Living Full: Tempering Sentimentality in Memoir
I received a triumphant message from a friend this morning about a breakthrough with the memoir she’s writing. She reports “a strange and wonderful happening,” the shedding of tears as she wrote, tears that came from the clear memory of her at a previous time, a time retrieved through the careful cataloging of specific concrete details. “I’m elated,” my friend said, and anyone who’s had a similar experience while writing a memoir will understand exactly what she’s feeling, that emotional immersion into the past, an experience my friend described as “living full.”
Yes, exactly. We live full when we slip into our past lives. The tears that come tell us we’ve arrived with our whole bodies. Although it might be sad to revisit the people we were in times of trouble, it’s also a cause for celebration. So much conspires to keep us from slipping through the veil between the here and the then. When we finally break through, it indeed gives us, as my friend reported, a feeling of elation.
I remember well the moments during the writing of my first memoir, From Our House, in which the past seemed so real to me that I broke down in tears (yes, it’s all right for male memoirists to cry). One such moment came when I was writing about the summer I lived alone with my father while my mother spent the weekdays at Eastern Illinois University where she was finishing her degree. As you may or may not know, my father lost both of his hands in a farming accident when I was barely a year old and wore prosthetic hands, his “hooks,” from then on. He also became an angry man, and our relationship for much of my childhood and adolescence was a difficult one. Those weeks we spent alone on our farm that summer, then, were strange ones for us both; never before had we had so much time together without my mother to act as a buffer. “That summer, I did for him what she would do for twenty-six years without regret or complaint,” I write. “I shaved him, I bathed him, I cleaned him after he used the toilet.” It wasn’t recalling the intimacy of these actions that brought tears to my eyes; it was, instead, my father’s vulnerability as I washed him:
Never was he as timid as he was then—as bashful as I. He would look away from me while I washed him, sorry that circumstances were such that I had to perform this task. If anyone were to have seen us there, the aging man and his son, they would have never suspected the ugly rancor that simmered between us. They would have seen the boy soaking the washcloth in a basin of water and wringing it out with his small hands, and the father, standing naked in the sunlight streaming in through the open window, his legs apart so his son could touch the washcloth gently to his tender groin. How could I not love him, then, so great was his need.
I remember how this memory overwhelmed me and how I had to find an appropriate measure of distance to be able to portray it without becoming maudlin. Which brings me to the point of this post. We writers of memoir need the sort of immersion that sometimes brings us to tears, but we also need strategies for tempering the rawness of emotion so it becomes more deeply felt by the reader. You’ll note that I relied on a shift to a third-person point of view in the passage above: “They would have seen the boy. . . .” That slight adjustment in perspective allowed me to be both the participant (the boy I was in the past) and the spectator (the adult who observes from a slight remove). As the spectator, I note the washcloth, the basin of water, the sunlight through the window, the boy’s small hands, the father’s nakedness. As the participant, I feel again the bashfulness, the love, the need. The blend of immersion and distance creates a moment on the page that not only I, but also the reader, can “live full.”
Of course, this use of the third-person is only one strategy for blending perspectives in memoir. If the mood strikes you, I’d love to hear some of your favorite methods for avoiding sentimentality in memoir while also giving full expression to the emotions you’re reliving. I’ve always found voice to be important, the voice of the calm narrator, blending with the voice of the intense moment. Anton Chekhov, in a letter to Lydia Avilova, offers this advice:
When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold. . . . . The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.
This advice holds true for the writer of memoir. Immerse yourself in the past, yes, but never lose sight of the present. Find the strategies that will allow you to hold both open for the reader.
Great post, Lee. I love that moment of your memoir, and think about it now and again. It’s cinematic–it always reminds me of the camera peering into the home through a window, rather than offering close-up shots, and as I write, I consider how I can create that effect when it’s needed.
Thanks, Heather! That’s a good analogy because the perspective does indeed shift to the outside. The lens is a voyeur, but since I’m the cameraman, there’s still a perspective inside the home as well. Congrats on the new baby! Hope all is fine and dandy in VT.
From Our House, as well as your recent Such a Life, are at the very top of my Best Memoirs list! Gripping, masterful work, Lee.
One of my favorite techniques, used more and more consciously after your urging here and from your example, especially in Such a Life, is to move in passages or even within scenes between the person “then” to the person “now,” the writer reflecting at his desk. This adds a layered perspective, deepening the memoir greatly, and can allow the earlier you to have his tears and his rage and his older, wiser self to put those emotions in perspective and remove from the taint of sentimentality and excessive raw feeling.
When I began writing memoir I must’ve thought that this would undercut the drama of unfolding action; however, it does not kill drama and greatly deepens texture and increases impact. Since I have been encouraging students to do this, I have seen its subtle power in their scenic memoirs and even in their expository reflective essays.
As always, thank you, Richard. I like the way you describe the layered perspective. Yes, that’s it, exactly. Keep doing the good work, my friend.
Such a great post, Lee. Once again I am inspired to move forward, inch forward, with my own memories/weaving of what was with the perspective of time in my own writing. I can’t tell you enough how much your class at The Sun retreat has helped me think of memoir writing in a different, “living fully” way. And without sentimentality. In my mind I am turning scenes. And yes, slowing getting them to paper (OK, not yet!). Transference from the ethers. That’s the commitment and time, isn’t it? Thank you, again.
Naomi, I’m glad to hear that I’ve got you thinking about memoir writing in a different way. I hope it will prove productive when you finally make that transference from the ethers. In the meantime, have a very happy Fourth of July.
Lee, thanks so much. I did have a great Fourth. I hope you did too!