Saturday, October 31, 2015

Memoir, Part 3

When students come into my class, they often come in thinking they know what memoir is. Trying to write one makes them question this assumption. I think the same thing would be true if it was a fiction class, and we were attempting short stories. You only begin to wonder about what these consist of at the word by word, brick by brick, molecular level, when you try to create your own. Maybe sports gives us a metaphor here, or any kind of performance—you can watch a pitcher throw a 90 mph fastball, and you know that you can throw a ball too, but when you try you find your fastball is a slow boat to China while that of a masterful pitcher is a clipper ship.

The biggest mistake beginners make is to forget that they are telling a story and merely laying down incidents and events with no linkage between them, no causality, without an arc that includes a conflict, rising tension, resolution, change. It is as if they are laying out the vertebra but forgetting the spine. This kind of fragmented and haphazard story is not really a story at all. While some would argue that this is more true to the chaotic and random nature of real life, to the very limited nature of our free will (this idea being au courant in intellectual circles, very Postmodern and world weary and cynical), it is not the way we understand life, and it goes against our instinctive understanding of what story is. In fact, we always find pattern, the warp and woof in the carpet, even if the pattern is not immediately apparent—we’re trained to do so, and neurologists tell us we are genetically programmed that way too.

I will often point out to my students that their pieces read more like appointment books than diaries. An appointment book lists the whats of life, the happenings, but the diary talks about the whys. Events without judgment and interpretation (which don’t have to be overt but implied, more shown than told, left to the reader to infer) are mere lists, collections of raw data. History, even personal history, is not just one thing after another, but one thing connected in an inevitable way to both what came before and after according to the interpretive vision of the author.

We really do know what story is some instinctual level. My nephew loved stories as a kid, and used to solicit me for as many as I could possibly produce for him. I would sometimes play with his notion of what story was, encouraging him to take the role of teacher and lecture me about it.

“Tell me a story, Mikey!”

“About who?"

"How about one about the lady who went to the supermarket one day to buy some ice cream, and in the parking lot…”

“Not about some boring lady doing boring stuff, tell me one about Superman.”

“OK, one day Superman gets up at 6 am, on a cold rainy day, and brushes his teeth and eats his Cheerios,”

“And then what?”

“He gets on the school bus.”

“And there are bad kids on the school bus.”

“No, just regular kids.”

“And the bus goes off the road, and…”

“No, it’s an uneventful ride to school.”

At which point the little fellow hi-jacks my story and puts Superman and the whole planet in great peril, a peril Superman can only defeat with the aid of my nephew himself, who also has special powers that are kept hidden by him until such crisis forces him to reveal himself…

Every kid knows what a story is. But an adult freezes up, over-thinks, perhaps does not know what to make of their own life, doesn’t trust what they do think about it, or thinks that this is journalism, or a research paper, where you keep yourself out of it. Without putting yourself in the memoir, there is no memoir.

Stories need a lot of evocative, sensory detail, ones that make your character(s) distinct, ones that drive the story forward. This is a talent that is not so easy to teach. If you are going to draw a character, no matter how exhaustively, you only can choose a miniscule fraction of all the infinite detail there is about that character, their environment, their experiences. To draw a compelling and appealing character, one that coheres and sticks in the imagination of the reader, creating a kind of living dream where we experience the memoirist’s life as if it was a movie, a vision in our mind’s eye—you start with detail and observation. Relevant ones. But picking the perfect detail, right words in the right place at the right time, is more art than science. I don’t make a point of it to my students, but there is a place where my teaching leaves off and the students’ talents begin. What we do is try to identify when someone has chosen detail well, in the hopes that the talent of that person can be learned, at least to a degree, by observation, by consideration of why the choices work so well.

And what of voice? Not style or diction but voice. To me, voice is our conception of the character of the speaker as given to us through his or her words, by what they say and how they say it, and even what they choose not to say. To create a true and clear voice readers will feel the need to listen to is also something that you must grope your way towards in the dark. I tell my students that you have a voice when you can have your piece, without your name on it, read by someone else and everyone in the class can tell it was written by you. This means there is a consistency to your voice, but a great voice is another thing entirely. Still, it is interesting and instructive to discuss what makes a strong voice, and a compelling one. Although it would be hard to come up with hard and fast rules for creating voice, students are able to distinguish pretty readily between pieces that really have a voice, and those that don’t.

Another kind of paradigm I use with my classes is my (fictional) Aunt Martha. I portray her as getting drunk and dropping the Thanksgiving turkey every year. The what is that she drops it every year. Of course, even this bare-boned a description implies judgment—was it every year? Was it characteristic of her to do this kind of thing? Or was it a fluke that happened once, but that you latched on to because of your own unexamined reasons, because you need to put her in an unflattering light?

Still, except for in the most minimal way, there has not been much in judgment and interpretation here. The why, the interpretation, the judgment, is the heart of the memoir. What is the spine that holds this little bit of vertebra on it? Are you a cursed family, and this is just another example of that? Is Aunt Martha the spinster being retrospectively scapegoated, being blamed for the failure of all those crappy holidays that everyone always hoped would be great, and never were?

Spinster— a loaded term, one word that carries much interpretation and judgment, and it is only a noun. A noun, much less an adjective or adverb— such powerful creatures are words. If the story has an argument, and they all do, you need to not just show your result, but the work you got to get there. If she is a scapegoat, if she really is, show how she takes care of grandma and grandpa in their fading old age while her sister, your mother, ignores them, and how your mother treats her like she was Cinderella.

And remember that interpretation is a process of infinite possibility. Maybe the story is about how you are more like Aunt Martha than you would like to think, or it is about how women of a certain time and place were denied opportunities they are not denied now, or maybe it is actually about how we are really in the matrix, in Plato’s cave, and none of it is real. Interpretation is endless in its possibilities.

With the above in mind, I reassure my students, who are almost always intimidated by the sheer size of the task they have undertaken. All those blank pages, and the huge English language, and you alone at the keyboard trying to fashion something that someone, anyone (even yourself) would want to read. It’s daunting.

Every journey must be accomplished one step at a time. And a memoir can be written scene by scene. And those scenes don’t have to originally be laid down in the order they will later appear, with the necessary linkages between them in place. Just write the scenes—75 of them should do (75,000 words, a decent sized book), scenes that have a logic and meaning, scenes that cohere in a way that we can say they somehow mean. Don’t even worry initially whether the scenes seem to have a common theme, or whether they can be made to cohere in some larger way. Just write the scenes. Ones that evoke emotion in you. We all have such scenes, but sometimes overlook them because we think they are not the right kind of scenes for a book.

What you care about is the best measure of what scenes you need to use. Don’t start with a meaning and look for scenes—remember the scenes, and look for the meaning. As you do so, connections will be made in your brain and on the page. We are creatures who look for meaning, for pattern, and I guarantee that as you write meaning will emerge. But you have to start writing first, I think. You can’t impose meaning from above, but work up to it from below, at the word level—get something you remember on the page, And then something else. You can’t go anywhere from nowhere. You can’t worry that you have started at the wrong place, because you can’t start in the wrong place when everything is connected, which it is.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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