This Is Who We’ve Always Been: Writing Memoir

I’m teaching a creative nonfiction workshop this semester for people who, for the most part, have never worked in the genre. I remember my own first steps into memoir. I had my first tenure-track teaching position, and I had to teach a graduate level cnf workshop. At that point, I’d published my first book of short stories, and I thought that was my genre. But if I were going to teach graduate students how to write creative nonfiction, I figured I’d better try writing some of my own. I wrote an essay called “From Our House.” It was the first time I’d directly addressed the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands and the difficult relationship we had as a result of his anger and my stubborn nature. Most of the stories in my first collection were stories about sons in fraught relationships with their fathers. Writing that essay was the first time I claimed and announced my own experience, and it was liberating. The figurative floodgates opened, and I wrote four more essays about my father. At that point, I saw a narrative arc for a book, and I surrendered. I became a memoirist. Since then I’ve gone on to publish countless essays and three memoirs with a fourth coming out in 2021. From the first time I used the upright pronoun, “I,” in an essay, I was hooked. I fell in love with this genre that allows me to investigate everything about my life that won’t leave me alone, those moments that still haunt me and wake me up in the night, wondering why.

I write nonfiction because there’s so much I don’t know. What was it like that day in 1956 when my father got his hands caught between the rollers of his corn picker’s shucking box? Why did he insist my mother take a teaching job in Oak Forest, Illinois, a southern suburb of Chicago, even though it meant we’d have to leave our farm in southeastern Illinois and move five hours north? Why, when we moved back downstate and bought a house in the small town of Sumner, did he rent a post office box instead of having free home delivery? In writing to discover, I sometimes come to other questions I didn’t know I had. Likewise, I sometimes come to things I didn’t know about myself. To write memoir, one has to have a curious mind and an inclination toward empathy. One also has to have an appreciation of scenic depiction, recreating pivotal moments in a life through action and detail and dialogue so readers will feel as if they’re participating in them. Above all, memoirists have to have the ability to interrogate experience, to interpret it, to speculate on answers to the questions they pose, to explore, uncover, and discover. All writing is a means of thinking on the page. Memoir, particularly, leads the writer to the making of meaning.

I’m reading Tara Westover’s Educated now. At one point, she writes, “Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were.” That sharp insight speaks powerfully to why I write creative nonfiction and why I love teaching others how to write it. Memoir, particularly, has this power. It reacquaints us with the people we’ve always been, the people someone else perhaps tried to keep ourselves from knowing, or we ourselves tried to erase. Memoir is power. It gives us control over experience. It invites us to give it an artful shape, and by so doing, to claim it, to announce it, to feel it, only now to feel it from the insight that time gives us, to think about it, and to use it to lead us to what has always been true, if hidden for a time, about ourselves.



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