Monday, February 03, 2014

Am I interesting enough to write about?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, writing, memoir

First please note that the keyword above is not "memoirs" but "memoir". The title of Beth Kephart's book Handling the Truth: on the Writing of Memoir should make it clear. The book is not a memoir, but contains advice about writing your memoir. Ms Kephart should know, I suppose; she has written five memoirs.

I recall a time that a person of note (at least to him- or herself) would, upon approaching dotage, retreat "to write my memoirs". It was done once, to cap one's life, to grasp the chance to tell one's own story, perhaps in hopes of having the last word. Fat chance if you're at all controversial, but a nice try!

Times have changed. Now the word is singularized, and "a memoir" can limn events and experiences from any period from a few days to all the life one remembers or can reconstruct. Or—and this interests me most—a memoir might deal with certain kinds of experience throughout a life, leaving other sorts of things to be dealt with in another volume. Thus, in "Part 2: Raw Material", the sections on Photos, Loves, Weather, Landscapes, Songs, Colors, Voices, Tastes, Smells, Possessions and First Memories could each form the core of a separate memoir. Although the author intends these to be woven into a single work, an analytical sort such as I am might do better focusing on one aspect at a time. I particularly like the idea I had upon finishing the book last evening, to collect favorite photos from all eras I've lived through (6.5 decades and counting), to form a core of a memoir.

The essence of the author's work, to which she returns again and again, is the nature of truth and how we handle it (thus the title). I think we have all experienced a bull session with siblings or other relatives, or with classmates or colleagues, in which a dispute arose over some event, and everyone had a different take on what happened. Every memory is partial. Our visual-auditory-sensory-memory system is selective. Our brain's storage system is very capacious, but definitely not infinite. Also, each person has a different perspective, a different angle. In an extreme case, two people standing a few feet apart and looking out the front door will see entirely different scenes. If closer together, so they see some of the same things, each will see things the other does not. Our attention, informed by prior experiences and interests, is like that doorway.

From where I sit, I can, by scanning my visual center, read the titles of most of the thousand or so books in this room. With a little more care, I can discern the serifs and other details that distinguish the hundreds of typefaces used. A photograph with enough detail to enable the same would require some 30-50 million pixels. We don't know how the brain encodes a visual memory, but a good (not extreme) quality JPEG image file would be about 8 Mbytes in size. If we were like super high quality (think Omni Theater) video recorders, a few minutes' worth of visual memory would fill the brain. Most of what we see (99.9% or more!) is filtered out. Now that I have looked away, back at the computer screen, I couldn't tell you the order of the books. I have a pretty good idea where the ones are that I use the most, and that is about it.

Even the more, we often conflate memories. If you've been to a certain villa for vacations ten years in a row, and on one occasion your younger brother needed medical attention, can you be very sure, 20-30 years afterward which of the ten years it was? Your brother may know the most accurately, were he old enough to form stable memories (at least 5) at the time. I remember pulling my younger brother out of a swift river when I was 7 and he was 3. He doesn't remember it. And anyway, it might actually have been the next year. Perhaps my father (in his 90s) might remember the year better, if he remembers which years we visited that particular farm.

So when we discuss past events with others who were there, we need to keep an open mind. Planning to put that event in a memoir? Then do your best to collate all the memories, taking advantage of which person has the strongest interest in accurate recall.

This brings to mind a problem students of the Bible have in making a Harmony of the Gospels, something I have also done. It is an attempt to turn the Gospels into a single historical narrative. Events recorded in two or more of the Gospels are sometimes different in detail. For example, Mark may write of a leper or blind man being healed, where Matthew mentions two lepers or two blind men. Even worse, the healing of Bartimaeus is listed before Jesus entered Jericho in Mark, but afterward in Luke. Some use such "conflicts" to denigrate the accuracy of the Bible as a whole. But consider each writer. Matthew was a tax collector. An expert in accurate counting. If he says Two, it was two. Mark (actually Peter, who told the stores Mark wrote down) focused on one, and may have noticed only one of them. Further, Luke was not an eye-witness. He interviewed people some 30 years later, and put down the stories in the best order he could, but in many cases, he could only use the order in which he got them from others. However, Luke was also a physician, so when he says a certain man had dropsy, you can be sure it was dropsy. The word is used only in his Gospel. He probably asked the eye-witness of details regarding the sick man to make his diagnosis.

OK, you have lots of material, and a great interest in generating a memoir. Now what? The shortest sections of the book involve the mechanics and process. Much more important, to exercise empathy and to have a worthwhile goal. Memoir is art, and we are encouraged, "Seek Beauty". You want your reader to be glad to have read it, even if you are writing only for three family members and no others. Actually, especially when writing for a small audience! Will they be offended? Thus the need for empathy.

Most of all, we are urged to read, read, read. Almost a quarter of the book is a long Appendix in which we find short reviews of more than 70 published memoirs, sorted into categories by aim or subject, recognizing that "the subject" is typically one slightly more prominent than two or three others. I may take Ms Kephart's advice, but as an autodidact, I may not. Just as I find "folk art" (art by nonprofessionals) more satisfying than the classics, the efforts of unschooled writers more frequently have great charm and beauty. If I write any memoir(s), the key question is, Why? Maybe some day soon I'll know.

No comments: