I just finished rereading Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter for a class I’m teaching, and one of Hampl’s techniques I was most impressed with was her use of the recurring motif. These images, references, and anecdotes crop up repeatedly through her memoir and serve to bind her otherwise wandering reflections together; they become a structural element, unifying the narrative. I’d like to briefly look at three examples.
The first is quite small: Hampl’s repeated references to Scott Fitzgerald. Hampl’s memoir haunts what she calls “Old St. Paul,” and so her great love of Scott Fitzgerald’s work helps both to illuminate the setting and reveal her literary obsession. Fitzgerald never becomes more than a passing reference, but his name is like a bell rung periodically throughout her story. The reader thinks, “Oh yes! Here we are again.”
The second example is a photograph of her young parents at a picnic. She describes the photo in her opening pages and returns to the image periodically, using it as a window into her parents’ early lives. When her mother grows bitter and her father is baffled by this transformation, Hampl refers to this photo as a way to remind the reader of who her mother had been. The image becomes iconic the more Hampl revisits it, and the reader feels her bringing the story full circle.
Finally, she tells us early on that her uncle Frankie died a tragic death at the St. Paul brewery. Each time she mentions Frankie in the narrative, we learn a bit more of the story—how he died, what his funeral procession was like, how his family mourned him. An anecdote that she could have shared in the space of two consecutive pages unfolds in little pieces over two hundred. Frankie becomes a touchstone for the reader; we sense Hampl milking this bit of drama for all its worth. In a book that has very little plot, Frankie pulls us along.
I mention these because memoir writers often fear that their stories are so fragmented, they will never become a unified story. But it takes very little to string fragments together into a unified whole. Lest these observations seem craft-heavy, please note the tremendous power of these tiny bits of binding material. Our stories are whole, despite how they seem, because our lives are singular and unified by our personalites. By identifying the motifs (and themes and questions) that have inevitably shaped us, we are able to uncover the unity of our stories. And this, ultimately, is spiritual work.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew