Thursday, July 30, 2015

Memoir versus Memoire

"Stop Reflection" Canal St Martin, Paris 2015
This year in France I faced a gap I had sensed was there before, but didn't really research. This gap is between the American world of memoir - someone doing book-length or essay-length writing about a particular period or theme in their life - and the lack of such a category in French literature.

Does this mean that no one has written memoir in French? Not at all. But the tendency in French literature is towards either fiction or autobiography - autobiography being more a factual description of the entire life of someone famous, written by themselves. While personal essays certainly exist, the tendency with essays and other personal writing is more towards intellectual writing.

And the word "memoire" - which means "memory" - refers to a very academic project, akin to someone's thesis or dissertation.

When I say in French literature, I literally mean literature written in French, from France - not meaning "outre-mer", Canadian, or post-colonial literature, aka "Francophone." There you can find stronger examples - Dany Laferriere's writing, for instance, which skirts the lines between memoir and fiction. He is a Haitian writer who began writing in earnest once he exiled to Quebec. But for the most part, only famous people have gotten away with anything akin to what we would call memoir. Simone de Beauvoir, so famous for her huge feminist tome The Second Sex, wrote four great memoirs; though they are referred to as a four-volume autobiography, they often have more the tone of memoir . However, your average person couldn't get away with publishing something so personal, so akin to what we call memoir in the States.

My French students are hungry for it, though. They desperately want to be able to write their own stories, whether or not they get published. In fact, they have an even more realistic understanding that they may not get published. They are blown away by the idea that others write this kind of thing, that others want to read it, in a more fundamental way that the average self-doubting American is blown away by reading memoir or hearing about it.

I am excited to dig into this exploration with them, a firmly new ground. I know others have come before, and I can't wait to find them. I know others must be doing similar things, and I am lined up to collaborate. Let's get deep into memories, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and all the good ground of life that French minds will love to explore. 


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mental Health Memoir

In the last few months, I have found myself coaching four separate people working on memoirs about mental health struggles. The more I work with groups and individuals on these issues, the more it becomes clear to me how essential these stories are. How rarely they are told with accuracy, total honesty, and just how hard it is to express the experience of struggling with reality, or what you are told is reality, in a way that can be conveyed clearly.

I asked one student recently if she could explain more clearly, for instance, what is it like to lose time? She experienced a manic period a few years ago, and for a month or so she couldn't seem to track time. I asked her if this is considered normal - not because I needed to normalize her experience, but just to give some context. Yes, she said, but she didn't know that until later. She's reluctant - understandably - to explain what was going on since at the time she didn't know. It feels truer to her experience to just tell it like it was, which is to say that she not only lost time but wasn't particularly aware of it, much less losing it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Autobiography of Someone Else


After re-reading Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid, it's tempting to say that any autobiography is the story of someone else. Even our inner other.
Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you. -Jamaica Kincaid

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Evidence


How rare it is, in the process of writing memoir, that we find evidence.
Evidence that our version of the story was true, or not true.
Evidence that something we remember happening happened, and, more keenly, happened the way we remember it.

The fact is, most of the time, we are composing in the dark. And as we write, our understanding (hopefully!) changes. Therefore, our story changes. All of this I have written about a lot on this blog. But today I have something new and powerful to share.

I recently found evidence I hadn't really been looking for.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Autobiography of My Mother

For this quarter's Read and Write, we read and discussed and wrote from Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid. The book, from title forward, is a bit of a mind-fuck, as I said to my students.
First of all, how can someone write someone else's autobiography?
Second of all, the character immediately writes that her mother died.
Third of all, it becomes clear (if it does) that the narrator is actually telling the autobiography of her mother, but in her mother's voice. So this is a story that exists - and yet - the mother claims she has no children, and her child is the one writing her autobiography.
Finally, this book is classified as a novel. What?

What do all of these gaps do? They turn the head on its side, playing with our expectations and biases in literature and memoir. Hopefully, they keep us wide open. The book demands that we stay open, keep exploring, sometimes coming in at a distance, sometimes going in full face, right up to oppression and trauma.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Half a Life

hell fire entrance, photo 2012 herspiral
Last night, I began reading a book I'd picked up at St Vinnie's a few days before. It was a half hour before bed, not a great time to start a new book, but I was in book limbo and didn't want something as stimulating as magazine articles or the internet.

I picked up Half a Life by Darin Strauss. A beautiful cover, made by McSweeney's, with a strong recommendation on the front from Carrie Fisher. I'd read the first few pages, and a few from the middle, while still standing in the biography section of Vinnie's. It looked good. It only cost $2.
Why not.

I finished the book in 2.5 hours, two hours past my bedtime. I could not put it down. It's a very compelling story, and the kind that some would potentially call a faultily self-absorbed memoir. But for me, the fact that he reflects on his memory process, his growth process and even his writing process sold me.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Few Seconds

I love this quote from an interview with Kevin Brockmeier about his recent memoir (previously mentioned on this blog): A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: a Memoir of Seventh Grade - 

I hope it's not graceless to say that while I was writing the book I also read a pair of memoirs that I found dissatisfyingly sterile or lazy in very specific (and fundamentally opposite) ways: negative examples. One of them was carefully and deliberately composed and seemed wholly faithful to the facts of the writer's life, but failed to offer anything like the lived experience of those facts, and the other was brimming with the lived experience of its writer's life, and was probably faithful to the facts, but was very poorly crafted — passionate, but at the expense of some vibrancy or precision in the phrasing. I did my best to avoid those shortcomings.

So many people focus on "how did you remember all that?!" And instead Brockmeier says the importance for him is emotional resonance. Read more here:

And another couple of quotes, from a different interview, where he more directly addresses questions about his book being on the edge between fiction and  memoir:

While I was working on the book, I found myself describing it interchangeably as either a memoir that employed the tactics of a novel or a novel that employed the tactics of a memoir—and, in fact, the version of the manuscript I submitted to my editor came with a long string of subtitles: a memoir, a novel, a recollective, a nonfiction novel, an autobiographical novel, a novel from life, a kind of memoir, a memoir-novel-thing, and, finally, what is this? True, I organized the book around one particular year of my life, and I tried hard to remain faithful to the way I actually experienced that year, but my stance toward the material was certainly peculiar, and behaving as though your past is unspooling before your senses in all its color and specificity is as much an act of creation as it is of recollection, don’t you think?

I suppose I would say that both memoir and nonfiction attempt to convey the truth, stripped of fabrication, but that memoir is in part about imaginingthe truth and that most other forms of nonfiction are simply about telling the truth. I’m sure there are other distinctions to be drawn, even contradictory ones, but that’s what writing A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip felt like for me: a sustained act of imagining my way into the truth.

That second interview is here:
http://garev.uga.edu/wordpress/index.php/2014/01/imagining-my-way-into-the-truth-an-interview-with-kevin-brockmeier/