Memory Mining

The latest issue of The Writer’s Chronicle contains 4 articles that I read word for word.  I make this point because when does a magazine ever have that many great articles in one issue?  I felt like I’d hit the jackpot.  If you don’t get TWC in the mail, run to your local bookstore — if it’s not bankrupt and closed — and pick it up, or spend a quiet hour with it in the library.

After yesterday’s post on memoir writing, I opened TWC and read “Novel Anxiety,” where I found this quote by David Shields.  “For imagination and memory are Siamese twins, and you cannot cut them so cleanly apart.  There’s a good case for arguing that any narrative account is a work of fiction.  The moment you start to arrange the world in words, you alter its nature.

True enough.  But does that make writing ‘memory’ any less engaging, artistic, insightful, or intriguing?

In his interview in TWC, Aleksandar Hemon said the following:  “In memoiristic nonfiction, the writer can’t become other people, because it’s all about his or her situation.  The book is so specific to what the writer thinks because it’s a confession.  You cannot really enter [another realm].  There is no exchange.  And that’s really playing it safe.”

No exchange?  Safe??

And then, “I think that’s one of the ways the publishing industry has undermined itself, this reliance on the confessional memoir.  The genre is practically dead because it’s the same old thing: addiction, despair, some kind of abuse…. People are bored with it.”

Bored.  Ouch.

My favorite piece was an interview with Tom Grimes who has recently published a memoir titled MENTOR about his relationship with Frank Conroy, the former (and legendary) director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  Every question and answer was thought-provoking and insightful, so I encourage you to read the whole shebang, but here’s my favorite quote:  “Memoir has a double edge.  It works in present and past time.  I was writing to recapture the past — you know, Proust’s remembered selves.  But as Proust also said, memory is an act of imagination.  Essentially you recreate events.  In turn, this changes your memory of them.  Ultimately, I became a stranger to myself as I wrote the book.  In the end I didn’t know the guy I had been twenty years ago.”

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I’m off to work, where I’ll be mining my memory with a giant pickaxe.

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17 thoughts on “Memory Mining

  1. amyg

    after the whole james frey fray, i remember reading a quote from david sedaris about how the last place to look for truth was in someone’s memoir.

    i couldn’t find david’s exact quote, but i did find this one that made me happy:

    “He took a sip of my father’s weak coffee and spit it back into the mug. “This shit’s like making love in a canoe.”
    “Excuse me?”
    “It’s fucking near water.”

    (i see your proust and i raise you one sedaris. also, mentor is one of those books on my shelf waiting patiently to be read; now, i need to move it up a few spaces.)

    1. Teri Post author

      I like your logic. And is that Sedaris quote from a story about his brother? Something about a rooster??

    1. Teri Post author

      I never understand the purpose of putting a genre down — any genre.

      Maybe it’s not your thing. I get that. But can’t you still appreciate the work? I don’t have a Mapplethorpe photo hanging in my living room, but I appreciate his talent, his bravery, his originality, his soul.

  2. lisahgolden

    While agree that all memory is fiction on some level, that’s not to say that….oh, nevermind. I’m drinking. I like memoirs. I don’t think they’ll ever leave the literary landscape. People love other people’s stories. They always have and always will.

  3. Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

    Hemon’s quote seems pretty narrow-minded, but I think there’s much merit to the Shields’ quote. I think fact and fiction are definitely intertwined in memoir. And you know what? I’m totally good with that. I think a memoir which relied purely on unadulterated fact–without any slight coloring triggered by accrued experience or attempt at readability–would simply be a stark biography.

    1. Teri Post author

      Exactly, Sherry. I even wonder if one day there will be less definition of novels vs. memory works. The current definition of memoir has really only been defined as such for the last couple of decades — there will be a shift.

  4. Lyra

    I’m joining you lot, glass of wine at the ready.

    “Memory is an act of imagination. Essentially you recreate events”. That’s what it’s all about. If you were just spewing words on a page, it wouldn’t be memoir, it would be a diary.

    You are choosing what to include and not include, you have to concern yourself with plot, as much as the next woman. It’s almost harder, I dare venture, because you are trying to stay true to something while keeping in mind so many other things that makes the writing work from a tactical point of view.

    Then again, I’ve never gotten off by tearing others down. Bah.

  5. marjiellen

    The quote you attributed to David Shields was actually quoted BY him. “As Jonathan Raban has written, ‘The line between fact and fiction is fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit. There is the commonsensical assertion that while the novelist is engaged on a work of the creative imagination, the duty of the nonfiction writer is to tell what really happened. That distinction is easy to voice but hard to sustain in logic. For imagination and memory are Siamese twins, and you cannot cut them so cleanly apart.'”

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