New 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…)
What does it mean to be a Minnesotan writer? In this age of placelessness—sitting in a Starbucks or Motel 6 or airport lounge or on a Facebook page, you could be anywhere—even our literature is without landscape or regional identity. Especially literature from the Midwest, which, when compared with New York City writing or the work of Southern writers seems bland in its vernacular and hard to locate.
“There is nothing worse than the writer who doesn’t use the gifts of the region, but wallows in them,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, the ultimate advocate for regional voices. “An idiom characterizes a society, and when you ignore the idiom, you are very likely ignoring the whole social fabric that could make a meaningful character.” What is Minnesota’s idiom, our social fabric? Many years ago I read an essay by David Mura in The View from the Loft; it struck me so much, I’ve lived with this quotation on my desktop ever since:
I am calling then for a change in focus: we must begin comparing Minnesota values and language with the rest of the country and the world; we must see what in our culture here can provide answers (or at least questions) for the country and our species.
As a transplant to the Midwest, I have deliberately claimed this place. Mura challenged me to claim it in my writing as well—the flat, ravaged prairies, the heritage of occupying land and ousting its native peoples, the wholesome Scandinavian culture with its dark underbelly of silence and denial, our earnest civic engagement, the farms that feed us and destroy our land, the thousands of lakes, the Somalians and Hmong and Mexicans who are shaping our cities… So I set my novel firmly in Minnesota, doing my best to sink my literary roots here and see what nutrients they drew from our black, black soil.
Why does this matter? I could ignore my place, inhabiting instead the psyches of my characters or the drama within a household. But O’Connor would say place makes the people, and their language; we need to locate our characters for them to become real. The correlation for us humans today is important: Perhaps we are less real because we are so disconnected from place. So we need our literature to reconnect us, to remind us about the butterfly weed growing in ditches, about the migration corridor over the Mississippi, and about Minnesotans’ propensity to return their friends’ canning jars or stick political lawn signs in their yards or carry slippers when they go visiting in the winter.
This matters for us and it matters, as Mura argues, for “the country and our species.” The brokenness and bravery of our history, the complexities of agricultural communities’ relationship to the land, our particular brew of immigrants, and all the dimensions that make Minnesota unique can provide answers, or at least questions, that the world needs.
The best literature revolves around a central core of an idea or emotion—what I like to call the heartbeat. The heartbeat pumps life into every artery and vein of a story. It unifies. It doesn’t prevent the inclusion of other themes and motifs, but it does rise to prominence.
This heartbeat almost never reveals itself during a first draft. Our work during revision involves looking for hints of this heartbeat and drawing them forward. One helpful technique for doing this is to write with the voice of a distanced narrator. Rather than immersing yourself in the character who is your younger self (the former you, who experienced the events of your story), step back and reflect. What do you make of these events today? Why are you sharing them? What’s at stake for you? What might be at stake for your reader?
Whether or not these reflections get included in your manuscript, it is imperative that they become conscious. We need to know the motivation behind our writing. We need to know the significance of the events we’re relating, especially how they impact our present life. We need to know why our readers might care, because this will reveal to us the universal truths within our story. This level of awareness then shapes our revision.
When we push ourselves to this level of reflection, fresh insights emerge that help us to see our work—and our lives—in new light.
The reflective voice is very common in memoir and almost always present in personal essays. As authors, we get to choose whether or not to include it. Below are a few examples.
This first from Mary McCarthy’s A Catholic Girlhood:
The fear of appearing ridiculous first entered my life, as a governing motive, during my second year in the convent. Up to then, a desire for prominence had decided many of my actions and, in fact, still persisted. But in the eighth grade, I became aware of mockery and perceived that I could not seek prominence without attracting laughter. Other people could, but I couldn’t. This laughter was proceeding, not from my classmates, but from the girls of the class just above me, in particular from two boon companions, Elinor Heffernan and Mary Harty, a clownish pair—oddly assorted in size and shape, as teams of clowns generally are, one short, plump, and baby-faced, the other tall, lean, and owlish—who entertained the high-school department by calling attention to the oddities of the younger girls. …
It was just at this time, too, that I found myself in a perfectly absurd situation, a very private one, which made me live, from month to month, in horror of discovery. I had waked up one morning, in my convent room, to find a few small spots of blood on my sheet; I had somehow scratched a trifling cut on one of my legs and opened it during the night. I wondered what to do about this…
Note in the first paragraph the authoritative, knowledgeable tone of the narrator. Using adult language and insight, she summarizes and interprets events from her childhood. McCarthy is the master story-teller; her narrative perspective colors how we see and think about Elinor and Mary. Thus she creates portraits of her characters without yet placing them in a scene.
I chose the second paragraph because it shows McCarthy transitioning from that distant narrative point of view into a scene. The adult narrator tells us that her childhood situation is “absurd”; she’s still interpreting for us. But then she leaves interpretation behind and we zoom in on Mary, the character. She segues smoothly between both perspectives throughout the story: “But precisely the same impasse confronted me when I was summoned to her office at recess-time. I talked about my cut, and she talked about becoming a woman. It was rather like a round, in which she was singing “Scotland’s burning, Scotland’s burning,” and I was singing “Pour on water, pour on water.” Neither of us could hear the other, or, rather, I could hear her, but she could not hear me.” The distanced narrator allows her to create the analogy of the round and help her readers understand the dynamics between Mary and the Mother Superior.
Here’s another example, this time from Bernard Cooper’s Truth Serum.
Like most children, I once thought it possible to divide the world into male and female columns. Blue/Pink. Roosters/ Hens. Trousers/Skirts. Such divisions were easy, not to mention comforting, for they simplified matter into compatible pairs. But there also existed a vast range of things that didn’t fit neatly into either camp: clocks, milk, telephones, grass. There were nights I fell into a fitful sleep while trying to sex the world correctly.
Nothing typified the realms of male and female as clearly as my parents’ walk-in closets. Home alone for any length of time, I always found my way inside them. I could stare at my parents’ clothes for hours, grateful for the stillness, haunting the very heart of their privacy.
The overhead light in my father’s closet was a bare bulb.
Again, note the transition from exposition into scene. The reflective voice allows Cooper to elaborate on his childhood mindset—one we’re very familiar with, and so before he’s begun his story about the closets (where he cross-dresses—something his reader might be less familiar with) he has invited us into his childhood conundrum. Here’s his transition back out:
…A make-up mirror above the dressing table invited my self-absorption. Sound was muffled. Time slowed. It seemed as if nothing bad could happen as long as I stayed within those walls.
Though I’d never been discovered in my mother’s closet, my parents knew that I was drawn toward girlish things—dolls and jump rope and jewelry—as well as to the games and preoccupations that were expected of a boy.
Here you can see how the reflective voice serves as connective tissue, reminding the reader of the story’s primary theme and doing some interpretive work. When authors choose to include the reflective voice in memoir, we do so not because scenes don’t speak for themselves—they always do if they’re working well—but because the author wishes them to serve some other purpose as well. In this case, Cooper is exploring the permeable boundaries between the sexes and showing the hurtful impact of cultural norms on a child.