When I first set out to write seriously, I cranked out essay after essay, believing I could never make up an entire story from scratch, much less a novel, but I had plenty of life experience to share. Now, I write mostly fiction, more confident in my imagination and much less so in my own memory (and the amount of intrigue in my oh-so-exciting experiences). But, since I started my once-a-month creative writing class with Seniors, I’ve been diving back into memoir, flash nonfiction to be exact, and I’ve learned a couple of pertinent lessons.
Writing short memoir is damn hard.
Hard, not only because of the compact aspect of the genre, as the story must fit nicely within a small word count, but because every time I sit down to write a bit of my own self onto the page, it comes out clunky, dramatic, or flat. Or, maybe just dramatically flat. When I read my simple stories out loud to the Senior citizens at the table, I wonder what they must think; I can never match the extent of their tales from lives more rich in history. My gut reaction is to fall back on fiction, where I can dress up my experiences with more exciting details. But, here’s the other thing….
Writing memoir, in short or long form, is critical.
One of my favorite quotes right now comes from E. L. Doctorow in a lecture he gave on Historical Fiction at the City University of New York (CUNY) :
What is the past if not the present and the future?
Sure, he’s talking fiction, but this particular message rings true for memoir as well. I don’t need to tell you the importance of listening to the stories from an older generation. We learn much by studying and honoring people and events rooted in our past, more than revelations as to how much we’ve changed (or not, as the case may be). Bruce Feiler, in this New York Times essay, writes about the effects of family narratives on children, pulling from research by psychologists, Marshall Duke and Robin Fivush:
[C]hildren who have the most self-confidence have what [is called] a strong ‘intergenerational self.’ they know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
As humans, we need the stories from our past, from a family member’s struggle with mental health, to the birth of a first child, to the discovery of a father’s short stint in a band when you’ve never know him to be musical. Ever. Those histories belong to us. They teach us how to live life on life’s terms, how to embrace the unknown, and how to see others in new ways.
We, that is I, must take the time to unwind these memories, however difficult, however banal, and turn them into stories to share.
Long car rides. Pit stops. Getting lost.
This prompt comes from Hippocampus Online Literary Magazine and goes on to read:
There are many types of travel, but this wanderlust-filled issue will feature those that have one thing in common about getting from point A to pint B: Four wheels. Five, if you count the steering wheel.
If, once you write this piece, you’re interested in submitting, the guidelines are here, and the deadline May 31st.
* Photo credit: [Man on beach] Shelling, by veggiegretz on Morguefile.com