Memory into Memoir
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Memory into Memoir

A Writer's Handbook

Laura Kalpakian

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  1. 208 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Memory into Memoir

A Writer's Handbook

Laura Kalpakian

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About This Book

The memoir is not the story of what you know, it's the story of how you learned it. Memory into Memoir provides a lively guide for anyone looking to wrestle the unruly past onto the page. In thirteen chapters, Laura Kalpakian provides tools to develop narrative form, scenic depiction, character development, and dialogue. There are chapters devoted to excavating the Family Story and the slippery Truth, especially when telling stories not solely your own. Kalpakian explores the use of letters, diaries, and photographs, and she offers tips for research, publishing choices, and the uses of music. With a broad exploration of technique and development, and a range of reference, Memory into Memoir includes examples, extensive resources, and animating prompts. The seasoned writer, the aspiring writer, and the reluctant writer looking for a knowledgeable, encouraging companion will find Memory into Memoir the go-to guide for a successful, fulfilling writing experience.

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1 |

The Past Meets the Page

The past is a work of art, free of irrelevancies and loose ends.
—Comment, Max Beerbohm (1872–1956)
Everyone has memories, but not everyone writes a memoir. Writing a memoir does not pin the past to the page in some sort of static taxidermy; on the contrary, the memoir strives to make the past vivid, available, to make it memorable, for that matter. Writing a memoir returns the writer—and the reader—to those old traditions of storytelling, the sorts of tales once related by elders round ancient campfires, stories rich in lore, a sort of treasury of who we are, how we came to be, and what we owe to our ancestors (even if it’s not gratitude). Writing a memoir allows you to endow memory with significance, with structure and voice. Writing a memoir focuses your past, energizes long-lost voices, illuminates anecdote. Writing a memoir means revisiting, reviving family stories. Writing a memoir can be an act of courage or gratitude or a plea for understanding, even a bulwark against loss. Writing a memoir means reconsidering what you thought you already knew. Writing a memoir does not create the past, or even re-create the past, but makes the past legible. Writing a memoir transforms amorphous memory into narrative prose, tangible, a thing with girth and worth. Even a thing of beauty.
The memoir can take many forms, but the question—what is a memoir—might best be answered by what it is not. The memoir cannot boast of being The Truth, but it must certainly aspire to A Truth. The memoir is not a novel, that is to say, fiction, though it uses the same writerly tools. It is neither a legal document, nor an affidavit. It is not the courtroom where the writer testifies under penalty of perjury. However, it is in some fashion, testimony. It’s not the confessional that can confer absolution, though certainly there are writers for whom putting the past on paper is itself a victory, and there are writers for whom the pages become a vessel of understanding, if not absolution.
The memoir is different from an autobiography in terms of scope. Autobiography, usually written by an elderly person, suggests the chronological sweep of a whole life, structured from childhood to old age. The memoir is a smaller slice of a person’s life. Frank McCourt wrote two more memoirs following Angela’s Ashes. Dani Shapiro, Mary Karr, Patti Smith, Helen Forrester, Penelope Lively, Rick Bass, and even Tina Turner have all written several memoirs exploring different aspects, and different time periods of their lives. A person might write many memoirs, but only one autobiography.
A memoir usually covers a specific era in the writer’s life such as childhood or adolescence. It can concentrate on discrete life events such as parenthood or a divorce, or some other particular moment. One writer I worked with described the summers she spent at a Camp Fire Girls camp in northern California, a work that eventually became a history of that camp published by the Kern County Historical Society. Another writer picked up the pen to describe her experience as a cook on an African entomological expedition fifty years earlier, and her return to an America that was as changed as she was. But the memoir can certainly expand beyond these singular life events. The memoir can explore one’s professional life, as does Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. (And very often you’ll find that mini-memoirs serve as the introduction to nonfiction books, a personal account of how the writer came by their passion for their field.) The memoir can also weave together different kinds of experiences. The wildly successful Eat, Pray, Love combines exotic travel with the author’s pain and confusion over a divorce and a doomed love affair. Travel writing itself can be a form of memoir, observation interwoven with experience and history. In The Hundred Mile Walk: An Armenian Odyssey, Dawn Anahid MacKeen tells parallel stories of her grandfather’s experience in Turkey in 1915, and her own travels reconstructing his unthinkable journey. Cheryl Strayed in Wild combined the challenge of the Pacific Crest Trail with her grief at her mother’s death. The memoir can be a portrait of someone who loomed large in the life of the writer, say, a powerful but abusive parent, a beloved but difficult sibling like Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It, or a beloved but difficult child like Paula Becker’s A House on Stilts: Mothering in the Age of Opiate Addiction. The memoir can place a little-known individual at the heart of exciting events. (Everyone who so much as sipped a coffee at a Parisian café in the 1920s seems to have written a memoir.) In some ways, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is as much a memoir as Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone.
The memoir can also record stories outside the immediate experience of the author. Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderful Speak, Memory begins with long, digressive chapters on his maternal and paternal grandparents and their lives and adventures in nineteenth-century Russia, long before the writer was born. Alexander Stille in The Force of Things: A Marriage in Peace and War tells the compelling story of his parents’ uneasy marriage: his father an Italian Jew escaped from the Fascists, his mother a WASP American princess. The memoir can also tell the story of someone adjacent to one’s own life. In H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald melds her hawking experience and her grief at her father’s death with a tense inquiry into the life of the writer T. H. White (1906–1964). Martha Oliver-Smith’s memoir, Martha’s Mandala, is rooted in her own childhood and youth, but her real subject is her artistic grandmother, Martha Bacon, who was married to an autocratic poet. (Yes, that seems a strange combination, but it was true.) One of my favorite memoirs, Maxine Kingston’s Woman Warrior, a series of essays, opens with “No Name Woman,” an imaginative reconstruction of an ancestor whose very existence has been erased.
A family memoir can and should enlarge upon events not directly experienced by the writer, particularly if all that might be otherwise lost. Certainly this was true for my mother, Peggy Kalpakian Johnson. Initially she followed one of the prompts given in the next chapter, but in doing so, the thought came to her that she alone could preserve her parents’ story. Peggy was the last living person in her immediate family and only she could save their experience from dwindling into threadbare recollection as the years and generations passed.

