All My Relations

Genealogy held absolutely no interest for me up until three months ago. When friends waxed enthusiastic about their lineage, my eyes glazed over. When my memoir students are passionate about their ancestors’ stories, I’ve responded with impatience; the past means nothing if it doesn’t change the present, and what defines memoir as a genre is exactly this dynamic interaction. Your great-grandmother’s experiences are interesting enough, but how do they impact you? (more…)

Stories in the Genes

During my childhood, I was aware of only six relatives on my father’s side beyond his siblings’ families. It seemed as if the Delessios popped onto the planet from nowhere. They were Italian—I knew that much—but the first generation ditched their names and kept quiet about the past; my great-grandmother abandoned Catholicism when one Sunday she took the Eucharist and returned to her pew to find her purse gone. My dad’s generation never learned the language or the family recipes or anything about their heritage except the sketchiest of stories: My uncle was born frozen on the stoop. We weren’t really Italians, we were Albanians. After my great-grandfather’s first wife died, he ordered a second one by mail. He spoke Muschitan, a name that sent us into hysterics because surely someone made it up. (more…)

Intercourse with the World

AdobeStock_53634879New writers are often surprised to learn that the main drama of memoir is not what happened in the past but what happens when we consider the past and allow ourselves to be changed by the consideration. “What happened to the writer is not what matters,” Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story. “What matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

In other words, memoir is a discourse with memory. It is conversation between past and present—the self you were and the self you’ve become. This sense of exchange happens in fiction as well and is why Nathanial Hawthorne called writing an “intercourse with the world.” (more…)

Imprinting Fall

small_5236103680As I write, my computer screen reflects the view out the window behind me: a maple tree, yellow, glowing from within, against a brilliant blue sky. Here in Minnesota we’re experiencing one of the longest and most spectacular autumns I can remember. When I’m outdoors raking the sidewalk under this tree or biking Gwyn to school down a street lined with exuberance, I do what every sane Minnesotan does. I memorize it. I store away all that color and warmth the same way we can the fat red heirloom tomatoes from the garden and preserve our abundance of raspberries. We need to be imprinted by a day like this to make it through the winter. We need to saturate our minds with golds and reds and clear blue; we need to soak our skin with the sun’s heat; we need to store up the free feeling of walking without a heavy coat. (more…)