“So the lies that my mama wants me to create a narrative about our family that ends with everything being great. And everybody valuing where we been, but not too much just looking forward. And I want to write that shit too. I just think that’s bullshit though. I don’t know what truth actually is, but I know what honest attempts at reckoning are. I’m not saying I’m writing honesty, I think I’m attempting to honestly reckon, which is the difference. At the end of that honest reckoning, maybe some people might call it truth. I wouldn’t call it truth but I would call it an attempt. I think sometimes we know when we’re honestly attempting to reckon, honestly attempting to remember, honestly attempting to render. As opposed to when we’re attempting to manipulate. And even in those honest attempts it can be full of lies.”
- Kiese Laymon on writing truthful memoir
Carmen Maria Machado is currently working on “an experimental memoir told through a sequence of rotating narrative tropes.” The tropes provide a framework to explore specific aspects of memory. Questioning, revising, and complicating truth is an important movement in nonfiction. See Brian Blanchfield’s Proxiesis, Kevin Brockmeier’s A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, Sofia Samatar’s essays in Monster Portraits, and Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls. See also:
Lia Purpura, “Autopsy Report” (The Iowa Review)
Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter”
Andrea Long Chu, “On Liking Women” (n+1)
Sarah Marshall, “Remote Control” (Believer)
Sofia Samatar, “Meet Me in Iran”
Mary Roach loves memoir as a form. In The Memoir Project, Roach says "the beauty is that you can write about penises without completely under-stating them, making the penis another of the greater things to write about."
Good revision can reveal the form the memoir needs to breathe. The way we think nonfiction is supposed to look may be irrelevant to what the material needs. Lucas Mann describes how Lord Fear ‘s form developed entirely from the revision process. “… the last time I got really frustrated with the manuscript, I just started stripping away the connecting scenes, extra exposition, anything that felt safe and palatable but also slow and flabby. After the purge, all that was left of the narrative was impressionistic little fragments.”
Jill Talbot: “How long do we live in the fictions of our past? And how do we convince anyone that who we write is not necessarily who we are?”
The list essay form is especially useful when you have a close chronology to track, or a sense of externalized momentum.
We want the thickness of shameless subtext. Or, if there must be shame, we want to see every cringe and be allowed to ask questions. I think of Virginia Satir's "nominalization," a communication strategy in which someone who fears emotion replaces a process of being (a verb) with a static event (a noun). Rather than saying I'm angry, the person claims to "experience anger."
It’s taboo to expose or interrogate unspoken boundaries (see patriarchy). In many cases, setting a boundary does not leave us feeling empowered but guilty. We are socialized to defer ethics to Sunday school classrooms and Bible study groups rather than wrestle with the meat ourselves.
Sometimes it isn't the anger or strong emotions that destroy your life--it's the fear of feeling them. Viriginia Satir, again, compares two types of relationships, namely, the "closed system"--relation dominated by neurotic dependency, obedience, conformity, and guilt— to the "open system"--both can honestly express full range of hopes, fears, loves, angers, mistakes and appreciate each other for them. How does this look in text form? How are these contrasting systems sometimes mixed in the air like muggy weather?
I am talking to the persons in the memoir, and the writer that avoids a messy page. You should both be able to ask for what you want without asking for permission to want it. You should be able emote without being rejected for emoting.
The Secretary Bird of Africa hunts lizards, snakes, and other small reptiles by stomping about in the grass. Foot stomping serves as a means of self-preservation for bird species. What rituals do we practice in self-defense? Why not write the baroque of them?
“The structure of the miracle has a similar form: out of another time, from a time that is alien, arises a ‘god’ who has the characteristics of memory, that silent encyclopedia of singular acts, and who, in religious stories, represents with such fidelity the ‘popular’ memory of those who have no place but who have time—‘Patience!’… But all these variants could very well be no more than the shadows—enlarged into symbolic and narrative projections—thrown by the journalistic practice that consists in seizing the opportunity and making memory the means of transforming places. … In short, what constitutes the implantation of memory in a place that already forms an ensemble? That implantation is the moment which calls for a tightrope-walker’s talent and a sense of tactics; it is the instant of art. Now it is clear that this implantation is neither localized nor determined by memory-knowledge. The occasion is taken advantage of, not created. … Like those birds they lay in other species’ nests, memory produces in a place that does not belong to it. … Memory derives its interventionary force from its very capacity to be altered—unmoored, mobile, lacing any fixed position…” (From Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life)
Sandra Doller begins her collection of mini-memoir, Memory of the Prose Machine (Dusie Press) with the long quote above. She does this thing with budding phrases that she drops and brings back as refrains, and sets up a sort of mini-memoir about family life in the Reagan years (and the demonization of Amy Carter) by jumping but not saying. So it feels silenced. Yet said. An undercurrent. And I love it.