Friday, October 2, 2015

Who Tells and How They Tell

I re-read Kay Redfield Jamison's Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness recently. I've been called to work with numerous people on memoirs that include psychosis and mania, so I knew it was time to look at how a major bestseller depicts this realm.

One of the things that is powerful in re-reading a book like this years after the initial reading is noticing how much I have changed, and how much the market has changed. Redfield Jamison, an academic and brilliant woman, writes about her experience mostly through telling. She uses very occasional scenes to show experiences of mania and depression, but for the most part she narrates what happened, and summarizes, relying on her own creedance as a researcher and psychologist to stand behind her story.

This is understandable. In 1996 in particular, memoir was less in a place of confession or even direct story revealing, and more a short version of autobiography.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

You Are Not Your Memoir

Sunday afternoon on Canal St. Martin, Paris, 2015

Here's the super tricky thing about memoir. Your readers, should you have any, are subject to the same problem that you are as the writer: they believe that you are your story. I am not talking about telling the truth here, or not in some explicit way. I am not saying that you can lie about how you lived, or mis-tell it deliberately, and scoff it off by saying that's just how you remember it. I am talking about something far more subtle - that the act of writing itself can convince us that this is it, the story for real, the final telling, and that it does not change at all and this is in fact the facts.

Natalie Goldberg addresses this in a passage from Writing Down the Bones. It's about poems, but you know it can be about anything, especially about memoir...
It is very painful to become frozen in your poems...the real life is in writing, not in reading the same ones over and over again for years..we don't exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don't identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.
-from We Are Not the Poem by Natalie Goldberg

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


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.