The First-Person Narrator

The writer of a memoir will labor under constraints that the novelist does not face. The novelist has the option of creating a narrator distant, quite apart from the characters—a third-person narrator, one in which all the characters are “he” or “she.” The third-person narrator can easily hop from one person’s deepest thoughts to another’s. The third-person narrator can observe events from multiple points of view, as in, for instance, The Grapes of Wrath where Steinbeck moves the story among various members of the Joad family. The third-person narrator offers the writer and the reader breadth. The memoir, on the other hand, is obliged to be rooted in an “I” through whom the story will pass. This does not mean that “I” must be present in every scene, witness to everything, but “I” is the conduit through which the tale is told. The first-person narrator offers the writer and the reader depth, intimacy. When novelists want to suggest this sort of intimacy, they employ a first-person narrator, an “I,” to tell their tales. (Think Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, as far back as Daniel Defoe’s nefarious Moll Flanders and the unrepentant Roxana, the Fortunate Mistress.) Unlike fiction, the first-person narrator of the memoir has an added, even deeper implied intimacy: I alone can tell this tale.
These considerations have corollaries. First among them is that I lived to tell this tale. Thus, with a story like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, we know that however unthinkable, abysmal, and impoverished was his childhood, he lived through it. We hold his book in our hands. In picking up Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, we don’t know if she conquered the Pacific Crest Trail, but we know she lived through the attempt. We hold her book in our hands. In a novel the central character can die, but the memoir cannot end in the death and destruction of the Narrator. (Unless indeed, like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Paul Monette’s AIDS memoir, Borrowed Time, the author himself dies, and the task is finished by someone else.)
Secondly, I alone can tell this tale presupposes there is a tale. However bizarre the events in the memoir, readers trust that the Narrator is sane, that her tale will be coherent. Novelists are often fond of that wily creature, the Unreliable Narrator, whose story might leap all around in time, in essence, insisting that the reader must run after that story (and insuring that the reader will always arrive a little late and probably out of breath). For the writer of a memoir, to billow off into the incoherent breaks an implied pact with the reader. Though the narrator of a memoir may be inflamed (and the narrative colored) by emotion, and though the story needn’t be wholly straightforward, the narrator of a memoir is generally thought to be more reliable than the narrator of fiction.
The memoir is also generally assumed to be a story with shape, an arc that suggests a journey from one set of circumstances to another; in short, some sort of change effected. Change can be organic as from childhood to adulthood, or tumultuous as a chronicle of exile, or political, or sexual awareness, or coming through trauma, or a journey to wellness, or travels and adventures, or even a story of someone more beautiful, more doomed, more courageous than the pen-wielding author. Even those books of memoir essays (such as the already mentioned Woman Warrior and Speak, Memory) true, you could open it to any one essay, read, and be rewarded. But read front to back, the order in which the essays are given, suggests an overall thematic.
The implication in writing a memoir is always that the narrator learned, grew; that the narrator is somehow altered by the events she describes. The most important guide for writer of a memoir is this: the memoir is not the story of what you know, it is the story of how you learned it.
Why write a memoir? No one’s life can be encapsulated by the Sum of Their Posts, the Sum of Their Tweets, those threadlike connections that hover in a disembodied cloud, Why write a memoir? Because you alone can tell this tale—even if, like Camp Fire Girls summer camp, or the African entomological expedition, you shared that experience with others. Your story is worth that effort. If you do not convey it to the page, those events, those emotions, those people and places will dwindle and attenuate over time. Those summer days, those frosty nights, that pealing laughter, those tears, that shriek of shock will all dissolve into nothingness. Conversely, I can promise you that once you start to write, the past will open up for you; it will deepen and develop. The more you write your memoir, the more your memories will accrue and accelerate. You will remember what you did not know you had forgotten.

