A fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it. A memoirist starts with events then derives meaning from them. Don DeLillo
November is National Memoir Month. What is memoir? It is a single person trying to make sense of their life. Our sense of self is derived from a self-made narrative we tell and retell, even as we experience the present. Each of us is writing and rewriting our memoirs every day, draws meaning from past stories and events.
In a written shared memoir, a memoirist attempts to lodge their memories into our head.
Such is the manner of these two: Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Michael Morpurgo’s Singing for Mrs Pettigrew. One often chooses a memoir after already being aware of the writer. But, in this case, I ‘d never heard of or read these authors’ writings. Instead, I discover them through the integrated software of sharing now utilized in the bibliocommons library software, software that includes tags and lists.
Dramatically different in style and substance, each book offer insights into how these authors write their stories. Throughout their memoirs, they teach methods for writing, for all writing genres, including memoir, require the same mechanics and tools. A story must resonate with and captivate a reader by making the unbelievable believable, through characters, relationships and events that are real, whether fiction or nonfiction.
Mary Karr,an author with 30+ years teaching memoir writing, writes less with specific direction than allowing each page to pull her somewhere. As she follows its lead, she travels to gain valuable hindsight before landing in the next spot. Plod on, write the next small things, and nestle down into that single instant of a clean memory, she says. This makes sense to me. Writing short snippets of memories aided by hindsight offer glimpses into previously missed details in the moment. As these writing accumulate, they reveal motives and opportunities. Karr says that while there is a personal liberation in living an examined life, be prepared to be surprised and moved.
No writing is worthless. Even early pages thrown away are necessary for “they are way stations needed to visit to eliminate them from the final itinerary.” Even as a draft is discarded, to move forward, it can and should be saved. This is one advantage the writing craft has over other artistic endeavours, like painting.
She confesses that her pieces undergo several revisions, for she says, “ I am not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser”.
On the other hand, Morpurgo’s stories are written when the moment is ready, when the spark is there. He says, “I write to feel connect to myself, to my memory, to the world around me, to my readers. Each story is the result of forces of creative fusion.” He allows each story time to find its own voice to weave itself. Only when he feels he is living inside the story can the story practically write itself.
Singing for Mrs. Pettigrew is fascinating to read, for every story has a prelude, a shortened memoir of his life highlighting background material that ends up into the following fictional story. Within the core of all his writing is the life he lived, enhanced by soaking himself in the words and ideas of other writers. Each essay highlights memories that are integrated and crafted, demonstrating how an instance in life, the feeling attached to that moment, can be pragmatically and dramatically mined. Although not a life memoir, this is the story of his story-making journey. As such, it is a revelation on the use of life memories as source material- a winning combination.
As an advocate of libraries, I particularly recommend his story, I Believe in Unicorns.
Karr is writing memoir, whereas Morpurgo is writing fictional stories using his life memories.
While it may seem to make DeLillo’s quote less distinct, all writing is full of complexities, no need to categorize it into boxed parcels.
What moves us, what pulls us further into a story is how well the author writes with depth and emotion.
Both of these books create meaningful sense of the authors’ lives, through a telling and retelling of their life story.
While, as Karr says, none of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, all of us who write become part of a centuries long tradition.
You too can create your story memoir, recording even snippets of life moments.
For your life story is the one that only you can tell.
Added Bonus: The Art of Memoir has a six page appendix with memoirs worth reading.