THOUGHTS ON FORM: MEMOIR AND ITS NEIGHBORS
1. Why think about form at all?
Because a grasp of form is a powerful tool. Form in art is not a dead thing, not a stenciled outline to be colored in. Rather, form is a thought that has evolved over a long time, in a particular culture, about what works – in this case, what works as a satisfying shape of a piece of writing for readers in our culture.
A tremendous amount of thought, and thus indirectly of energy, is stored in the configuration, the pattern. The power of form, which appears in countless manifestations in the human world, is that it enables congruence, mind to mind. (Think of how ritual, a deliberate patterning of experience, causes the minds of the participants to become powerfully aligned toward a shared value or purpose.) In the context of writing, the minds that try to reach congruence are those of the writer and the reader. Once that congruence comes into being, it releases the stored energy in the pattern. It takes some investment of energy on the part of the reader to get to this point, but the potential latent in the pattern itself may be far greater than what the reader puts in. In a homely analogy, the work of flipping the light switch is nothing compared to the power of the electricity that therefore starts to flow. That is what’s going on with all the forms in which the human mind, over centuries, has stored its best thinking. It’s as true of the arts as it is true of science. The form of the novel, the form of the short story, the form of the lyric poem, the form of perspective that came into painting in the Renaissance, the form of a sonata or the classic American popular song, the form of the periodic table of elements or a differential equation – over time, all these forms and countless others store up more thought, more power of the human mind, than any one person ever could. They are gifts of power, waiting to be tapped by learning. Grasping the power of a form is one way of knowing how we know, and that in turn is how we bring forth ourselves.
For a starting-point on thinking about memoir, I probably can’t do better than Vivian Gornick has done in The Situation and the Story. Here are some excerpts I find crucial:
“A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. . . .
“That idea of the self – the one that controls the memoir – is almost always served through a single piece of awareness that clarifies only slowly in the writer, gaining strength and definition as the narrative progresses. In a bad memoir, the line of clarification remains muddy, uncertain, indistinct. In a good one, it becomes the organizing principle – the thing that lends shape and texture to the writing, drives the narrative forward, provides direction and unity of purpose. The question clearly being asked in an exemplary memoir is ‘Who am I?’ Who exactly is this ‘I’ upon whom turns the significance of this story-taken-directly-from-life? On that question the writer of memoir must deliver. Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.” (pp. 92-93)
Phrases I would pull out and emphasize:
sustained narrative prose
the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened
the line of clarification
Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry
To boil this down to what cooks call a reduction, we’re talking about narrative + sense-making.
3. Other forms in the immediate neighborhood of memoir
I would say there is a very blurred boundary – if it’s definable at all – between “memoir” and “personal essay.” These two genres, in my opinion, overlap. But if you think of a spectrum with memoir on one end and personal essay on the other, it’s possible to distinguish between the two ends of the spectrum in this way: memoir in its concentrated form is 100% about, in Joan Didion’s words, “what it was like to be me”; while personal essay with strong emphasis on “essay” is about “here are some universal truths that can be pulled out of one person’s experience.”
A third category, “personal narrative,” can be distinguished from memoir by its lack of a “line of clarification.” Personal narrative in the pure sense is entirely “this happened, then that happened,” without the further layer of “and this is how I’ve come to make sense of it all.” There are no explicit efforts to analyze, to extract and purify meaning. Which is not to imply that memoir is somehow superior, only to make a distinction. If explicit meaning were somehow “better” than pure narrative, which deals in what Flannery O’Connor called “experienced meaning,” then an essay would be “better” than a short story in principle, and that’s obviously an absurd proposition.
4. So this leads me to the second layer.
The “first layer” in a memoir is the narrative thread of the piece, the past events that get told as some kind of a story. It is a series of scenes occurring at different times in the past. Layered on top of the past events that are narrated in the memoir, there is an often invisible, yet crucial scene of the writer at work, thinking/writing her way through the creation of this memoir we’re reading. “The second layer,” in my terminology, is the writer’s awareness during the time of writing, and the story of how it changes during the writing of the piece.
What makes a memoir a memoir is the presence of the second layer. The first layer alone would be a personal narrative, but not yet a memoir. When scene (the first layer) is played off against reflection (the second layer), you get the particular brand of experience that readers want from a memoir.
To get concrete about it, the “second layer” is in play when the writer comes from places like these:
“I remember . . .”
“As I remember it . . .”
“All I can remember is . . .”
“Thinking about it now, it seems as though . . .”
“Now I wonder . . .”
“I can’t help but think . . .”
“Now it reminds me of . . .”
“But today, looking back . . .”
“But now I realize . . .”
“Once I thought . . .”
“I wish I could say . . .”
Sentences beginning in these ways could occur almost anywhere, in principle. It’s not necessarily a question of choosing between a chunk of scene and a chunk of reflection. “The second layer” can be woven into the fabric of a scene, and often is.
Whether a “second layer” would be a clunky impediment to a potential piece of writing, or the heart and soul of it, is a decision the writer must make, and ultimately this is a decision about form.
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