Thursday, February 18, 2016

Dare to Recognize Your Inner Memoirist

Wednesday is the scheduled day for the course you teach in memoir writing, which brings persons with a different kind of urgency than the urgent agendas of individuals in your fiction writing class. You've brought both groups of students up to a satisfying level through your use of one of the oldest stratagems known to writers who have some experience in the teaching trenches.


You think of your approach as a stratagem rather than a trick or ruse although you have to be careful because one of your students is in both classes. From the beginning, you direct your memoir students to consider their narratives as story, with goals of beginning, middle, and end, much of the material written in scene, presented with constant admonitions not to describe but instead try to evoke feelings and atmospheres.

The memoirists are writing about actual events and actual people, who have said things or left them unsaid, done things or left them undone, as seen from the lens of the first-person narrator about whom the memoir is woven. 

The memoirist narrator tells the truth as the narrator experiences it. The narrator in memoir gets to say the one thing the fiction writer cannot say, "But it really happened that way." 

Your approach with the fiction writer is to urge the student to see their characters as individuals in a memoir. Even though they are inventing the characters and must be prepared to be surprised by them, the fiction writers must be convinced their characters are real, well-articulated individuals, with quirks, flaws, dreams, and prejudices. If they are writing about an event that actually happened to them, they cannot say, "But it really happened that way" as an excuse, if the reader says the event sounds phony.

Memoirists are urgent because of a fear they will not live long enough to finish or because of a fear they will somehow disappoint some family member or close person. Fiction writers are urgent because they want to have the experience of telling stories to strangers, having strangers believe the stories, and as a result think highly of the author's understanding nature.

You and many of those in your memoir writing class are of an age where you can be simultaneous memoirists and storytellers. You see yourself in formative situations and present-day circumstances, aware of the parallel lines of then and now, aware of the places where the lines diverge,

When you leave your lodgings for any time now, you invariably wear some garment with pockets to hold an assortment of fountain pens, note pads, reading glasses which, thanks to your cataract surgery, you often forget to use, and something to read. In addition, you have a breast-fold wallet, and your iPhone 6S. This is a significant load, but when you were still in single-digit age, your toolkit was every bit as ambitious. 

You had at least one stub of a Number 2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencil, a pocket knife to keep those stubs sharp, a Duncan yo-yo, a small notebook of your own construction, a book of matches, a small plastic magnifying glass (a prize from a box of Cracker-Jacks),a red spinning top and related string, one or two licorice cigarettes, and, if times were ripe, a remnant chunk of a Tootsie Roll. 

You had at least one marble with some exotic inner design, and at least one printed card picture of an airplane, a regular feature of Wings Cigarettes.
There was always the possibility that you carried as well the rolled-up remains of the tube of glue that came with the home-repair resoling kit, applied in desperate hope that your current pair of shoes would last a bit longer. You had a dark chocolate brown cardigan sweater with lighter  brown suede side panels, which you adored.

You ventured into the world on weekdays at about eight in the morning, wending your way to elementary school perhaps two miles away, then home, by as protracted a route as possible, by no means because you dreaded what awaited you at home, rather for the sake of adventure and discovery that might happen to come your way, which you could then make note of in the notebook you carried for such purposes.

The memoir version of you setting forth is not all that different from you setting out this morning to have coffee with your pal, Dan Van Hirtum, and the actor, Billy Baldwin. You are doubtless better versed in conversation now than you were then, to the point where potentials exist for adventure and discovery. When you finish your book on constructing characters for stories by using actors' techniques for enhancing their stage/screen presence, it will still be fun, you think, to have Billy supply the Introduction.

Your thoughts about the parallels between the you of memoir and the you who is out and about, teaching courses, planning bi-monthly seminars, and writing books, led you to consider your arrival at the school grounds most mornings in time to challenge the fifth grader Georgia, on whom you may have had a crush, to a round of tether ball.  This was well before the appearance in the world of Wile E. Coyote, and somehow you were not thinking in terms of humiliation when you challenged Georgia and she, without comment, beat you mercilessly, then walked off to her group of girlfriends without another look in your direction.

Until now, you never questioned the fact that she always accepted your invitation/request for a game. She could have easily said no or some schoolyard equivalent. Georgia never refused you, nor did you ever even approach scoring so much as one point against her. She was in the fifth grade, you in the third. Soon after the third grade was over for you, you got your wish for adventure and were whisked across the country to times of adventure and discovery. You were gone for five years, launched into middle school.

You looked to see if Georgia was there. Indeed, some of your classmates from elementary school were there, but you were five years out of sync with them and you were different. You never saw Georgia again, but you wondered as boys in fiction who have become different wonder.


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