Today, I start with a memory of my mother in the kitchen on Sundays. She has prepared as much of our noon meal as possible before church, but she still has work to do. This is her day of rest, a day she doesn’t work in the laundry or the kitchen at the nursing home, but she makes sure we have a good dinner after church. She makes noodles, mashed potatoes, a roast, whatever is in season in our vegetable garden—corn, peas, green beans—and a pie or cake—angel food, apple, blackberry, chiffon. When my father and I sit down to eat, we never have to worry about wanting more. My mother is all about more even on this day when she shouldn’t have to be working at all. She makes sure we’re well-fed.
Last week, I visited, via Skype, an MFA course in the memoir taught by Ira Sukrungruang at the University of South Florida. The students asked me questions. One of them had to do with how I went about revising a memoir. The student who asked the question made the good point that the plot in memoir is always set for us by the recollection of actual events. We don’t have to spend time inventing a plot. How, then, do I know what I need to do in order to revise?
I think in terms of narrative. For the most part, though there are exceptions, it’s the way I approach the writing of creative nonfiction. I tell stories. Because, as this student said, the stories are already set by what actually happened, we generally have to look elsewhere when it comes to what we need to pay attention to in the revision process. This isn’t to say that the structure of the memoir rarely needs reshaping. The truth, though, is that the primary work of revision in a memoir has to do with deepening characterization, particularly the character of the writer.
“If you do not tell the truth about yourself,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “you cannot tell the truth about others.” So much of revising a memoir has to do with discovering more layers of truth about ourselves and about the other people in our lives. It’s one thing to narrate a story; it’s quite another to use that story as a way of responding to ourselves, others, and the situations we find, or have found, ourselves in. Revising a memoir is often a matter of responding.
One of my mother’s specialties was chopped steak that she browned in a frying pan and then baked in the oven. It was what I asked for each year for my birthday supper—that and baked beans, scalloped potatoes, a lime Jell-O salad with nuts and cream cheese, and a German chocolate cake for dessert. It was our habit to have these things for supper each year on my birthday. We would sit at our chrome-edged dinette table, and I would enjoy my feast. My mother would light the candles on the cake and tell me to make a wish and blow them out. She would sing “Happy Birthday” to me in her thin and off-key voice. My father would half-sing and half-talk the lyrics along with her. These are the facts.
But memoir is so much more than facts. Those facts require response, and it’s there that we start to deepen character. I could narrate a number of birthday dinners where nothing out of the ordinary happened, but I could use the facts to explore my mother’s character. She was a woman who endured the ugliness that my father’s anger and my own teenage rebellion brought into her home. She was a woman who believed in the best parts of my father and me, even when we didn’t deserve her faith. She was a woman who could make me that birthday dinner, time and time again, out of a love for me that sometimes made me feel guilty for how much I surely disappointed her. I loved her dearly, and perhaps never more than on those birthdays when she took such care to prepare for me all the foods that I loved. Sometimes we just have to look more closely to see what the ordinary means to us.
At other times, we tell true stories of extraordinary things that happened. By extraordinary, I don’t necessarily mean large or sensational events. I simply mean something out of the normal come-and-go. For instance, the year I turned fifteen, my father didn’t come home for my birthday dinner. It was fall harvest season on the farm, and that’s where he was, combining soy beans. Only my mother and I sat down to my birthday supper, but it was a supper I couldn’t enjoy. I was surprised by how much my father’s absence saddened me. The fact that he wasn’t there, made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of his attention. I ate in silence. I picked at my food. My mother tried to make conversation. I’m sure I was rude to her. I remember leaving the table in anger. I’d always loved my mother, and now this episode surprised me with how much I loved my father and how much I wanted him to love me. I remember the platters and dishes of food, barely touched, and the fact that I didn’t even stay to eat a piece of cake. I remember the way my mother said, “Oh, Lee,” with such a sad look on her face. I remember how I stormed out of the house to meet some friends, to spend the evening sulking and mad. I remember how I came home and my father was apologetic. “I didn’t think it would matter to you,” he said. But it did matter. It mattered a great deal. Now, as I look back on that night—as I share the details with you—I see that I was a teenager trying so hard to be a man when in reality I was still a little boy wanting his father’s approval. I know that I’m still that little boy, and will always be no matter how old I get.
We use the facts of our lives to know ourselves and others better. When we revise a memoir, we should take each scene and ask ourselves, “What did/does this mean to me?” We should look for the contradictory layers of our responses. I see myself as that rebellious teenager, but I also see how fragile I was, how young. And I see how much my father truly did love me despite all the times it seemed that he didn’t. And I see how my mother’s faith could waver. Surely, as she cleared the table that night, and as she took the unlit candles from my cake, she must have wondered if I’d ever be the sort of son she could look at with pride.
All I have to do to see all this is to look closely at the facts and then to fully respond to them. That’s the work of revision when it comes to memoir—to take the story and to do what you have to do to make it more honest.