The Layers of Memoir
(In honor of Thanksgiving week, I’ve decided to rerun this section from my book, Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life, and with it to issue an invitation for you to let me know if there’s something particular you’d like me to talk about—some issue of craft, or some thoughts on how to keep doing the work we need to do. I’m at a point where I think I need such requests, so I can make sure that my posts are being helpful. So, please don’t be shy. Let me know what’s on your mind, and I’ll do my best to talk about it. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving.
This is a passage of fact and nostalgia:
As we make the turn toward Thanksgiving, I’m thinking about my mother’s side of the family and how each year we gathered for a holiday meal at one house or the other. My mother always brought a chiffon cake. My Aunt Myrtle made bread pudding. My Aunt Mildred made coleslaw. My cousin’s wife, Gerri, made baked beans. My other cousin’s wife, Arlene, made a jello salad. There was turkey and ham and mashed potatoes and gravy and noodles and dressing. The men ate while the women served them, and only after the men were finished did the women sit down to eat. Pumpkin pie, pecan pie, angel food cake with fruit salad, and, of course, that bread pudding. Hot dinner rolls and glasses of iced tea and steaming cups of coffee. The kids ate at a card table in the garage if the weather was warm enough, or in the living room if it wasn’t. I remember when I got old enough to join the men at their table, my Uncle Richard said I would sit by him, and he proceeded to fill my plate with food. Some I wanted, and some I didn’t. Never mind, he told me, it’s all good for you. The talk around the table was about farm crops and deer hunting. My uncles and my older cousins told stories, jokes. They laughed easily and loudly. My Uncle Homer, whose house often hosted us, was a nervous sort. He spent the afternoon fidgeting. My Uncle Harry smoked Camel cigarettes, the non-filtered kind, and was always sneaking back into the kitchen after dinner for another slice of pie, another cup of coffee. He and my Aunt Mildred and my cousin Melanie lived an hour north in Charleston, Illinois, a college town. Harry was a former newspaper editor who went to work for Eastern Illinois University as their Director of Public Information. He was the sibling who had left the farm for the city, and I liked him tremendously because he gave me books for Christmas. Even then, his life seemed to be the one I wanted for myself.
This is a passage of incident:
One Thanksgiving, after the men had eaten, my Uncle Homer said something that my Uncle Harry thought was racist. This happened during the late 1960s when so much of the country was on edge due to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. I’m not sure that I ever knew exactly what Homer said, but I still remember the twisted feeling inside my stomach when I heard the loud voices coming from the living room and when I realized those voices were coming from my uncles. Just like that, my family became strange to me, defamiliarized. Something was happening that hadn’t happened before—this argument between my backward-thinking Uncle Homer and my more progressive Uncle Harry—and there I was, maybe thirteen years-old, taking my first steps toward trying to figure out the sort of man I wanted to be. Harry told Homer in no uncertain terms what he thought of his bigotry. Homer wouldn’t back down. That’s when Harry told my aunt that they were leaving, and they did. They gathered up my cousin Melanie, got into their car, and drove away.
This is a passage of thinking:
That night, I couldn’t go to sleep because I kept replaying the events of the afternoon, struggling to make sense of it all. My uncles, who had always gotten along so well, had been so angry with each other that one of them stormed away. I liked my Uncle Homer, but now I didn’t know what to make of him. He’d said something so ugly my Uncle Harry felt he had no recourse but to remove himself and my aunt and cousin from Homer’s house. I believed in equality, and the more I thought about what had happened, the more I admired Harry for the stand he’d made and for his unwillingness to tolerate Homer’s racism. I wanted to believe that given the chance, I would have done exactly what Harry did. I’d always admired him, but from that day forward I sought to emulate him.
