Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How Memoir Can Save Us

Jennifer Sinor, associate professor of English, is
the author of The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary
 Her essays have appeared in the The
Norton Reader.
Last summer, I taught a five-day workshop on writing memoir, five days immersed in writing and the past. Of the students in the class, I remember Donna most clearly. A non-traditional student in her sixties, from a rural town in Wyoming, Donna didn’t look like the other students in my class. She didn’t share their subject knowledge, their demographic, or their tastes in music, but she took a seat, opened her book, and signaled her readiness to begin.

Donna spent most of those five days with her brow wrinkled and her hand raised. Her training as an elementary school teacher meant that much of the language we used in class was foreign to her: through lines, assonance, set pieces, extended metaphor.  She was good about stopping us in our discussions, good about saying when she was lost. But I could see the frustration building and was reminded once again of how language engenders intimacy as well as outsiderness.

Donna was not a strong writer. She struggled at the level of the sentence, had trouble getting her ideas onto the page. During breaks in class, I worked with her, showed her how to take details from her past and turn them into scenes. We talked about plot and story, setting and tone, semi-colons and fragments. Then she tried again, the result better but still halting.

On the third day, Donna knocked on my office door during lunch and asked to talk. We had spent the morning discussing the importance of deeper subject in memoir, how it’s the memoirist’s job not to relate what happened but to make something of what happened. Donna handed me her paper.

“I just have this car accident,” she said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

By then, I knew the story Donna was trying to tell about a car accident on a road in rural Idaho. She only mentioned her father once in the essay, when she considered calling him, but he lurked in what she wrote.

“I really think it’s about your father, Donna” I said, looking up to meet her eyes. “I feel his presence underneath each of your sentences.”

Donna pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “I loved my father,” she said.

“I’m not saying you didn’t love him, Donna. I’m saying that you are trying to write about him here and need to acknowledge that.”

She stared at me and then out the window. I wasn’t sure, but I thought her lips were trembling.

“Donna,” I said, “he haunts this accident. He is everywhere and nowhere at once.” I paused and then added, “Did you fear him?”

I tried to be gentle in my tone, not wanting to imply that I understood her better than she understood herself. But in ten years I have seen a lot of student writing and have a sharpened sense for what is at stake in a piece, often when the writer herself doesn’t know it. I trusted that instinct as I pushed.

“No,” she said, but the tears were falling. For a second I wondered if the days of feeling out of place were finally taking a toll on Donna. Maybe it had been too much. I handed her a Kleenex and waited, expecting her to tell me she was dropping the class.

Instead, she cried harder, her head bent in suffering, the papers in her hand shaking with each sob. Between breaths she told me about a father who was kind to her but who beat her brothers and sisters. A father who praised her and spared her, while taking his anger out on the flesh of her siblings. She told me a story about forgetting to put the lid back on the gas tank and losing all the gas, expecting finally to feel her father’s wrath on her legs, her chest, her cheek, and then her confusion when he hit her brother instead, again and again with his backhand, red welts that grew so numerous on her brother’s legs she could not tell where one strike ended and another began.

“Why,” she sobbed, “why didn’t he hit me? Why them? Why always them?’”

I didn’t have answers for Donna. I just sat with her grief. “That’s your story, Donna,” I said finally. “That’s the question you are pursuing on the page. What does it mean that you remained untouched?”

Donna left my office armed with a framework for her memoir. I would be lying if I said her prose dramatically improved. It didn’t. She still had a ways to travel.  But I can say that on that day we identified a theme, the pain of a survivor’s guilt, that had shaped Donna’s life, and that such clarity will not only improve her writing, it will broaden her humanity.    

My students will tell you that at the end of my creative nonfiction courses, in particular the ones that have focused most heavily on memoir and personal essay, I often say that the world would be a better place if we all learned to write memoir. By that point in the semester, they know I don't mean that attention to language at the level of diction, syntax, and image would make the writing we produce more beautiful and pleasurable, though it would.

And they know I don't mean that if we all learned to pursue a subject to the point of complication, to think in shades of gray rather than black and white, we would be closer to meaningful truths about the world, though we would. They know, instead, when I walk around and meet their eyes, bound as I am to them by the stories they have shared, the metaphors they have chosen, and the way their minds work, that I am describing the work a memoirist undertakes to excavate the self. She does this work not out of narcissism, but, as Cheryl Strayed writes, because such work “illuminate[s] the human condition.”

Memoir can save us, I believe, because it demands that the writer find the deeper subject, the themes thrumming underneath the past, and articulate why a story matters. No longer a tale about your parents' divorce when you were twelve, it becomes an examination of loss, or grief, or alienation. It becomes, to paraphrase another memoirist, Scott Russell Sanders, a door through which others might pass. When we claim our own humanity, our complicity and our pain, we learn to bear the stories of others with more grace. To write memoir, then, is to take responsibility for the past and the future and to realize that we are bound to one another by the stories that we share.

                            - Jennifer Sinor, associate professor of English and chair of the Creative Writing Program

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