MEMOIR IS EVERYWHERE. Are you considering writing some? Maybe I can help. My theory (pilfered from the great Flannery O’Connor) is that anyone who survived childhood has enough material for several books. So let’s get to it. Let me provoke you. Consider it a holiday gift from me to you.
If you know me at all, you know I hate writing exercises, eschew prompts and have nothing but disdain for time-wasting assignments. Instead of those demonic devices, let me offer some provocation.
The way I see it, we had long, lovely trips during we learned a lot. There was that cruise on The Queen of Bermuda when we were maybe 7 and 9. The ship had a saltwater swimming pool. High tea was served at 3. A solid wood library was below decks in which the books were kept on their shelves with elastic cording in front of each subject row.
Those are the details, but where’s the story here? Nowhere, as far as I can see.
So let’s try this, where trips are again in the story, but used differently.
When I was 13 there were two trips: The Easter vacation (as it once was called) to Puerto Rico, during which all we did, it seems now, was ride the surf at the beach; the second trip that same year was to meet relatives I never knew we had. They lived in Colorado, and while there I began keeping a diary, in which there still exist notes scribbled about the redness of the rocks, our relatives’ accents and my mother’s cousin’s curious marriage. Apparently, it was in between the two journeys that both my mother and my sister had gotten Vidal Sassoon haircuts. Angular, severe and precise, these cuts both delineated their separate set jawlines and further distinguished them from me, the redhead, with the perennially unkempt locks. At first, we all seemed glad to shrug off a piece of the other on the path to becoming our own women.
There is a difference between the two italicized paragraphs above, and that difference points out a basic rule of memoir, which is this: Just because something happened doesn’t make it interesting. You might think that everything you do is fascinating, and good for you, but to make it work on the page for someone else it must illuminate something, illustrating something universal and telling a tale that provokes us to think.
Look back at the first paragraph. There are lots of details: A ship’s name, a saltwater swimming pool, tea, books, shelving. They are decoration, nothing more, driving no story forward, ultimately giving it light and color, sound and taste. Same thing with paragraph two, at least until you get to the haircuts, and the subject of de-identification comes in. Then we are approaching something that may or may not interest someone else. I would argue that the second paragraph needs even deeper cuts than are there at present, cuts that would take us even closer to that story. And if I suggested this in my class, oh how the howls would go up. At which point, I’d know I was on to something.
What we are “on” to in this piece is those differences established when people live in the same household and how they develop over time. In my previous memoir writing posts I’ve discussed some other aspects of how to write memoir. This is a big one. This is about territory.
What essay or book are you writing? What was your assignment? Unless you are a very famous person who has lived a very interesting life, you too must make a large decision about your memoir to narrow it down from a mere retelling of your life’s facts. Only those very public few whose lives have been littered with close encounters with other famous moments and people can sell books in which they merely chronologically relate their lives. These are best thought of as autobiographies. For the rest of us, we must choose a narrower field of vision — parenting, recovery, our dogs, being the winner of the Becky Crocker cooking award, losing a sister, being a sister, living green — to name but a few.
What is your essay, book or story about? I’ve asked this question here before. You must ask yourself this question, and be ready to narrow your field to one topic only. For my assignment above, after I get that “about” very clearly set in my mind, I can then search my memory for only those things that will bring to life how it is we live separate lives under the cover of the same family.
What are your ambitions when you sit down to tell your tale? Plant that in your head and have at it.