Today’s post comes from some work I’ve been doing in preparation for a panel that I’ll be on at the AWP Conference at the end of the month. The panel, put together by the fabulous Sue William Silverman, is called “A Memoir with a View: On Bringing the Outside In.” Sonya Huber, Joy Castro, and Harrison Candelaria Fletcher will be the other fine folks on the panel.
For years, I’ve noticed a tendency for beginning writers of personal narratives to forget to make room for the other actors on the stage and to forget that memoirs take place in particular settings and at particular time periods that express particular values. I call this tendency the “Enough about Me, Tell Me What You Think about Me” Syndrome. These writers are in love with the sound of their own voices. They believe themselves to be, to borrow from a popular beer commercial, “the most interesting people in the world.” I’m having a bit of fun here because I don’t think that their narcissism is intentional. It’s merely the result of a lack of storytelling technique that will correct itself over time and with practice.
When I read a memoir, I want to feel like I’m a participant in a life. I don’t want to be kept in the wings, watching. I want to be on stage living what the people in the memoir are living. The narcissistic approach keeps readers at a distance rather than immersed in the events. Although we’re certainly interested in the sensibility of the narrator, we can begin to feel claustrophobic if he or she forgets to take a look outside that self. Although I love and value the art of reflection and thinking on the page that takes place in a good memoir, I confess to starting to lose interest if I’m asked to spend too much time inside the writer’s head. The world starts to close down for me rather than open up. We need to make room for that world, not to diminish ourselves, but to make ourselves larger by seeing what it means for us to interact with this person, this detail, this place, this time period, this action.
As I said above, I believe that this unintentional narcissistic approach is actually a deficiency of technique problem. Its symptoms include a lack of dialogue, a lack of detail, and a lack of action. It can easily be cured with a writing activity, which I prescribe for all of us now.
1. Select a lost object from your childhood, one that you’ve never forgotten, one that you wish you still had. My grandmother had a lady bug pin cushion when I was a child, and to this day I remember that she kept a Charles Percy campaign button stuck to it. Percy was the Republican candidate for Governor in my home state of Illinois in 1964; he narrowly lost to the incumbent, Democrat Otto Kerner. My mother’s family was Republican; my father was a staunch Democrat. I’ve always wondered what my grandmother thought about my mother’s marriage to my father, an event that took place when my mother was forty-one, and that pin cushion and that Percy campaign button invite me to think about that. So what’s your object?
Spend some time writing from this prompt: “I remember. . .” Perhaps, you’ll hit upon a scene in which you’re watching yourself as a child looking at this object, or handling it, or maybe you’ll remember what it was like to watch someone else using it. The important thing is to describe what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch as you travel back in memory.
2. Daydream yourself into a specific memory. It might be one that involves your object, or it might be one that it suggests. If the power of association takes you away from the object, trust that you’re meant to follow. I might recall, for example, the evening my father and my uncle, my mother’s brother, got into a heated argument over politics and how strange it seemed to hear these men, who genuinely liked each other, raising their voices and saying things like, “Herbert Hoover ruined the farmer!” Or “Spend, spend, spend. That’s all a Democrat wants!” What are the people in your memory saying?
3. My uncle finally got up from his chair that evening and said to my aunt, “Get your coat, Myrtle. We’re leaving.” What happened after that? My father, still angry, rehashing the argument, his face red as he paced about our kitchen where my mother, whose views were the same as my uncle’s, cleared the coffee cups and dessert dishes from the table and began to wash them, not saying a word. What actions take place in your memory?
In order to pay attention to detail, dialogue, and characters in action, you’ll have to look outside the self, and you’ll write a scene in which you look at the larger world that may be social (a gathering of relatives), cultural (at a time and in a place where manners were supposed to always trump what one really thought), and political (at a time in the 1960s when our country’s political climate was changing).
In all honesty, I’ve never thought of myself as a political writer, or a cultural critic, or a social commentator. But really, as I hope my lady bug pin cushion has proved, any writer of memoir is all three of these things. The small details of a life contain the social, the cultural, and/or the political.