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.




7 Responses to “Events Are Not Enough”

  1. So very true. One doesn’t need to be a Freudian to see that, because in dreams memory is awakened, through dreams memoir can come alive…

    As for the woman at the party, I’m sorry to say that even some of my most educated and literate friends—and especially my Italian ones—feel pretty much the same about the fact that I’m writing a memoir.
    They are a product of that “high” culture vs. “low” culture dichotomy that hasn’t died yet, despite postmodernism and all; that dichotomy permeates European cultures even more than it does American and Canadian ones.
    I used to think that way too, but was “cured” of it through moving to England, then the US, then Canada, then the US again; by being exposed to so many different cultures, and not all of them “western”; by taking classes in Cultural Studies and Anthropology.

    May I have permission to quote parts of this post in a future entry of my blog?

  2. Rashena Wilson Says:

    Hi Louise! I want to thank you for this amazing blog. I first read an essay of yours in Our Roots are Deep with Passion about a year ago and now that I’ve become serious about creative nonfiction I have bought the CNF journal anthologies and I remembered your work again. It made me buy ALL of your books this week and Writing as a Way of Healing has been especially helpful along with finding this blog because I HAD to have more! I am particularly enjoying how you handle form in Crazy in the Kitchen – you own your subject and take me wherever you want me to go because it’s so beautifully written and honest.

    Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom…I can’t wait to see what else you have to say but have plenty to consider and learn from in the meantime! I hope you will be at AWP. 🙂

  3. Julie Raynor Says:

    Thanks, as always, Louise. I think it’s true for fiction, too–the interior world is what we crave to know, even more than vivid objects and events, in what we read. It’s what I’m trying to bring into the work now myself.

  4. Jo Sanders Says:

    Wow! This is amazing and extremely helpful. I didn’t even realize that I had paid so little attention to such crucial things. Paying more attention to fantasy, dream (which I was going to remove because I felt it wasn’t working), insight, reflection, and feelings has given my pieces so much depth. If the reader already knows what happened it is the rending of the story that must be unique. The notion that focusing on the events alone will result in failure is a powerful point and will make any writer work to add depth to his or her work. I see the truth in this each time one of my writing partner expands a scene. I am always blown away by the detail. I mean that’s an important part of what memoir writing is from what I understand. I will definitely be applying this in the future!

  5. Theodora Venizelos Says:

    I really loved reading this. I think this will relieve some of the anxiety I have been feeling during the process of writing my memoir. I keep worrying about the events and not enough on the dreams I’ve had as a little girl, as a teenager. I’ve had many dreams, and have forgotten to write them down in my memoir. It will be liberating to write about those dreams, for I won’t have to do any research. I’ll simply have to pour my heart out onto the page. Thank you for writing an important post.

  6. mariham2012 Says:

    As I was reading your blog, I said to myself, “this is exactly what I do”. I completely agree with your first paragraph, that is, we often begin by telling our story without paying any attention to the process of reflection, feelings or desires. This is something that I have personally experienced when I first began to write my memoir. I found myself just telling; this happened, then this happened, I barely made any reflection. So what I had to do is after putting it all on paper, I went back and dived into each paragraph. You write, “But the minute I share with my reader my feelings (my fears), my fantasy (of mutilation), my insight, things start to get interesting”, which hit the gut of the matter. I have been struggling with the representation of the protagonist of my memoir. By the end of the memoir, I want the reader to experience the love I had for my aunt, to have known her well, to feel her loss and to experience my regret, but how is the question that remains unanswered. After reading your blog, I think I have gained a better understanding of how I can go about doing that. I must share her feelings as well as my feelings, her fears and my fears.

  7. Scott Moul Says:

    Ms. DeSalvo,
    Thanks for this post, it is a potent reminder that the true power of a story lies in the telling, not in the facts. I am running into this problem in the early stages of my memoir writing: I seem drawn to write about events that score pretty low on my “interesting stuff that’s happened to me” list. I then wonder when I will get around to those “big events” and I also wonder what is compelling me to write about the smaller things.
    Of course Dr. Giunta, and other authors of memoirs such as yourself, remind me that memoir is not necessarily about the big things, it is about our perception of all things; it is a picture window to the writer’s personal view on the world—her/his exclusive world.
    Thank you also for including the list of “transformative words to use in memoir.” That will come in handy when I need to check myself and insert more than just facts into my memoir. I’m sure that I will continue to wonder why I just wrote about the sliding doors in the house of my childhood, instead of writing about watching the twin towers fall from Long Island City, after having made a last minute decision not to report to work in downtown Manhattan that morning. At least I can take some comfort by reminding myself that if I can make my sliding doors seem fascinating, I am doing the right thing, for now.

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