Stuart [Dybek] surprised me when he told us on the first day of class that writing was about memory—making memories matter in the present. Writing, description in particular, was a matter of translating personal obsessions into words. When you write you explore your own mind, a process that is largely intuitive and unconscious.
I remember so much. And then I think how useless my memories are. It was Camus, wasn’t it, who wrote that the sorrow of exiles is to live with a memory that serves no purpose.
We think of writing as springing from memory, when in fact it may be that memory often springs from writing. The assumption that memory is waiting to spill its contents onto the page may be faulty. More likely, the writing, as guided by the music of the writer’s voice, is what leads us back through a labyrinth to a memory we once lost. The commitment to the writing, the attending to the presentness of the narrative, the act of imagining, the willingness to trust inspiration may be the surest route to the vividness of memory.
In The Comfort of Things, the anthropologist Daniel Miller refutes “the myth of materialism,” the assumption that “our relationships to things” thrive “at the expense of our relationships to people.” He argues, on the contrary, that our experiences with objects and people “are much more akin and entwined than is commonly accepted.” Based on the ethnographic study that he conducted in a South London neighborhood, the book shows that domestic objects not only represent their owners but also accrue meanings from the relationships that their possessors have with other people. Inevitably some of the objects in the households he visited had been intentional or unintentional legacies: They were left to their owners by family members or friends now dead, or, more simply, they were what was left of these loved ones. Photographs, clothes, jewelry, paintings, sports equipment, figurines, tools, and music CD’s are typical of the objects through which survivors remembered, indeed, continued to relate to, those who were gone, and most of the objects were on display in their homes.
I want to emphasise Rita Ann [Higgins]’s right to her own personal memories and of course our right to publish excellent literature. The nature of memoir is that it is told from a single perspective.
Salmon Poetry publishers
My writing students have been bringing family images to my memoir class for 20 years. They are mainly women, painfully eager to know how to use writing to make sense of their life narrative–who they are, who they once were, what heritage they were born into–and they are immobilized by the size of the task. Where to start? Where to stop? What to put in? What to leave out? How to find the story’s proper shape and sequence? How to deal equitably with all that is still unreconciled…
I sympathize with their despair; there’s just much too much stuff in the cluttered attic of memory. I can only offer one word of salvation: Reduce! You must decide what is primary and what is secondary. You’re not required to tell everybody’s story; you only need to tell your story. If you give an honest accounting of the important people and events in your life, as you best remember them, you will also tell the story of everybody who needs to be along on the ride. Throw everything else away.
And something else I don’t like about e-book readers is that they re-paginate the book. For me, my books in my library are my memory, and it *works* as my memory for geographical reasons. I know roughly where the book is; I remember roughly where within the book the sought-after info is; I remember what the visual terrain on the page looked like, and where on the page relative to that terrain the info sat. When print shuffles itself so readily that the info loses its “geography”. We are left with searching the document at command line, and my suspicion is that’s not the right way to harness our memory mechanisms.
It is the nature of memoir and essay that memory is telling the story and these forms will never be as clean as journalism. In the best literary nonfiction the true rules that need to be followed are artistic ones. Those rules are developed in each individual book by each individual artist, and they should be judged that way, individually, not in a great hue and cry of moralistic oversimplification. Yes, it is wise for writers of memoir to hew as closely as they can to the facts. But my worry is that we will, as usual, overreact and learn too literal of a lesson. That in rushing to rein things in we will choke off what is creative and alive in the form.
Memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character. Memory has no regard for the reader. If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call memory’s autism, its passion for the tedious. He must not be afraid to invent. Above all he must invent himself. Like Rousseau, who wrote (at the beginning of his novelistic Confessions) that “I am not made like anyone I have ever been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence,” he must sustain, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the illusion of his preternatural extraordinariness.
Memory is a dream machine. Nonfiction isn’t “true.” It’s a framing device to foreground contemplation, or at least it is in the nonfiction I love the most — nonfiction at the highest reaches of literary art. I want to redefine nonfiction upward — taking nonfiction’s limits and reframing them so that nonfiction can be a serious investigation of what’s “true,” what’s knowledge, what’s “fact,” what’s memory, what’s self, what’s other. I don’t want a nonfiction full of “lies.” I want a nonfiction that explores our shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world.