history frozen in time.

Think narrowly, then, when you try your hand at writing this genre form.  Memoir isn't the summary of a life; it's a tiny window into a realization, a quick glance at a photograph whose image remains indelibly etched in the mind to haunt and illuminate long after the photograph is gone.  The memoir may look like a casual and willy-nilly recounting of some of life's most trivial events.  But it's much more than that: it's an examination of how such events came to affect a human being.  It's a look at a piece of that person's life. 

Thoreau, it's alleged, wrote seven different drafts of Walden in eight years.  If so, then few American memoirs have been more painstakingly pieced together.  To write a good memoir, you must become both critic and editor of your own life's events, shaping an ungodly potpourri of half-remembered events into a well-organized narrative.  Memoir is the art of reinventing personal truth.

6.) Sweat the details--they are one of the primary secrets in making the art work called memoir succeed.  Any kind of details will do, so long as they are keen and quickly perceivable by the reader.  They can be smells or sounds, visual images or more--so long as they trigger in the reader an instantaneous, "Oh, yeah, I get it!"  Here's a small slice of something that triggers memories in nearly everyone, a section from Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings:

In our house on North Congress Street, in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born the oldest of three children in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.  There was a mission-style oak grandfather clock standing in the hall, which sent its gong-like strokes through the living room, dining room, kitchen, and pantry, and up the sounding board of the stairwell. Through the night, it could find its way into our ears; sometimes, even on the sleeping porch, midnight could wake us up.  My parents' bedroom had a smaller striking clock that answered it.  Though the kitchen clock did nothing but show the time, the dining room clock was a cuckoo clock with weights on long chains ...

My father loved all instruments that would instruct and fascinate.  His place to keep things was the drawer in the "library table" where lying on top of his folded maps was a telescope with brass extensions, to find the moon and the Big Dipper after supper in our front yard, and to keep appointments with eclipses.  There was a folding Kodak that was brought out for Christmas, birthdays, and trips.  In the back of the drawer you could find a magnifying glass, a kaleidoscope, and a gyroscope kept in a black buckram box, which he would set dancing for us on a string pulled tight.  He had also supplied himself with an assortment of puzzles composed of metal rings and intersecting links and keys chained together, impossible for the rest of us, however patiently shown, to take apart; he had an almost childlike love of the
ingenious ...

How much we learn--right there and then--about Welty's familial beginnings, the kind of home in which she lived, the lovely peculiarities of her father who influenced her so!  In the continuum of a few short sentences, she opens the door to her Mississippi childhood, admitting us into her own home to hear all the clocks chiming, up and down the stairs and even out onto the sleeping porch, where sleeping--especially at the stroke of midnight--was often anything but easy.

I, too, once lived in a house with chiming clocks.  So long ago, so many memories past.  And thus I was aligned with the author the moment I realized where she was going ... which was where she had been.  More than that, a good memoir writer can't ask.  For, once you have the reader on your side, conquering the rest of the world is easy.

 


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