BY NORMA WATKINS
Tell your stories. You are a memory-keeper and if you don’t tell them, they will be lost. Think how many stories we never heard from our parents and grandparents because we never asked or never took the time to listen. You are unique and irreplaceable. No one has seen life from your particular perch.
My memoir, The Last Resort, was about growing up in Mississippi, from age seven to thirty. During those years the State went from a southern backwater, living in a haze of romantic regret over losing the civil war—a place where whites ruled, blacks were servants, and few questioned it—to a fiery chaos in the national spotlight, the crucible of the civil rights movement. Blacks and whites were fired, beaten, and murdered for daring to speak up for equality. Blacks were murdered for having the audacity to try and vote. I wrote to answer questions: Why was I so scared? Why did I stand by silently while terrible things happened? Why did I run?
While I was looking for a publisher, The New Yorker came out with an article called “But Enough About Me” by Daniel Mendelsohn.
“Memoir is the black sheep of the literary family,” he wrote. “Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives, spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends, with an overpowering need to be the center of attention.”
“Memoirists,” he went on, “are lying narcissists, motivated by conceit or a desire for revenge, or a wish for justification. We need to get our shameful secrets off our chests—a kind of therapeutic purge—we seek cozy acceptance from other people who might share the same secret.”
And on and on for pages.
How do we tell our stories without doing this?
First, the lying. Tell the truth as best you can, but realize this is your story. It may be flawed, but it’s your truth. If your sister or best friend were writing the same tale, the results would be entirely different. No memoir is ever completely true. No fiction is ever completely made up. If people complain, tell them to go write their own book.
How to not sound like a narcissist: don’t whine. Write with feeling but without sentimentality. Remember, a rounded character has flaws. You are the hero of your memoir. Let us see your flaws and your foolishness. There should be no villains. Heroes have flaws and villains have reasons. Put yourself in the shoes of the villains in your stories and figure out their reasons Time and humor help. Laugh at your foibles and we will laugh with you. It is laughter in the service of truth.
How to write about the hard stuff? People asked me, after reading my memoir, “How did you have the nerve?” You must be brave. Risk unpleasantness to tell the truth. Alice Walker wrote, “If you go deeply enough into yourself, you come up in other people. We have the capability to connect to absolutely everyone. . . .” We learn from each other’s stories and that is perhaps the great gift of memoir. Shared humanity makes us feel a little less alone in the world.
For me, it’s not a question of being honest so much as distancing myself—I am the person who writes. There is another younger, more foolish person to whom these events happened. I stand back, watch, listen to her, and record as well as I can what she thought, felt and did.
The writer and the protagonist in your memoir are not the same. You are not the same person who shivered and wept. In memoir, that younger self becomes almost like a character in fiction (except don’t make stuff up). You are older and wiser. You can reflect on what you did and why. You tell your truth, as best you can.
Women especially have to be brave because we’ve been taught to be polite. I love what Virginia Woolf wrote in l931:
I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draft, she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. . . .And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.
Turn off the voice in your head that says you can’t do it, and you’d better not do it, because it will kill your mother. We each have our demons, writers especially, who spend so much time alone in a room. Your demons may come like Virginia Woolf’s on the wings of propriety, or like mine, rattling chains in the attic of your mind. Stifle them, especially when you start to write the hard stuff.
Maybe you think your story is too difficult to tell, or that it would hurt too many people. But it’s a great story, a shame to waste it. Turn it into fiction. Change the characters’ names. Change the time and the location. Change people’s genders. The late southern writer Ellen Douglas, (which was not her real name—and there’s another solution—you can change your name) titled her last book: Four Truths I’m Finally Old Enough to Tell. You can wait until they die.
You are a memory keeper and you owe the world a story.
How to Begin:
Autobiography is the story of an entire life; memoir is a piece of a life. You may want to write about your own life, but wonderful memoirs have been written about a parent, a child, or a pet. I had a student who wrote a novel based on the diary of his wife’s great grandmother, who crossed from St. Louis to San Francisco in a covered wagon and kept a written record of the journey. His book is filled with astonishing details of day-to-day life from that long trek, none of which would exist if she hadn’t kept that diary.
Remember, it’s stories we want, not who begat whom.
Make a list of the times in your life when things changed. These can be big shifts, like marriage or childbirth, or the smaller ones: the first time you got caught in a lie, lost a friend, felt betrayed; the first time you swelled with pride over something you made or did.
Make another list of the memorable people in your life. They can be memorable because you think of them fondly, or because you feared them: teachers, friends, lovers, kin.
Make a third list of places. These can be places you once loved and can never return to; or places you disliked and never want to see again.
Every item on these lists is a potential story. Write them one at time. Write as if you’re talking to a good friend. Don’t worry about the order, or your grammar and spelling. You can figure out how to put things together later.
Pick one item off your lists. Close your eyes. See yourself in that place at that time. What is around you? What do you smell? What does it feel like? Who else is there? How old are you? Is it night or day, summer or winter? Are you inside or out? What are people wearing? Can you hear their voices?
Remember, detail brings stories to life. If you go deep into memory, you will be surprised at what comes up.
Memoir has a lot in common with fiction: we want good stories and strong characters. We want a beginning, middle and end. We want to see the conflict. We want dialogue and action. We want to see the main character (and that’s you) change.
Norma Watkins is the author of That Woman From Mississippi, out this month from Nautilus Publishing alongside a paperback reprint of her first memoir, The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure. She teaches creative writing at Mendocino College in Fort Bragg, California.