Friday, April 29, 2005

The "Me" in Memoir

Our defining moments ... Posted by Hello


I'm taking a wonderful, manically generative Creative Non-Fiction course. Last week I spewed forth 25 pages of freewrite based on random nouns I pulled out of a basket. This despite a nasty sinus and upper respiratory thing--and not all of my freewrites were bad either!

But it is all memoir, and I shy away from the "me" portion of that word. I don't mind dealing with myself humorously like I did in my "Bull Castration" piece, reminiscing about my foolishness feels cathartic. What I avoid are the forays into those deeply personal spaces, the places that strip my Holly Golightly facade right down to my scrawny, naked vulnerability, the places that say, "have at me." There's a reason I love Breakfast at Tiffany's--I've spent a lifetime cultivating an image that says I'm OK, I'm hip, with it, savvy man, on top of the world--and happy dammit!

But all this reading Prof. Perrin Kerns has assigned demands that I confess, give it up. I'm not sure what I'm ready to reveal. Yes, I have daddy issues. I have compulsive tendencies. I've always been unhappy with my appearance, and I avoid projects that could present failure. But do I want to explore the whys of these insecurities?

I want to find that way to explore memoir which supercedes self-indulgence. Memoir matters to me when it resonates with the human experience, when it doesn't just tell me point-blank about the author, but rather reaches out shyly, without overt craft, manipulation, or self-promotion. James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues is a lyrical example of finding ways around focusing on the self while still revealing profound private pain..

In reading several memoirs this week, I am struck by the universal experiences we share in being human. In Wayne Koestenbaum's My 80s, I bond deeply with a gay intellectual from the West Village (I've never been there) when he says:

"I focused on my sadness as if it were an object in the room, a discrete dense entity impervious to alteration"--exposing our tendency to esteem our tragedy. And,

"My mission in the 80s was to develop my aestheticism, My mission in the 90s was to justify my aestheticism"--deep resonance here.

In her essay But Tell It Slant: From Poetry to Prose and Back Again, Judith Ortiz Cofer talks about the idea that distillation of the subject can have deeper impact than elaboration:

"... it begins with the pause of the artist before a blank canvas, the discipline of restraint that was best expressed by Richard Hugo when he advised the writer, "Think small, if you have a large mind it will show itself."

I like this idea. Our current culture seems to be about an endless barrage of sound-bytes, a superficial grasp on nearly everything ... multi-tasking as a more desirable trait than reflection. I can see the influence of hyper-media on my personality. I like subtlely multi-layered, simple, beautifully told stories that focus inward. In a way they provide an antidote to hypertextuality.
Instead of grasping at every available connection, they allow a peaceful insularity. In this space of focus (much like when I practice yoga) I will attempt to find my truths.

6 Comments:

At 4:52 PM, Blogger johnmclain said...

Memoirs are often fascinating in the same way that we can be transfixed watching a train wreck. I wouldn’t want to be on the train, but I can’t stop watching/reading about it. My observation of myself as a reader is that the most memorable memoirs are those that inspire me to take action. This action can be either one of “wanting to be on the train” to realize similar experiences or feelings, or one of “avoiding ever to board the train in the first place”. You mentioned that some of the authors of some memoirs wanted the readers to take action or change their perspectives. Do you have similar intentions for the readers of your memoirs?

 
At 11:20 PM, Blogger Pamela said...

John, I didn't intend to insinuate that the authors I mention have any intention of leading a reader to action. In fact, really quite the opposite. The memoirs I referenced aren't what I would consider "tell-all" or difficult to look at (like a train wreck), and they are merely ways to reach into an author's life--perhaps for some insightful revelation, and perhaps for nothing more than the art of living.

I see memoirs as a place to share in the human experience--to rejoice, regret, reflect. As I mentioned in the post, for me the best memoirs tend to be subtle, showing private pain or revelations in artful ways--without any manipulation.

When I write memoir I look for both the unusual and the universal in my stories. Unless I am writing on a political site, I never write with an agenda--ever. It's not that I necessarily think this is wrong, but memoir doesn't feel to me like the place for action and change, but more for reflection and understanding. I enjoy when my stories entertain a reader while resonating, and also while allowing me some personal catharsis.

 
At 10:46 AM, Blogger johnmclain said...

Pamela, thanks for clarifying your perspectives of memoirs. As you intended, I am entertained by your memoirs and find some items resonate with my own experience. I look forward to reading more of your work.

 
At 10:15 PM, Blogger Cynthia said...

Pamela, the insightful quotes of Judith Ortiz Cofer and Richard Hugo deeply resonate with my limited experience of memoir writing. Within the idea of the "distillation of the subject", I found I could better focus on the simple truth (as I imagined it)to better understand my personal bio-mythology. When you do approach the writing of your own memoirs, I'm sure you'll do it with a subtlety and attention to craft that will demonstrate your "large mind".

 
At 10:40 PM, Blogger Pamela said...

It's so good to see you stop by Cynthia! Well, in the past restraint was never my forte', I'm learning this art of showing the profundity without using all my love for words in one fell swoop. I remember when I workshopped my first memoir piece, that Bull Castration story, the most common response I got (in its draft stage) was that the readers were exhausted by the metaphor and language.

I had never thought about that before, I always thought language was the beautiful thing in prose, and that the more I could factor in, the better ... my newer pieces are just finally beginning to take some breathers--and as you well know, I still can tend to overuse my adjectives! :-)

 
At 3:43 PM, Blogger johnmclain said...

Long long ago, I was a music major. In trying to compose music, a very wise teacher and performer helped me to understand the importance of the silence between the notes. The silence is pedestal upon which the note is placed to make it easier to enjoy. Perhaps this is true for writers as well; a well turned phrase, a carefully chosen word, the beautifully constructed metaphor needs a pedestal constructed of simple language to make it easire for the reader to appreciate and enjoy the craft of the author.

 

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