I just finished teaching a class on memoir-writing for my local community college (with a really great group of students), and one of the elements I often repeated in that class has also popped up in my life – so I thought it might be worth mentioning here.
One of the most important and difficult steps in writing a memoir, in my experience, is scene selection. How do you take a whole lifetime of memories, where 90% of your experiences feel relevant in some way to the thrust of your writing, and narrow them down to a handful of scenes that will leave your reader with a deep sense of understanding of a few selective themes?
I talk a lot in my classes about choosing ‘representative scenes,’ which are moments from our lives that either exemplify or illuminate some greater theme or point we’re trying to make in the work. So, for example, in my first book there’s a Thanksgiving scene that gave me the opportunity to show more of my family relationships and (more importantly) my relationship with food, both volume and choices.
It can be difficult at first to identify these scenes in your own life, but the more memoir writing I’ve done, the more I’ve felt them almost identify themselves – not exactly in the moment, but often very soon afterward. I had one of those moments last weekend, when my father pulled me aside half an hour before my baby shower and launched a full-scale attack on my personality. The way things played out from there – in my marriage, among the rest of my family, and especially with my mother and my parents’ friends – all felt uncomfortably familiar.
As the weekend progressed, I found myself remembering other important celebrations from my life that had played out in much the same way: my 21st birthday; my master’s showcase; my first engagement; my wedding. All of those events carry a shadow thanks to the way my family’s dysfunction surfaced. If I were to write a memoir about my family (so far that’s seemed like way more emotional effort than it’s worth), I’d be very well prepared to show the way our toxic dynamic has affected my adult life.
All of which is to say: if you’re working on a memoir and you’re not sure how to choose what memories to write about, just start trying. Think of it like circling something you want to home in on – the more scenes you write, the closer they’ll get to your target, and the more you’ll train your brain to look for patterns in your experiences.
Oh, and if you’re worried that my baby shower was entirely ruined, please don’t. While the effects of my family’s behavior are long-lasting, I learned years ago to compartmentalize (whether that’s healthy or not) for brief periods of time, and I was lucky to have a lot of really wonderful people around me to help me celebrate. The shadow will endure, but it won’t cast the whole memory into darkness.
I haven’t actually written or published anything this month – the pre-birth wind-down has begun in earnest – but I do have something in the works for next month. In the meantime, if you missed my essay about the myth of ‘time heals all wounds’ or my other one about my deepest, darkest secret and you don’t cringe at the sound of my voice the way I do, you can actually listen to (and, in the latter case, watch) me read them to you at the links provided!
I just finished listening to the audiobook of The Paper Palace, by Miranda Cowley Heller, which came highly recommended by multiple trustworthy people. I enjoyed it, overall, but I don’t know that I agree entirely with the raves, and I will say I wish someone had warned me about the sexual abuse that becomes a pretty strong theme about 1/3 of the way through (MAJOR content warning).
On the other hand, I was surprised by how much I loved The Overstory, by Richard Powers. I’m not always a fan of sweeping epics, especially these days, when I can barely finish an online article without getting distracted by something else, but this book was so richly written and the characters were so engaging that I hung on through the whole thing and was kind of sad when it ended.
Oh, and after waiting something like a year to get it back from the library after my loan expired at the 70% point, I finally finished The Office of Historical Corrections, by Danielle Evans. It was more than worth the wait. The novella in particular was so incisive and dryly funny and well-plotted – I can’t recommend this one enough.
A Random Joy
I dyed my hair bright pink the week before we flew down to San Francisco for the baby shower, and people complimented it the whole way – I must have had at least six or seven people say they liked my hair! (And no, the baby isn’t a girl. I just wanted a change and I decided that pink was the next color I wanted to try.)