A Touchy Subject
It occurs to me that much of what I’m planning to write about involves underage drinking, sex, violent psychopaths, alcoholic step-fathers, driving drunk and all manner of unsavory behavior. The fact is that my childhood was mostly unremarkable and whatever I did, most of my friends did likewise. I mention that to illustrate that all the supposedly unsavory things I did that people rarely talk about were in fact commonplace. But they seem to be rarely depicted in the media, as if most of us had idyllic childhoods and teenage years. Yet I didn’t. None of my friends did. Nobody I’ve ever talked to about this has claimed to have had a stress-free, perfect upbringing where they always did exactly what they were supposed to. So just as early televisions’ decision not to show bathrooms or even married couples in one bed skewed peoples’ perceptions of reality, this dearth of honesty leaves many of us feeling that are own childhood was unusual. I suspect that, in fact, the teenage angst, drinking, carousing and other mischief that my friends I engaged in was more or less the same experience the majority of my peers had. But we’ve become so worried about projecting positive images and good role models, that we’ve sacrificed honesty and an opportunity to perhaps fix the causes that led so many to have traumatic childhoods. By pretending that they never happened or at least by never (rarely?) showing examples of real problems (as opposed the ones that can be fixed in a 22 minute sitcom) we’re resigning our own children to the same misery we endured.
Remember, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. I’ve also noticed a curious phenomenon among adults, many of whom often completely forget what it was like to be a kid. Whether they purposely suppress painful feelings and memories or whether they’ve simply forgotten them I can’t say. Maybe it’s a little of both, who knows. But it does make it easier to become exactly like their parents and also makes empathy more difficult, neither of which serves our children very well, as far as I can tell.
My point here is that I believe I must try my best to paint as accurate portrait of what life was like growing up in an alcoholic world I can. It wasn’t all horrible, of course, and there were many joys to accompany the sorrows. In retrospect it seems more like a roller coaster, one that soared very high but also dipped unimaginably low. But the important thing, I think, is to write about it as honestly as I can, with no varnish or whitewash.
A Case of Chapters
“24 beers in a case. 24 hours in a day. Coincidence?”
— Steven Wright
Since I’ve decided that my fictional memoir will focus on the discovery of beer as a child, I thought it would be mildly humorous to have 24 chapters. Each chapter will have it’s story triggered by the memory of a specific beer, like Proust’s famous pastry — a Madeleine — did for him in Remembrance of Things Past (although the book’s true title is In Search of Lost Time).
So in creating an outline to work from come November, I’m making a list of beers I remember from my youth, a number of which are no longer in business, which will trigger the memory of my protagonist.
A Memoir? What’s A Memoir?
With a mere nine days until the start of NaNoWriMo, I’m feverishly working on my outline and trying to find my voice for this year’s novel, which I’ve decided will be in the style of a fictional memoir. But what exactly does that mean?
A Memoir can be distinguished from “memoirs” — as in “he’s writing his memoirs” — which is very different. The latter is more a hodgepodge of remembered anecdotes of the famous and infamous. They’re the celebrity autobiography dishing about their self-centered lives, sexual conquests and embarrassing their colleagues. A true literary memoir, on the other hand, has more in common with the essay than the tell-all biography. Once upon a time, there was fiction and essays. Normally, what distinguishes a memoir from other kinds of essays is the author’s voice, which is, of course, always in the first person. Then people like Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway began telling very personal stories blending facts into their fiction. In the 1980s, the modern literary memoir was born, most likely with newspaper columnist Russell Baker’s story of his boyhood, “Growing Up.” According to Ellen E. Heltzel:
Then came Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club,” a poet’s stunning recollection of growing up in a dysfunctional household. And, after that, Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” the moving story of an impoverished immigrant childhood.
By the mid-’90s, with these bellwether examples, it seemed as if no genre was hotter than the one now called the literary memoir.
But what’s important about all these examples is that, as far as we and other book critics know, they were more than essentially true. Yes, recreating dialogue from childhood required granting the author poetic license. And yes, certain events might be compressed or expanded to reflect the writer’s perception of them and their place in the story. Personal observation allows for subjectivity. But it doesn’t allow for making things up.
As described by Judith Barrington:
The great essayist Montaigne understood “that, in an essay, the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a problem is the plot, is the adventure.” Rather than simply telling a story from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge.
In order for the reader to care about what you make of your life, there has to be an engaging voice in the writing-a voice that captures a personality. In all kinds of informal essays, including the memoir, the voice is conversational. One modern relative of the informal essayist is the newspaper columnist, whose chatty style is immediately recognizable in contrast to the impersonal, expository style of the formal essay or of the journalism found elsewhere in the newspaper. Memoir, like column writing, requires that the reader feel spoken to.
Although the roots of the memoir lie in the realm of personal essay, the modern literary memoir also has many of the characteristics of fiction. Moving both backward and forward in time, re-creating believable dialogue, switching back and forth between scene and summary, and controlling the pace and tension of the story, the memoirist keeps her reader engaged by being an adept storyteller. So, memoir is really a kind of hybrid form with elements of both fiction and essay, in which the author’s voice, musing conversationally on a true story, is all important.
