Facts alone do not a memoir make. First this happened, then this happened, then this happened. A sequence of memories is easy enough for anyone to recall from a particular period of time in his or her life. It may even be easy to see the causal links between the events on a timeline. Because this happened, this next thing happened, and on and on. Sometimes, though, events in a life can be random. This is one difference between the narrative of a memoir and that of a novel. In a novel, events usually connect. In life, the oddest things can happen without reason.
That said, the memoirist can still find the relevance in even the most haphazard narrative. The memoirist’s job is to not only reconstruct an external narrative arc, but also to follow the interior arc of the person he or she was at the time everything was happening. What literally happened is a sequence of facts. What those events meant to the memoirist and the other people involved—well, that’s a matter of looking closely. The slightest detail may signify loudly. The way your mother ran her fingers down the folds of the drapes just before leaving her home for the last time may speak volumes if the writer is paying attention. Your father’s love may be present in his gruffest voice. Characters come alive in memoir when the writer finds the surprising words or actions lurking just below the surface of what they say or do. Our job is to be astute observers of people and their worlds.
In order to be able to interrogate our experiences, to ask questions of what they meant or continue to mean, to speculate on answers, we have to be able to notice the things that other people don’t. We have to accept the fact that we are all made up of contradictions and the lives we present to the public are rarely the entire truth. Our deepest identities leak out sometimes in large things we say or do, but sometimes they make their appearance in the commonplace and the seemingly mundane. Often they appear and then quickly go back into hiding. In the moment, we may have only a few seconds to take note of them, but in retrospect, we have all the time we need to turn them over, looking at them from this angle and that angle, seeing the truth that at the time may go unnoticed.
Memoirists have to embrace this reflective voice, the one that thinks, analyzes, questions, interprets. So it’s not enough to tell the story of what happened first, second, third, and so on. We have to look for the story of the interior that the external events are announcing. We have to be able to make something of those events. Vivian Gornick, in her craft book, The Situation and the Story, says each memoir has a situation—Let’s say it’s the year I my family moved back downstate from suburban Chicago and bought a house in a small town—and a story. The story, Gornick says, is what the writer has come to the page to say. To my way of thinking, we often don’t know what we’ve come to the page to say until we say it, but we should know what question, or questions are guiding the writing. Why did my father rent a post office box when we made that move? Why did he spend that money when he could have had free home delivery? That question never appears in the writing I do about that time, but I know it’s there in everything I put on the page about what my family tried to hide from the world as we went about making a new life for us in a new home. That’s the interior I’m touching—that attempt to hide the violent life my father and I often had, that attempt to believe in redemption. I can’t get to that without a clear sequence of specific events, but the events alone can’t do the job of exploring what I have to say about forgiveness and love. I, from my perspective now, can do that work. It’s the reflective persona that gives a memoir its significance and resonance. We look back, not only to tell, but also to think.