Memoir as Discovery
A childhood friend sent me a snapshot today, one I didn’t know existed, but one I was so very glad to see. It’s a photograph of me in the home of my childhood friend. I must be around ten or eleven. I’m sitting on what appears to be a love seat, or an oversized stuffed chair. I’m wearing a green polo shirt and jeans with the legs rolled into cuffs. I have on low-cut white tennis shoes, and I’m smiling at someone out of the frame.
It means a good deal to me to see that smile because there were times when I could be a sullen child. If I’m right about my age in this picture, I’d say the year is 1965 or 1966. This would have been during the time when my parents and I lived in Oak Forest, a southern suburb of Chicago. We spent our summers on our farm. So here I am in my short-sleeved polo, my jeans with the faded knees, and my tennis shoes. I appear to be completely happy to be where I am.
In spite of the unhappiness in my home due to my father’s farming accident and the anger he carried with him—and despite all the conflicted feelings I still have about the place where I grew up—it’s undeniable that the farmland and the small towns and the people around me are all part of what I still consider home. It’s good to be reminded once in a while of the lives we used to have.
If I wished, I could use this photo as an entryway into details and scenes from the past. I could recall the feel of the fuzzy wool of my childhood friend’s sweater, the records we listened to, the books we traded, the terrier dog that terrified me, the games we played, and on and on. I could daydream myself back into the past. I could enjoy the nostalgia.
Nostalgia, though, doesn’t always serve the memoir writer. To recall is not to explore. If you believe, as I do, that memoir is meant to be a process of discovery, you have to sometimes forsake the comfort of nostalgia for the discomfort of not knowing. Nostalgic details can form a sensual, textured background for the extraordinary and mysterious moments that arise, the ones that merit our closer examination.
One evening, my childhood friend and her brother were playing with a whiffle ball and bat that the brother had just gotten new. We were at their house, and it was starting to get dusk. Twilight would soon be upon us. I believe I was the one who hit the ball into a patch of weeds. We looked and looked for it, but to no avail. Then my father was calling for me, telling me it was time for us to go home. I had no choice but to get in his truck. As we drove out the lane, I saw my friend’s brother with the yellow whiffle bat, hitting at the weeds as he looked again for the ball. It’s been over fifty years since that evening, and yet I remember the way the summer night smelled, and the way I came up on my knees on the seat of our truck so I could turn and watch my friend’s brother. I’ve never been able to forget how forlorn he looked as he searched for the ball. I’ve never been able to forget this scene. Why does it stay with me? I don’t know. I’d have to write about it to see what I might learn.
These are the moments that make memoir. Some of them are large and some of them, like this one, are small. The size of the moment doesn’t matter. What matters is the size and the weight of the significance. I squirm a bit every time I recall this memory, and I don’t know why. I’ve never written about it. I’ve never interrogated it. I’ve never speculated on why it holds such significance for me. I’ve never questioned what it might have to tell me about myself.
We all have these moments we’re afraid to touch. What’s one of yours? If you don’t know, look at your old photographs. Let them lead you back to the past. When you feel something make you uncomfortable, stop. That’s your moment. That’s the place where nostalgia turns into thinking. Start to write. See where your thinking takes you.
Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Nostalgia for the sake of remembering, when writing memoir, does nothing to let you see anew; you’re only seeing what you saw at the time. But the moments that are curious to you, those moments that haunt you? Those are the moments that require us to see what we couldn’t see when we were living them. We write memoir to better know what we were unable to know in the past.
Very good post, Lee. Two points really stand out for me: pay attention to the uncomfortable memories, and try writing about them to understand them.
Thanks and best,
That’s it exactly, Mary!
The more I think about this, the more I like it. I often get students to bring in a photo they treasure or would hate to part with, but I never thought to get them to bring one that makes them uncomfortable, and I think I should try that. Thanks,. M
I’m probably not that unusual in that it is easy to write stories of my past. This happened, then this, etc.
What I find hardest is the reflection on that memoir piece that opens it up for better understanding for any reader I might have when & if I’m able to publish.
Jack, it might help to write from a place of questioning. That is to say from a place of what you wonder about, what you don’t know, etc. That inquiry on your part will extend your essay beyond the individual to the universal. For example, I often wondered why my father rented a post office box when we moved from the farm into town rather than just having free delivery. That question took me a long way into exploring my father and the relationship I had with him in an essay called “Bastards.”