Memoir Handouts by Denise Low

© Denise Low 2021

Consciousness is a complicated stew of sensations and memory. It is the seam of coal that writers mine for material. Literary writing is one way to organize this mass of moments into order, even gems. Here are some characteristics of memory that impact writing, poetry or prose:

  • Memory compresses ideas and complex experiences into a few snapshots that are easy to store in memory. These images are building blocks of literary works.
  • Memory is not abstract. Memory latches onto aroma, visuals, sound. Smell is especially potent, as it is one of the most primal senses.
  • Memory recurs, varied in each context, with different framing and understanding.
  • People have a compulsion to re-remember through life stages. Annual, 7-year cycles (Saturn returns), other frequencies may apply. It is almost an organic process for older people to have memory cycles, going back to childhood especially.
  • Memories create psychological home/identity. Note “home” in some of these examples:

Distilling the Coal: Compression of Memory—with Reflection. Here is a compressed memory of one of the poet’s birthdays—compressed into a single nugget. So much is left out in order to give this concise memory its shape

Nostros * by Louise Gluck  (*Nostros means “homecoming” in Greek)There was an apple tree in the yard—
this would have been
forty years ago—behind,
only meadows. Drifts
of crocus in the damp grass.
I stood at that window:
late April. Spring
flowers in the neighbor’s yard.
How many times, really, did the tree
flower on my birthday,
the exact day, not
before, not after? Substitution
of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth. What
do I know of this place,
the role of the tree for decades
taken by a bonsai, voices
rising from the tennis courts—
Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory. (from A Village Life, Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The last two lines of this poem have been important to me as I wrote the book Wing (Red Mountain Press), which is about comparisons and pairings: childhood’s first experience, on the one hand, and memories for that experience, on the other hand. The act of memory is the act of making metaphors, as nothing can duplicate the original experience. Even language is a process of using memory—of metaphor. The living tree becomes a “bonsai” of her memory—reduced in her imagination.

Another thing: The reportage of Gluck’s images is enhanced by her reflection. Balance of reflections and images, inner and outer worlds, is one of Gluck’s strengths. Poetry or prose, the enhancement of facts with a personal touch is important, as well as the curatorial process: what selection of details can best convey a story or discussion?

Memory Connects to Concrete Images Imagery in literature includes all five senses, not just the sense of sight. Here is a poem about the sense of hearing, and this is somewhat autobiographical (I have had the joy of knowing Stafford before his death in 1993). Many poets work with autobiographical details as starting points.

Listening by William Stafford

My father could hear a little animal step,

or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us had never been.

More spoke to him from the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.

My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that other place. (from West of Your City, Los Gatos Talisman Press)

He lists sounds, and also implications of those “wild night” sounds. Notice Stafford’s synesthesia, or interchanging senses, so the sound of the night becomes, at the end, a tactile touch. Stafford usually has a twist at the end like this.

Emblematic Story in Memoir A memoir can focus on a single, significant incident that represents an ongoing conflict, as in this poem by Natalie Diaz:

My Brother at 3 A.M. by Natalie Diaz

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps

when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.

        O God, he said. O God.

                He wants to kill me, Mom.

When Mom unlocked and opened the front door

at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.

        He wants to kill me, he told her,

                looking over his shoulder.

3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,

What’s going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you?

        He looked over his shoulder.

                The devil does. Look at him, over there.

She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you?

The sky wasn’t black or blue but the green of a dying night.

        The devil, look at him, over there.

                He pointed to the corner house.

The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.

Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.

        My brother pointed to the corner house.

                His lips flickered with sores.

Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.

O God, I can see the tail, he said. O God, look.

        Mom winced at the sores on his lips.

                It’s sticking out from behind the house.

O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.

        Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.

                O God, O God, she said. (from My Brother Was an Aztec, Copper Canyon Press)

Here the incident is described from different angles, and the vivid descriptions create an emphasis, as well as repetitions. This is a recursive poem, almost a pantoum, which circles and emphasizes the intensity of this single incident. The title of the book refers to this brother, and this flash-story represents the quandary for the family as they navigate problems with the brother’s addiction. This story is a microcosm of the book’s theme. Poets and many prose writers use two-dimensional characters like Diaz’s brother because focus is not on character development, Rather the individuals could be in fairy tales or parables, where the brief outline of a person evokes an archetype or other standard character. This allows streamlined writing, with minimal digressions. Short stories and novels are about characters.

Recursive Forms in Memoir Poetry, especially with the repetitive patterns—villanelles, pantoums, and songs with refrains—mimics the recurring nature of memory. Repetition is a way to embed memoir into the very structure of a piece of writing. Prose also benefits from recurring motifs—I added periodic references to turtles in my own memoir, The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (University of Nebraska), to create a through line of evocative imagery.