This is a passage of connection and questioning:
Over forty years later, my cousin Melanie and her husband dissolved their marriage, and my cousin fell in love with a black man. Harry refused to meet him. He forbade Melanie from bringing him to visit. He essentially closed his daughter, whom he had always loved and protected fiercely, out of his life. When I learned that such was the case, the first thing I thought of was that Thanksgiving when Harry had stood up to Homer because of his racial intolerance, and now here he was, Harry, demonstrating the same behavior. I’ll never know how to reconcile these two memories of my uncle. All I can do is accept the fact that those contradictions exist. I’ll always wonder whether his encroaching Alzheimer’s influenced his behavior, or whether it was easier for him to talk the talk than to walk the walk. Did his ethics take a backward step when it came to his own daughter? He told Melanie he always wished for so much more for her. When Melanie proposed that she and the love of her life meet my aunt and uncle somewhere for dinner, she was met with resistance. “What would you say about that?” she asked Harry, and Harry said, “I’d say no.” I loved my uncle dearly. Now that he’s gone, how do I make room for this image of him? All I can do is accept the fact that we’re all made up of contradictions, even the people we idolize.
This is what I want to say about writing memoir:
Fact without incident, thought, connection to something larger, interrogation, and speculation, is often merely nostalgia. Memoir exists to take us further into the future, not to keep us rooted in the past. It’s the layers of detail, event, reflection, and the writer’s mind and heart at work that create whatever meaning we make of experience.
Thanks for this Lee! Last night I was writing to a student about this, encouraging him to go beyond fact and nostalgia and get to the thinking, questioning, and connection. This example is clear and helpful. I have your book now–thrilled to have your craft essays in one place!– and I will definitely have my students get it for future workshops. Thank you!
Thanks, Sophfronia! We teachers are always trying to find other ways to say what needs to be said to our students. I’m glad that my voice became useful to you in that regard. Have a wonderful holiday.
I appreciate your ability to make me feel like I am in the room with your family. We all have these relatives and these stories, but I have struggled to show how I felt in their presence. Life lessons being taught by observation. Feelings I was forced to keep silent, now on the tip of my tongue.
Once again you have motivated me to sit back down and give it a try. Thanks Lee
I’m so glad this post sparked something for you, Sherri. I encourage you to explore those feelings that someone forced you to keep silent. I hope you have a wonderful holiday.
Thanks, I think. I have started an editing spreadsheet since I am relatively new to writing and I was editing a chapter this morning when this popped up. I had been with my sister last weekend and we were talking about an event that I was putting in the book and I did not remember her being there. That was rather revealing to me and I wondered how I could have forgotten that. What was good was she had remembered some names that I wanted to identify and then within days the same thing happened with my daughter. These facts did not change my narrative but they were needed to make the scene more defined.
On your writing here, this was definitely a Cottrell moment for me but the topic would not have been so worldly or political. It would have been about who had the best dog and why. But the tradition of the men eating first was a given and we kids had our own tables (we had a lot of kids) is going to be recreated this year. My sister decided we are going back to the men eat first and then the women and the kids. Hmmm…our kids have never had to “wait” to eat. It will be fun to watch and might make a great short story. Culture shock!
Wow, Vivian, culture shock indeed for those kids! A step back in time. I always think it’s interesting for the memoir writer to question those lapses in memory, to speculate on why, for example, you erased your sister from that particular memory. Thanks for taking the time to leave this comment. I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!
Is this “form” these headings of Fact and Nostalgia, Incident, Thinking, Connection and Questioning – an organizing principle for you? Is it an organizing principle in your latest book? (I just ordered it). I remember you speaking about story-telling and how you grew up with folks (your father among others) who would break into story and how exciting that was for you – how they took their time and built tension. I try to remember that as memoirists we are story-tellers first, we just happen to be the main character. But this is sooooo helpful – this is like Lopate’s Double Perspective. Thank you Lee.
It can be, Joy, but not always. I threw in the nostalgia section to illustrate how memory without reflection is usually just nostalgic. A multi-layered perspective is what makes all nonfiction come to life for me. What I offer in this post is a way of reminding ourselves to do the work of telling a story while at the same time thinking about that story–what it meant, what it means to us now, what it might mean to us in the future.