More from Judith Barrington:
Memoir, on the other hand, makes no pretense of replicating a whole life. Indeed, one of the important skills of memoir writing is the selection of the theme or themes that will bind the work together. Thus we discover, on setting out to read Patricia Hampl’s Virgin Time, that her chosen theme is the Catholicism she grew up with and her later struggle to find a place for it in her adult spiritual life. With a theme such as this laid down, the author resists the temptation to digress into stories that have no immediate bearing on the subject, and indeed Hampl’s book tells nothing about many other aspects of her life, although it abounds in good stories. Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments sets as its theme the story of the author’s relationship with her mother. By setting boundaries, the writer can keep the focus on one aspect of a life and offer the reader an in-depth exploration.
When you select the material for a memoir, you will be keeping other material for later. Most people only ever write one autobiography, but you may write many memoirs over time. Mary Clearman Blew compares this process with the making of a quilt:
Remember that you have all colors to choose from; and while choosing one color means forgoing others, remind yourself that your coffee can of pieces will fill again. There will be another quilt at the back of your mind while you are piecing, quilting, and binding this one, which perhaps you will give to one of your daughters.
Another way of looking at the difference between memoir and autobiography is expressed by Gore Vidal in his memoir Palimpsest. “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life,” he says, “while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” Although some memoirs do, in fact, call for research, the verifiable facts are not generally as important as they are in autobiography, where the author includes much that is beyond the realm of memory.
And here’s some advice to students from another writing teacher, Lee Torda, from Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts:
Some cautions about writing the memoir: First, you may inadvertently be thinking “autobiography” and not “memoir.” There is a difference. Autobiography, though certainly nonfiction, is less concerned with the art of the telling and more concerned with getting the facts straight and in the right order. The worst autobiographies trudge through a catalogue of events and dates. It’s summary essentially. Memoir, on the other hand, is analysis to that summary. It is less concerned with accuracy as it is interested in discovering the truth (i.e. what is important, significant) about a particular set of events.
This last point brings me to my second, connected caution: if autobiographies are attempting to chronicle every little tiny thing, a memoir is interested in snap shots. Don’t fall in to the trap of trying to tell me too much. This is particularly true in the short memoir, which you are writing. In coming up with an idea for your memoir, you’ll want to focus on a particular event or a short period of time in your life—like going to summer camp once a week every summer or the three months between ending high-school and starting college, or one afternoon when you were seven. The tighter your focus the stronger your writing and analysis will be.
A Version of a Caution: “Memoir” comes from the combination of the Latin roots for remembering and memory (MEM, obviously) and for “to write” (the OIRE—if you know French you can see that). So you are writing memory. And memory is a tricky beast. Writing the memoir is not about accuracy it is about perception: what do you remember about a certain event and why? It is the “and why” part of that sentence that will give you the essay. You don’t remember things—and remember them in a certain way—for nothing. Tap in to the why, and you’ll have your essay.
And here’s anther description, though I don’t now recall where I got this text:
In memoir, the author stands behind her story saying to the world: this happened; this is true. What is important about this assertion is that it has an effect on the reader-he reads it believing it to be a true story, which in turn requires the writer to be an unflinchingly reliable narrator. In fiction, a story may be skillfully designed to sound like a true story told in the first person by a fictional character (who may be a quite unreliable narrator), but if the writer presents it as fiction, the reader will usually perceive it as fiction. Readers tend to look for, even to assume, the autobiographical in fiction, but they also recognize the writer’s attempt to fictionalize, just as they recognize in memoir the central commitment not to fictionalize.
In this way, when you name what you write memoir or fiction, you enter into a contract with the reader. You say “this is true,” or you say “this is imaginary.” And if you are going to honor that contract, your raw material as a memoirist can only be what you have actually experienced. It is up to you to decide how imaginatively you transform the known facts- exactly how far you allow yourself to go to fill in the memory gaps. But whatever you decide about that, you must remain limited by your experience, unless you turn to fiction, in which you can, of course, embrace people, places, and events you have never personally known. While imagination certainly plays a role in both kinds of writing, the application of it in memoir is circumscribed by the facts, while in fiction it is circumscribed by what the reader will believe. These very different stages for the imagination allow recognizably different plays to be acted out on them.
So that’s memoir, and James Frey’s Million Little Pieces tended to somewhat ruin the genre when it was revealed earlier this year that too much of what he wrote was made up to be considered a memoir. And now apparently — at least according to the many duped book critics — it will be hard to trust the truthiness of memoirs again. Personally, I thought the whole thing was blown out of proportion merely because a few celebrities were embarrassed. If the point of a literary memoir is an analysis of the facts in a specific time period or some other theme of events — which is what I believe it to be — then fictionalizing some of the events in certainly acceptable. As others have said before condensing characters and events, compressing time, or other liberties and literary devices are acceptable in memoir if it allows the author to reach the ultimate truth of what he’s writing. So what critics of Frey are arguing about is not whether he made up some of his story, but that he made up too much. But where do you draw that line? And who gets to decide? Why are the half-truths of Frank McCourt okay but those of James Frey are an unforgivable sin? I didn’t follow the story very closely so I never heard the extent of what Frey supposedly made up — mostly because I didn’t really care — but if it wasn’t an autobiography why did they throw him under the bus? I’m not trying to defend him, I just don’t understand the difference.
And frankly, I don’t want to even try. I could care less if everything I write is strictly true. What matters to me is the story. So that’s why I’m calling mine a “fictionalized memoir” That way there will be no confusion and it frees me up to make up as much as I want to, plus it gives me the added bonus of obfuscation.
So there you have it, my plan for this novel’s structure. Sit back and enjoy the ride through my life growing up with beer, sort of ….