Duplex by Jericho Brown

A poem is a gesture toward home.

It makes dark demands I call my own.

                Memory makes demands darker than my own:

                My last love drove a burgundy car. 

My first love drove a burgundy car. 

He was fast and awful, tall as my father.

                Steadfast and awful, my tall father

                Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks. 

Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark

Like the sound of a mother weeping again.

                Like the sound of my mother weeping again,

                No sound beating ends where it began. 

None of the beaten end up how we began. 

A poem is a gesture toward home. (from Tradition, Copper Canyon Press)

A “duplex” is a poem made up of couplets. The 3rd line repeats, with some minor variation, the line before, and the 4th line is new, the 5th repeats it, and so forth to the end of the poem, like falling dominos. The last line repeats the first line (AB / BC / CD / DE / EF / FA). This recursive poem is about repeating generational patterns. The speaker first acknowledges memory, as “home,” and then begins a story about his two lovers in burgundy cars. He returns to memory when he describes how the last lover resembles his tall father, an “awful” man who beat him with blows “hard as a hailstorm.” The lover also abused him and left intangible marks, repeating an emotional pattern. The weeping mother responds to this violence in two almost identical lines. The final line, then, clinches this memory, or “home,” snaps it shut as readers better understand the narrator’s reason for making this assertion. Form and theme are perfectly paired.

Voice Like all good writing, a memoir’s voice is consistent. It is a persona, not exactly the author’s, even if it is autobiographical—the artifice of writing reduces personality, like memory, into graspable forms. Memoir further is about the voice, perhaps more than other forms.

Some Conclusions . . . . Selection, use of the five senses, specific details, emblematic stories, and repetition are keys to good memoir-driven writing, as well as voice. And what all am I leaving out here?

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Here is a handout designed for prose more than poetry:

MEMOIR: TOUCHABLE MEMORY

A memoir is a personal story about a dramatic or interesting part of a lifetime. The personal story exists within history and geography, and these must be touchstones in a memoir. Because lives are not neat sequences, an important part of the process is editing out the useless information. Here are some further definitions of memoir:

  •  “Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, memoir narrows the lens, focusing on a time in the writer’s life that was unusually vivid, such as childhood or adolescence, or that was framed by war or travel or public service or some other special circumstance” William Zinsser (Inventing the Truth)
  •  “Memoir has its roots in memory. Often, that memory may relate to childhood, with an adult writer looking back at her early life to consider how certain youthful experiences shaped and molded the person. . ..” (D. W. Moore, Truth of the Matter)
  •  “A memoir is a special kind of autobiography, usually involving a public portion of the author’s life as it relates to a person, historic event, or thing.” Barbara Doyen (“What Is a Memoir,” Writing Nonfiction)
  • Memoir and history regard each other across a wide divide. In effect, they’re goalposts marking the extremes of nonfiction. The turf that separates them—and connects them—is the vast playing field of memory.” (Patricia Hampl & Elaine May, Tell Me True)

Genre? Memoir can borrow techniques from all the rhetorical modes: Description, Exposition, Narration, and Persuasion. The style of any good prose writer uses the lyricism of Poetry.

In the United States, memoir is part of a growing field of nonfiction prose, which developed after In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966), a factual account presented as a novel. 21st century memoir is a hybrid form, mixing historic exposition with heightened language and fictional techniques. Nonfiction prose has three major branches—

  • Expository or informational nonfiction. Examples are journalism and textbooks. The primary intent is instruction.
  • Literary nonfiction’s primary intent is beauty and/or entertainment. Genres include: autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, personal essays, personal critical essays, commentaries, reviews of works of art, nature writing, city writing, travel writing, science writing, true crime, meditations, journals, letters, and cultural commentary.
  • Hybrid forms or “mixed genre” include fictionalized versions of the above or other combinations.

Characteristics of Memoir

  • The point of view is an authorial “I” voice that engages the reader.
  • A memoir is located in a geographic place and an historic time. These may be very important or background setting.
  • Like history and geography, a memoir includes verifiable facts.
  • It shows rather than tells; and dramatizes through scenes with dramatic buildups, conclusions, and dialogue.
  • Its style can be straightforward or adorned with heightened, poetic language.

Memoir Plotlines:

  • Childhood stories: coming of age, overcoming adversity, immigration, rags to riches
  • Survival memoirs can include medical adversities, accidents, and grief
  • Historic events: a personal story set during Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnam Conflict, assassination of Martin Luther King
  • Topical memoirs have a personal story of a specific topic, like food, horse racing, life on Wall Street, traveling with the carnival, Hollywood careers
  • Travel memoir is where a person describes a trip combined with personal stories.
  • Double memoir is a story with the narrator sharing narration through letters or dual authorship.
  • Removed memoir: The author narrates a story about someone else.

