what is your memoir about? my students provide shining examples

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Life: It gets all tangled up. Those of us who want to write about it have to separate the skeins.

The students of English 135.302 (University of Pennsylvania) are now hard at work on their memoirs, and I cannot wait to read them. While I wait, I look back and honor the work of my former students—excerpted in Handling the Truth.

Speaking of former students—Daniel Blas, whose fine memoir was adapted for the Pennsylvania Gazette last year—will be returning to class today to speak with Trey Popp, one of the Gazette editors, about the process. If you didn't get a chance to read Dan's work the first time around, here's your chance.

Now from Handling the Truth:

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Sometimes you can get at [the life questions] obliquely, through structure and white space. Sometimes you do it by rubbing the now against the then. Sometimes we accentuate the terrible discrepancy. Sometimes we are writing toward forgiveness—of ourselves, of others. This is the beauty of memoir. If all your memoir does is deliver story—no sediments, no tidewater, no ambiguity—we have no reason to return. If you cannot embrace the messy tug of yourself, the inescapable contradictions, the ugly and the lovely, then you are not ready yet. If you can’t make room for a reader, then please don’t expect a reader to start making room for you.

Kim, my dark-haired student with the Cleopatra eyes, chose to write her memoir about luckiness, unluckiness, and love. My favorite paragraph:

Love makes you dependent; pain pushes you to the breaking point of self-actualization. My parents’ support and the stability they provided for me is something I’m still trying to justify by replacing their hands with my own, finger by finger. Every day I lift a barricade to get through hermitage and extroversion, harmony and entropy, my mother’s love and my mother’s illness, innovation and inundation. I was lucky, I was born an American, I was born healthy, I was born into a loving home. I was unlucky, I was born judgmental, I have seen terror, I have seen desperate cries for life. So we continue: surprised, derisive, and awake by intuition.

Jonathan wrote about prayer as hobby, and about religious fanaticism:

Prayer was my new hobby, easily eating up an hour of every morning. My religious observance became systematic: I had to make sure experimental conditions were optimal. Experiments fail if they aren’t perfectly calibrated—perhaps my prayer was similarly ineffective because I was ignoring some ritualistic detail. Scientific precision was giving way to religious fanaticism. I was too skeptical of reality to reject superstition so quickly—and I had so much to lose. For two years, I was blinded by minutiae. Then I found academic biblical analysis.

Gabe wrote about surviving a heart condition; more than that, though, he wrote to imagine what a son’s illness means to a mother:

This was also probably what she begged for when, after I had gone unconscious in the hospital that day in February, the doctor spoke with her and told her that her son was very sick and that every effort was being made to save him. She had flown to Peru the night before to be with her father who was on his deathbed. She must have hung up the phone, heard the echo of the handset hitting the cradle resounding in her head, and felt her knees buckling beneath her. She somehow gathered strength, said what she thought was a last goodbye to her dying father, and boarded a plane towards Philadelphia. Those eight hours of flight must have been claustrophobically helpless. No jet plane could have flown fast enough to make this trip bearably short. No altitude could have brought her close enough to God so that she could scream loud enough in his ear to please save her son.

Responsibility—to one’s self and to others—was the theme that engaged Stephanie.

How much of your life, the life you know, is actually your own? We all do things for others, stretching out limbs like a thigmotropic plant clinging to the structure of another to both give and receive life-sustaining supplements. But what do we do for ourselves that we do not do for others? What moments are we robbed of, what people do we give too much to? And when, if ever, are we truly independent?

No one can or should tell you what to write about. But if you don’t know where the memoir impulse is coming from, if you can’t trace it, can’t defend it, can’t articulate an answer when somebody asks “Why’d you want to write a memoir anyway?”—stop. Hold those memoir horses. Either the mind has been teased for years upon years, or there’s that small thing that won’t be refused, or there’s something else genuine and worthy. But nobody wants to hear that you’re writing memoir because you need some quick cash, or because you think it will make you famous, or because your boyfriend said there’s a movie in this, or because you’re just so mad and it’s about time you get to tell your version.


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