Monday, January 18, 2016

Muddling Memoir: So Here's What I Did

After my last post, I realized I'd gotten ahead of myself on this project. I did exactly what I've taught should not be done. I focused on structure before story. I created a timeline (or tried), before I knew the spine. I needed far more exploratory writing before I could make the most basic, fundamental decision: am I writing memoir or fiction or some kind of hybrid?

At the moment, I'm feeling a strong pull from Jeannette Wall's "true-life fiction." I like the logic of a fictionalized story of lives lived. In Half Broke Horses, Walls writes of her grandmother. She didn't live her grandmother's life but bases her story on a lifetime of family lore.
The years I'm exploring for my own project are more recent, yet many of the characters are either no longer with us or impossible to access. To complicate matters, memories of my life in Mexico seem overshadowed by those of the traumatic years that followed. I find myself struggling as I write, questioning if something happened as I remembered it happening or only as I remember the memory of it colored and shaped by the intervening years. Can one look back and claim to still see clearly through the eyes of a forty-year-younger self?

In her essay, "On Keeping a Notebook," Joan Didion wrote, I tell what some would call lies. “That’s simply not true,” the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. “The party was not for you, the spider was not a black widow, it wasn’t that way at all.” Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.
So here's what I did this past week. I put aside the timeline, and journal transcripts, and beginnings of a manuscript. I took up pen and notebook (this very pen and notebook where I scribble these thoughts while sipping cappuccino at the Frye Art Museum Cafe). I made a list of startlines - sentences based on a single flash of memory that can be used to jump start a timed-writing session. A technique I learned in 2002 from Robert Ray and Jack Remick when I first began writing. A technique that led to the completion of The Thirty-Ninth Victim. A technique I allowed to slip from my practice.

I wrote every day last week. Sometimes before work, other days at work, still others after. I wrote when I had 30-minute moments. As I wrote, new fragments of memory emerged - long forgotten faces, places, events - and I jotted new startlines. I can't guarantee that all I wrote really happened or "merely might have happened," but for now it doesn't matter to me. What matters is to continue writing until the story and genre reveal themselves.

Prior posts in the Muddling Memoir series: 
La Flor de Noche Buena


Jan said...

I think any memoir is a mixture of fact and fiction! Starting statements are an excellent idea.

arleen said...

Perhaps memory itself is that mix, Jan. Still we hold fast to what we can. Here's another excerpt from the Didion essay mentioned above that reminders me of why I believe writing memoir is important:

"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 A.M. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were."