Memoir Structure: Another way to look at memoirs is through their structure:

  • Simple timeline, like Black Elk Speaks; diaries, journals, and letters
  • Geographic or space orientation, for a travel memoir
  • Flashbacks, like Sally Carrighar’s Home to the Wilderness
  • Braiding several stories together
  • Themes unfolding, like meals in a food memoir

How to write a memoir.

The best way to learn how to write a memoir is to read them. Here are some tips:

  1. Think about why you are writing this memoir. For my family memoir, I want to explain my grandfather’s Native identity to my children and grandchildren, first. I want to inform those who are interested in Kansas and Native histories, second.
  2. Who is the audience? Family or public? General audience or educated in your field? How you choose vocabulary and style will depend on your reader.
  3. Focus the setting. Choose a short time frame in a specific place. Don’t try to cover too much or skip around, unless you have a clear plan (braiding, flashbacks, etc.).
  4. What is your vantage point? Are you an adult looking back on childhood, or are you speaking with the voice of a child? Whatever you choose, be consistent.
  5. Use colorful description and scenes to show your story. These add texture. Use just enough summary exposition for clarity.
  6. Layer your writing. Simple bare bones of Grandmother attending a one-room schoolhouse in winter is of little interest. Create a plot, of the day the raccoon attacked a kid, for example. Add a layer of description of the room. Dramatize the characters by how they look, act, and speak (you can reconstruct dialogue).
  7. Reflect, briefly, at high points in your dramas. This personal assessment gives depth to the memoir.
  8. End with a significant discovery. How are you changed? How are people around you changed?
  9. Don’t be afraid to start over. Finding the best structure or voice may take several tries.

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MAPPING A MEMOIR: WRITING A DRAFT

  1. PRE-WRITING Answer the following questions in 1-3 sentences.

START: What image or memory or feeling is the starting point for your memoir idea?

HISTORIC SETTING: In general terms, what historic time period is this? Where?

WHO ARE YOU? How old are you? What kind of person are you at that time?

OTHERS: Besides yourself, who are the other people (or dog/cat people) in this

memory?

STORY SUMMARY Describe in one or two sentences the main action in your remembered story.

OUTCOME: What was the outcome at that time, in one or two sentences.

2. WRITE A FIRST DRAFT Using the perspective gained from Part I above, write your remembered story in 50-100 words. You will need another sheet of paper. In this draft, include:

  • HOOK: Revise the first sentence to get the reader’s attention.
  • SET THE SCENE: Describe time and place with visual snapshots of the setting
  • CHARACTERS: Introduce characters, including your former self
  • ACTION: What happened and to whom and where? What was the conflict?
  • CONCLUSION: Resolution to what happened

3. REFLECTION & REVISION If you can, read your draft to someone else and notice their response, both verbal cues and body language. Then answer the following in 1-3 sentences:

SURPRISES: What surprises occurred as you heard your writing read aloud?

HEIGHTEN PLOT: Where is the turning point in the action? If there isn’t any, add one.

REPEATED THEMES: What repeated themes or motifs (like turtles in my memoir The Turtle’s Beating Heart) do you notice. How can you stress these more in your revisions?

IMPROVE: How can you make this more interesting to a reader? People like to discover new knowledge or insights into human character. What can readers learn from this that is new?

4. EMBELLISHMENT Rewrite your draft, thinking of the suggestions of others and your own reflection. Add the following:

  • SETTING: Make sure the physical setting has architecture, plants, animals, furniture, weather, furnishings, and other details that make it realistic. Add these details as needed.
  • CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS: Add size, smell, fashion, shoes, haircuts, ears, and other details that suggest character. Add a gesture to a main character.
  • DIALOGUE: During the high point of the action (or plot), add some dialogue. Put double quotation marks around words spoken aloud.
  • REFLECTION: At the very end, add several sentences about what changed.

5. CONTINUING THE MEMOIR Set the second draft aside for a day or two. Then look at it again with fresh eyes. You may want to read it aloud to yourself or to a tolerant friend. Then revise:

  • PROOFREAD: for grammar and sentences.
  • STYLE: See if you can make the style more interesting. Add some fun verbs, like “The dog slouched / drooled / sashayed / wheezed under the porch.”
  • THEME: What is the overall theme of the story? Insert the themes in a few more places.
  • KEEP GOING: Write another story that continues the theme. And another. Publish your book and become rich and famous!

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