Writing a memoir involves working with one’s memory, as well as other people’s, if necessary. I’m finding it disconcerting. Have I remembered that event correctly? Did my mother really do that? What grade was I in when I fell off the horse? Homing in on specific events for the purpose of writing them down leaves me uncertain. I realized that I’m used to either making things up for my fiction, or sticking to the facts, ma’am, in my essays. I felt lost.
So, I decided to take a class. I have found that if I can’t write through a problem to the solution, sometimes a class will help me by either sparking new ideas about the problem or new solutions. I’m fortunate that I live close enough to take writing classes at The Loft Literary Center in downtown Minneapolis. I was in a class this morning with 14 other women, and our teacher was Cheri Register, author of the memoir Packinghouse Daughter. I have read her book about living with chronic illness, The Chronic Illness Experience: Embracing the Imperfect Life, which is now out of print but available in libraries and on Amazon. She titled her class this morning, “Filling the Gaps in your Memoir” and I wanted to announce as soon as I walked in the door that so far I had nothing but gaps in my memoir.
On the white board behind Register, she’d written an agenda for the class: “Memory. Other’s Accounts. Speculation. Research + Documentation.” I felt my focus concentrate in on those words. We spent the first half talking about working with memory, the gaps in memory, ways to deal with those gaps, and dealing with other people’s versions of the same memory. “You, as the writer, choose what’s important in the memoir, whether you focus on memory as your subject, factual accuracy, or somewhere in between on that spectrum.”I choose. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. Emotional accuracy is more important to me than factual accuracy. The memory of emotions draws readers in more powerfully, like a tsunami undertow, than a recitation of facts.
I realized that my uncertainty regarding my parents and their experiences of the events I was relating in the first half of my memoir wasn’t my memoir’s focus, but my emotional experience of my parents during the events. How they responded, or didn’t, and how their response affected me — how it stayed with me, influenced me in adulthood, or taught me some truth about life. Now I was clear. It didn’t really matter as much as I feared that both my parents were dead and I could no longer call them to check on a memory we shared. Furthermore, as Cheri continued, I learned, to my tremendous surprise, that my instincts had been correct about dealing with how other people’s memories might disagree with mine of the same event. What a relief.
She asked us about the purpose of writing our memoirs. The purpose can help clarify the focus and place the memoir on the memory vs. factual accuracy spectrum. After a break, she taught us how to use speculation to home in on a memory’s emotional truth, or to work out the meaning of a memory. To flesh out a memory fragment with the emotional truth of it. Research and documentation can then buttress the speculation or serve as a starting point, a foundation on which to build the speculative truth.
There are no hard and fast rules for writing a memoir. The writer needs to establish her purpose for writing it first and let that be her guide. Writing a memoir is a writer’s effort to make life coherent, to understand the life. Emotional memories drive the forward momentum of a memoir. I have a wonderful, positive, and warm memory of this class that I believe will drive and sustain me as I work in the coming weeks…..