Twelve Ways of Looking at Memoir by Louise DeSalvo
August 25, 2010
I’ve so often been asked to define memoir, that I decided, a few years ago, to write down my ideas about this oft-misunderstood form. Here, then, are my thoughts on the subject.
1. Memoir is not autobiography. Autobiography, strictly speaking, is your life written by yourself instead of by a biographer. And, when you pen your own biography, you do what the biographer does with a subject: you try to be objective, you collect the data (letters, diaries, journals, random notes), you interview people who knew you. And, usually, when you write autobiography, you write a full account of your life, birth to the present time. Autobiography, also, tends to deal with the external life – your life in the world, rather with your internal life – your memories, your hopes, your dreams, your desires.
But when you write memoir, you aren’t the biographer of your own life. You are a writer in the act of recording what you remember. And you can choose a small portion of your life to write about: yourself as an adolescent or an aging person. Or you can choose a theme: how you dealt with the death of your father, and ground it in the idea of how mourning is elided in our culture. Or you can write about a significant person: your complex relationship to your mother. Memoir often zeroes in on something small in a life – a year, a significant event, a shift in the way one lives one’s life, and plumbs its meanings; it does not need to traverse great temporal distances (though it can). This is why you can write one memoir, and then another, and another.
2. Autobiography is very often structured with first things first, last things last. But memoir can start anywhere: in the present moment; in the past; in the middle. And this is both the joy and the challenge of writing memoir, that its narrative can be structured so that it comes at the reader as narratives do in life: you find out that the person you just met used to live in Idaho; then you learn she was born in Kansas; then you learn that she hated her father but loved her mother; then you learn that she just started a love affair.
In this sense, the narrative structure of memoir is more realistic (rooted in the real world) than the beginning-to-present structure of autobiography. Memoir is often structured by way of associations. Its time frame is often loopy, as one thought or event or image leads to another, which leads to another. In this way, memoir is, I think, more like poetry than like fiction (though fiction, of course, can also be structured in this way), and more like the way people reveal themselves in conversation.
3. Memoir, as a form, is often misunderstood because readers think that the memoir simply describes events the memoirist has experienced, and that these experiences are immediately available to the writer. Instead, memoir reports the writer’s memory of what has been experienced, which might not be precisely what occurred. That is, if you write down that you remember sitting on a hard stone step waiting for your mother after a day when you were in first grade, it’s not your job (nor the job of a fact checker), to find that step and determine whether it was, in fact, hard. If you remember that the step was hard, in memoir, it was a hard step. And that might say more about your psychic state at the time than about the step. Memoir reveals the psyche of the writer and the writer’s emotional state by what the writer remembers, and by how the writer describes what is remembered. When a memoirist prefaces the telling of an event with the words “I remember,” s/he does not mean, “This is the way it was.” S/he means, “This is how I remember it was.”
4. Memoir, therefore, takes as its subject what the writer remembers, but also how the writer comes to remember what s/he writes about. Memoirists understand that we do not know the story of our past until we begin to write about it. The memories, in memoir, are not held, entire, in the consciousness of the writer before the work is penned. Instead, by writing a snippet of memory, the memoirist unlocks a past, piece by piece, bit by bit. Some of what is unearthed is shadowy; some, clear. Memoir, then, describes how we remember – how remembering one moment in our lives opens up an entire episode, how that memory unlocks another, as Proust’s tasting of the petite madeleine unlocks that writer’s past.
5. Readers often seem to think that memoirs are about what “really” happened. The memoirist’s job is not to write what really happened because the memoirist knows that this is an impossible task. Instead, the memoirist’s job is to tell the reader her or his version of events.
Although the memoirist should never deceive the reader and write falsehoods deliberately, and introduce events that never happened – this breaks the contract with the reader – the memoirist’s job is to write what he or she remembers, and it is the memoirist’s job, too, to tell the reader whether the memory is clear, or cloudy, or complete, or partial, and perhaps even if others remember the events differently. While the autobiographer’s job is to check the facts, and to check recollections against those of other people, the memoirist’s job is to write her or his version of what happened.
This is why memoir is a far more complex form than autobiography. Autobiography presumes (falsely) that there is verifiable truth in writing a life. Memoir knows that this can’t be, and that our versions of events always differ from other people’s. Memoir is unsettling, both to write and to read, because it is a literary form that demonstrates how partial and flawed our understanding is of our own life.
6. Memoir is about not only what we remember, but also about how we remember. It is about the process of remembering. Memoir is not writing what we know before we start writing. Memoir is about discovering what we didn’t know, or about discovering what we didn’t know about what we knew. The reader learns not only what happened to the memoirist, but also how the memoirist discovered through the act of introspection – what she or he learned about the past.
7. Memoir is not only about the process of remembering what happened to us; memoir is also about what we wish had happened, what we wish had not happened, and also about dreams, daydreams, and desire. The memoirist’s job is to reveal the internal life – that of the writer, but also (to the degree that this is ever possible) that of the other players in the writer’s life.
This is not easy. We may think we know ourselves, but we soon discover that the “I” is most difficult to capture on the page. Most memoirist I know move very slowly into delineating the self, and they find this work difficult. They discover, too, that those who are most familiar to us – our parents, say – are also thorny subjects, for it takes many revisions to make these people comprehensible to readers.
This is perhaps why I have discovered that memoir requires numerous revisions. It takes time, and considerable rewriting, to get closer and closer to the delineation of the self, and our subjects, to peel off the outer layers of meaning to find the core of experience. In writing memoir, we must be willing to learn more about ourselves and our subjects, and to move into a more complex understanding. In writing memoir, we must be willing to put ourselves into the place of all of the people in our lives so that we can understand who they are, and how they came to be this way. Writing memoir can make us more empathic.
8. Memoir is also about the stories, even the lies, we tell others about our lives that we know are exaggerations. In writing memoir, we can write, “This is not the way it happened, but this is the way I tell the story of what happened when people ask me.” But the memoirist must never write lies or exaggerations without letting the reader know. This reveals much about our internal lives, and exposes how we sometimes create a fictive self, or sometimes present a facade to hide behind. Memoir examines how and why we do this.
9. Memoir deals, too, with alternative realities to the life we have lived. Memoir can speculate on the life we might have lived had our mothers not been depressed, if our fathers hadn’t left us, if our husbands hadn’t been adulterous. When the memoirist writes, not only what happened, but what might have happened, she or he helps a reader understand that all of our lives might have unfolded differently. Memoir is about the contingency of our lives.
10. Memoir is about how we make a coherent narrative from the disconnected and imperfect fragments of the life that we remember. Memoir finds the repetitions, the patterns, the recurrent images in life. (Note that memoir “finds” them; the memoirist does not invent them: the fact that there were fires that occurred throughout the memoirist’s life; or that there was, always, a sense of homelessness rooted in exile or displacement.)
11. Memoir contextualizes the life of the memoirist. At its best, memoir goes beyond the singular experience of the memoirist, and it looks at the reasons – in history, in culture, in class, in race, in gender, in physiology – for the path the life has taken. Memoir, deals, too, with how choice and chance have figured in our lives.
12. The memoirist can – indeed, must – acknowledge the on-goingness of life in the memoir. Memoir must show the reader that our life’s meaning is continually in process and never tidy and resolved. Although memoirists bring their works to artistic resolutions, the form of the memoir is always open-ended because the writer moves both to understanding and to an appreciation that there is much more still to learn. Memoir, then, is a paean to the lack of resolution in most of our lives. Memoir shows us that this is the way life is, and to pretend otherwise is to ignore the cycle of uncertainty and resolution that seems to be the core experience of how we understand our lives.