Writing memoir, rewriting memory (Essay 5 of 52)

Thursday and Friday allegedly are my writing days, and finishing my thesis is taking priority. But these essays are to be my reflection time, my opportunity to pause and ask myself, “What am I learning from writing this memoir?”

I’m surprised to find I don’t remember things i thought I would always remember and do remember things I thought I had long forgotten. Forgetfulness makes it challenging to do what every nonfiction workshop I’ve ever been to prescribes for memoir or essay: write scenes. I’ve been working on this book since 2012, and back then, I was committed to including only dialogue an actions, settings and smells, sounds and touches, I could remember or had already documented in full, complete detail. I was especially committed to this regarding dialogue. If I couldn’t remember it, I wouldn’t use it (or at least, I would summarize it, but wouldn’t use quotes around it). Real people, people that I love, appear in my writing. I never wanted to be accused of misrepresenting them or of lying to my readers.

I’m reminded here of an odd rule we have in the South: among children, the word “li” is not allowed. (Among adults, you bet not call nobody ” a lie.” I’m sure what we do about “liar.”) When you accuse children—or when children accuse adults–of not telling the truth, you say the are “telling stories.” How strange it is now to be constructing a story, largely from memory, to be deliberate in its telling, but also to try to tell the truth.

And then there’s that word. Truth. In 2012, I saw myself primarily as a journalist. Facts at that time were not things to be abhorred, ignored, or switched out for an alternative like one would substitute almond flour for wheat to make a gluten-free cake. When it came to memoir, I still wanted to tell the truth. I wanted to tell people what happened and, as was my habit as an op–ed columnist, to provide opinions and analysis on the events. Today, as a creative nonfiction writer, facts are still facts, but truth is bigger than what happened. It’s the emotional veracity of a situation, my ability to evoke in a reader what I felt. As I construct scenes, I think about the quote often attributed to Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think that if I can evoke that, I’m doing it right.

Nonetheless, there are some things I wish I could remember with indisputable accuracy. Writing about how lessons learned at church influenced your perception of sexuality is challenging when you can remember only one or two lines from one or two sermons. I feel like I could explain myself better to myself and to readers if I could recall exact verses that were spoken and how I felt at these moments. But that wouldn’t be the truth anyway. I’m learning—or re-learning, I guess, because I think I already knew this—that millions of words, actions, and interactions accumulate over time to inform who we are and how we live in the world. I couldn’t include them all in one book, even if I could remember and separate them all.

This means I also have to be okay with being selective. When these millions of memories do emerge, the story feels out of control, like it doesn’t have a beginning, middle, or end, like it has no shape at all. Though I’ve been working on this book for nearly five years now, it still feels like a nebulous blob that won’t turn into anything but rambling (kind of like this post). But it has been there for so long now, it must be on its way.

Author’s note: This essay is part of the #52Essays2017 series. Every week in 2016, Vanessa Mártir published one essay on her blog. After a phenomenal year of challenges and growth as a writer, she invited other writers in various communities she’s a part of to join her as she endeavors to write weekly, relentlessly, again in 2017. I’m in on the challenge because I saw how very little space I gave personal reflection in 2016. This is my thesis semester, and I expect some challenges and growth as I write it. The weekly essay challenge provides a space to document that growth (though I’m already thinking I might screw with the genre a little).

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5 thoughts on “Writing memoir, rewriting memory (Essay 5 of 52)

  1. While it may feel to you at the moment like your book is rambling, it may not seem so to a reader. It may just seem, well, real. Few things in life take a straight line from point A to B to C. There are a lot of side paths and dead ends and curves and changes of direction. I think that is part of what makes memoir richer than fiction, which often pares down the story to something more sequential.

    Best wishes as you continue your writing.

    In peace,

  2. Thanks for writing this! I’m working on my memoir too, and using Maya Angelou’s quote as you have done is helpful advice. If I can get to the “truth” of how my experiences made me feel, I will be happy indeed. I grew up with a German dialect and thought that “telling stories” came from our German language, but maybe not. Do you have German language background? Anyway, hearing your experience of writing these blogs as something outside of your memoir-writing closely mirrors my own. Best wishes!

    1. Hi Steven,

      How interesting about the “telling stories” origins and uses across cultures! No, I don’t have German background (at least, not that I know of). How’s your memoir going?

      Thanks for reading,

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