Events Are Not Enough
January 7, 2011
When I work with writers writing memoir, I’m always astonished by how, in first drafts, writers pay so little attention to fantasy, to dream, to desire, to insight, to reflection, to feelings. Our first drafts, quite often, are devoted to “just the facts, M’am.” We recite the “and then, and then, and then” of our lives thinking that we’re writing memoir. And although the events of our lives might fascinate us, in and of themselves, they are, for the most part, not terribly exciting. Making an exciting memoir by relying on the events of our lives alone will doom our work to failure. Because although that may be where fiction lives, that’s not where memoir lives. And there’s a very simple reason for this.
In fiction, except in first person narratives, one of the pleasures in reading is to find out what happens to the protagonist in the largest possible sense. But in memoir, we already know about what has happened to the “I” of the narrative. The “I” of the narrative is still alive; the “I” of the narrative, no matter what has happened to her/him, has recovered sufficiently to fashion a coherent narrative. So although when we read memoir, we do have an interest in the “what happened” part of the narrative, that interest alone is not enough to sustain a reader.
Besides, relatively few of our lives are filled with exciting events so most of our narratives can’t depend solely upon the events in our lives. I know my life hasn’t been so extraordinary. Not much of great moment has happened to me. I haven’t climbed a mountain. I have knit scores of sweaters. I’ve cooked scores of meals, and, yes, some enterprising folk have written memoirs about that, and I have used cooking as a way of getting at family history in one of my memoirs, but the point remains that my life is rather, or very, ordinary. I get up, I eat breakfast, I do work for Hunter, I make lunch, I write, I work out, I make dinner, I look at a movie. I see my family often. You get the message.
I have dived to 1000 feet beneath the surface of the ocean, but there’s no story in that because nothing much happened while I was down there. I didn’t know the names of the fishes I was seeing. I was in a state of suspended animation, watching my breathing, hoping I wouldn’t die, looking around for sharks, checking all the gizmos I was attached to, clearing my mask of water, hanging, for dear life, onto the safety line. I kept seeing myself eaten by a shark. I could see the shreds of flesh hanging off my body, so real was my fantasy of mutilation. I was a reluctant deep sea diver, undertaking the training in a burst of female machismo in middle age because all the men in my family – my husband, my teenage sons – were divers and I wanted to show them that I wasn’t as fearful as they all assumed I was.
And as you can see, and as I now realize, I could make a writing out of my scuba diving, but only because as soon as I started narrating what I did, I narrated, too, what I felt while I was diving, I presented you with a fantasy, and, in this tiny little piece of writing, I even reflected on the cause of why I started scuba diving.
If, instead, I’d related, “When I was in my mid-forties, I learned how to scuba dive. I took lessons. I learned how to use a regulator, a depth indicator. I became a certified deep-water scuba diver and dove, often, to 1000 feet.” Ho, hum. Who cares? Showing off. Boring.
But the minute I share with my reader my feelings (my fears), my fantasy (of mutilation), my insight (that I was, in some way, trying to prove something to myself and to the male members of my family), things start to get interesting. That’s because I’m using the events of my life as a way of getting at the truly human significance of the events of my life – what my desires might be, what my fears are, what my insights into the tiny moments of my life might be. That’s how we, as writers of memoir, reach across our pages to our audience: by sharing our humanness with them. We can’t do that by reciting events. (Think about the big bore at every party you’ve ever attended, trying to impress by reciting what s/he’s done: “I made a pot of money in the stock market”; “I bought a big house”; “My children got As in school.” Boring, boring, boring. Hateful, hateful, hateful.
But, if, instead, the person says, “I made a pot of money in the stock market, and the very night that I learned how rich I was, I had a dream about being buried alive in gold coins, like Scrooge McDuck.” Well, that’s someone who might be interesting to get to know. Why? Because s/he revealed something of her/his internal life. That person reached across the space that separates us from each other and told us, by telling us the dream, about the fear that often accompanies good luck or great accomplishment.
Unless we’re former presidents, former hookers, former White House insiders, people who’ve come to the United States from war-torn countries, people who’ve left secret societies, people who’ve escaped from horrific abuse, our stories are bound to be ordinary. And even if we’re one of the above, the events of our stories alone won’t suffice. What we need from a memoirist, what we need from each other, is to break the silence about our internal lives: what we feel, what we imagine, what we desire, what we dram, what we think our lives signify, what the events in our lives mean to us.
Some transformative words to use in memoir: “I dreamed”; “I wished”; “I wanted”; “I didn’t want”; “I hoped that”; “I was afraid that”; “What I didn’t know then that I know now was”; “What I didn’t realize”; “What I realized”; “What I think I was doing”; “What I didn’t realize I was doing”; “In the dream, I’; “In this fantasy, I”; “If I could relive that moment, I would”; “What I imagined him saying about me was”; “I felt that”; “I thought that”; “I didn’t think that”; “What I felt, but never said was”.
I could go on and on. But you get the idea. These magic memoir words add meaning to the events of our lives. They’re value added words. They indicate that we’ve done some thinking about our lives, that we’ve reflected upon the events in our lives.
Sit next to two people talking and listen. As soon as one person tells the other about something that has happened to them, you’re likely to hear the other person ask, “So why do you think that happened?” or “So why do you think he did that?” or “So what did you think was going to happen?” or “How do you feel about that happening?” In other words, our conversations very quickly move to matters of significance, of meaning. Our conversations don’t stay focused for too long on the events of our lives without us striving to make sense of what happened to us. So it is in life; so it must be in memoir.
I was once at a book party. A woman was introduced to me. My host told her I’d written a memoir. She paused, and asked, “What important thing have you done that would make me want to know about you?”
“Nothing,” I replied, “absolutely nothing,” and walked away, and wished I’d stayed home to look at a movie. I was in no mood to educate this woman about the significance of memoir. And I thought that this woman was missing out on the great gift that the memoirist offers readers: a model of how to think about the significance and meaning of our very ordinary lives.