2 |

In the Beginning?

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely,
“and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
Beginnings are always difficult, vexing, frustrating. Where to begin? How? Anyone starting a memoir will see roiling before their eyes a thicket of people, a tangle of events, many befogged, some befuddled. How to reconstruct the past? Do you as a writer address it as a series of events, like falling dominos, one event leading inexorably to another—in other words, how-could-it-be-otherwise? Or as a quilt that can be ceaselessly ripped up and re-patterned, maybe using the same squares, but bringing them together under new motifs? Beginnings are messy. Accept that. If you write Chapter One and expect the rest of the story to ribbon out from there, you could end up staring at those two words, Chapter One, for a very long time. Indeed, you could end up with a sort of writerly paralysis. Start instead with writing that is simple, declarative, unadorned, and later add depth and detail and develop narrative from that core; thus, the process of Describe/Develop/Create.
DESCRIBE: Spark swiftly. Visual/sensory description.
DEVELOP: Expand. Add details. Ask questions of your material. Even if you don’t have answers, the questions are important.
CREATE: Using the details and descriptions, make narrative from what you have. Put it into scenes, into a story, remembering that this too is draft and will be enhanced and enriched later on. The writing doesn’t have to be beautiful; it just has to be.
Use whatever is at hand to spark your process of Describe, Develop, and Create. Old addresses, photographs, fading Polaroids, ordinary objects, fleeting sensory recollections—any of these can offer an avenue to turn memory into memoir.

Prompt: The Object

1.DESCRIBE this object: Every little thing you can recall about it. Not just looks. Smell. Sound. The heft or texture. Make your information detailed and complex. Good grammar not essential!
2.DEVELOP: Put this object into a context. How do you see it and where? Describe vividly not just the object, but its environment, indeed its ambience (which will require memory and imagination). The context will affect the object. For instance:
Is the prom dress on the sewing machine or on the dance floor? (That is, the difference between the prom dress laying across the sewing machine still in pieces, or being waltzed around the decorated gym with a corsage pinned to it.)
Is the upright piano in your living room or in the tavern on 4th and Grand?
Is the frying pan on the stove or is it in the back of the van, ready for a camping trip?
Is the chemistry set in the garage or classroom?
The doll in the arms of a child has a different context, time frame, and ambience than a doll languishing at the bottom of a closet.
The sleeping bag rolled out on the bare springs of a youth hostel bed among snoring, foreign strangers has a different ambience than the one you took to pajama parties as a kid.
3.CREATE a scene using the context you have developed in which you ally this object to an individual. Are you the one pushing the lawn mower? Who is playing the flute and where: a recital, a marching band, alone on the front porch, a summer night? The scene should not only describe the physical world, but also evoke the mood associated with this object. Moreover, the individual allied to this object should be as clearly drawn as the object itself.
But perhaps the past is not available to you in solid, reliable objects, nouns. Perhaps you can only remember it in shards.

Prompt: First Things Fast

FIRST SOUND: Do you have an early recollection of a persistent or particular sound? (Traffic? Thunder? The ice-cream truck? Gears grinding? A doorbell? Thumping of a rolling pin? Typewriter? Radio or television voices, theme songs or ad ditties? Rain?)
FIRST SCENT: Is there a scent or an odor or an aroma that zaps you right back to . . . maybe you are not even sure where i...

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