Debra Gwartney books
Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Beginning a Memoir

The text of my presentation for a recent AWP panel called “The Rooted Narrator,” with co-panelists Jill Christman, Bonnie Rough, Sonya Huber, and Dan Raeburn.

Memoir’s Prologue

When I decided many years ago now to sit down and write a story about a series of traumatic events in my family—armed with notes from memoir courses I had taken during graduate school from Vivian Gornick—I kept the first venture, a distinct piece of memoir writing, to a manageable 2000-3000 words. Once that one was published, in Creative Nonfiction, I wrote another and published it in a fabulous Salon section, now defunct, called “Mothers Who Think.” A third piece went to Fourth Genre. A wrote another and yet another, also published. I reveled in my good fortune in finding homes for those brief memoirs, and got a little cocky about possibilities for a book. I thought I’d just weave the stand-alone pieces together, this strand tucked under that one, and there it would be, my book-length memoir all stitched together.

Five years later, with a whole bunch of failed attempts for said book stacked on my desk, I knew I needed help in understanding the long form. I got that help via several routes, one of which was a much closer study of the classics in the memoir canon, including those I’d read years before in those rigorous Vivian Gornick courses. What I was seeking was an element I hadn’t quite reckoned with yet, the “persona of the narrator” (which is Gornick’s term). This is the essential voice in memoir that I’ve come to also call the narrator-looking-back, the voice of person who has lived through the experiences but realizes at some point that she must revisit the past with more honesty, self-curiosity, and willingness to acknowledge agency.

I discovered in re-reading these books that the writer often uses a prologue—sometimes called an introduction, sometimes part of the first chapter—to introduce the “remembering self” (a term brought up by AWP co-panelist Dan Raeburn), and also to suggest the impetus for the journey back into the past. The necessity for a new relationship/reconciliation with past events often comes upon some of these narrators suddenly—something occurs (and that something is often, on its face, quite innocuous) that convinces them that it’s absolutely time to break apart certain calcified memories and to at least attempt to inch toward a new form of self-awareness.

For instance, this passage in the “Savages” chapter of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time: “It is two o’clock in the morning. I lie in bed watching the back of my wife’s neck. She sleeps, she is part of the night. The baby wakes at seven, her sleep is for both of them. Sleep is everywhere. I am like a bather at the edge of a pool. My faith in the firmness of time slips away gradually.”—skipping ahead a few lines—”My memories flash like clips of film from unrelated movies. I wonder, suddenly if I am alive. I know I’m not dead, but am I alive? I look into the memories for reassurance, searching for signs of life. I find someone moving. Is it me? My chest tightens.”

Conroy decided, at some point in writing, Stop-Time, to evoke the person in crisis, the “I” who must comb through the past to discover his own role in a larger family and societal dynamic that as a boy he was barely managed to survive. Readers understand that the voice of the “bather at the edge of the pool’s” voice is not the voice of the boy Frank. Instead this is the voice of the man who will, for the next 300 pages, recount the boy’s experience, the adult who has lived through those experiences, yet in the middle of a particular haunted night realizes that the past is not finished. It isn’t done with him, nor is he done with it.

This nod to the narrator’s present day life shows up only now and then through the rest of Conroy’s book, often in swift parenthetical phrases—we don’t get to know the wife mentioned here or the child or the life that the “I” lives now, except that he drives suicidally fast through London and vomits in fountains. But we have met “the persona of the narrator,” that Gornick term again, the person who’ll take us on a journey through the boy’s bumpy life so Conroy the adult can view the past with more honesty, clarity, and, as I mentioned earlier, more agency. That is, time to meet himself again and to come away with hard-won knowledge of intentions and motivations he’d previously hidden from himself.

Because we’ve met the narrator-looking-back in these early pages, we are assured that the voice will stay consistent throughout, all the way to the end. Except for brief passages of dialogue, the narrative does not get turned over to the boy. Every insight is delivered to the reader through the filter of the older self.

This is often the mode established in memoir’s prologue: the narrator is introduced, rooted, we hear his/her voice, and a sense of urgency about revisiting the past rises from the text. Also, the sensory details provided in these early pages, the very shape of the initial scene, establishes an emotional tenor that prepares the reader for what’s ahead.

Maybe no prologue does this more effectively than Geoffrey Wolff’s in Duke of Deception, except for perhaps Michael Ondaatje’s prologue in Running in the Family. Wolff presents—again evoking the narrator who will, a few pages from now, plunge into the depths of the past—a narrator who’s lounging on the porch, unyoked from the cares of the world and yet not, as we know from the first line of the book: “On a sunny day in a sunny humor I could think of death as mere gossip, the ugly rumor behind that locked door over there.” The setting forth of that reflective voice, of utmost importance to establishing the launch of the book, convinces the reader that Wolff’s “sunny day” will suddenly, jarringly, go bad. The reader witnesses the unfolding of events from the narrator’s perspective, which the character of Geoffrey, the man with the “icy feel of the glass against my chest,” could not have conceived in that moment on the porch. Only the narrator-looking-back, artfully and persuasively, can achieve an essential distance from the self. It’s the narrator-looking-back who shows herself/himself swiftly in a moment that is both rooted and in some ways uprooted (by that I mean a narrator who realizes he must come to terms with a particular version of his own younger self or else live in a sort of troubling fog of self-deception).

From the first word of Duke we know who is telling the story, and by the end of the prologue, we know why. “The words did not then strike a blow above my heart,” he writes, concerning his response to news of his father’s death (which was to blurt out, “Thank God.”), “but later they did, and there was no calling them back, there is no calling them back now. All I can do is try to tell what they meant.”

I’ve found that the prologue is often used in book-length memoir to create the impetus, the trigger, while setting forth the voice that will remain consistent throughout the book. The questions Wolff poses for himself in these early pages resonate through the rest of the pages to remind us, again and again, that the book is about the adult Geoffrey, who recalls with curiosity (rather than defensiveness) his younger self. The book is not about the larger-than-life Duke, easy as it would have been to let Duke take over. Duke’s central job as a character in this book is to reveal the character of Geoffrey to the reader—and he does that very well. By coming to know Geoffrey’s various reactions and responses to his father’s behavior—how these reactions shape the boy into a man—we come to know Geoffrey’s “two halves of the self in conflict,” which is imperative in memoir.

In my study of prologues from memoir, I found similar approaches (establish the narrator’s voice, set the emotional tenor, suggest the impetus for revisiting the past) in such books as Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, Kim Barnes’ In the Wilderness, Elizabeth Kendall’s American Daughter, Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart. Also, Jane Bernstein’s wonderful memoir, Bereft, in which the narrator “I” realizes she must go back and discover the hidden story about her sister’s murder, and in the process unburden herself of long held self-delusion. Her prologue ends with these lines: “What an odd thing, to be a spectral figure wafting near the ceiling of this apartment, to look down on this story I cannot change. . .I want symmetry, a happy ending, a story where all the clues will add up. Let me forget again, I think, when I awake. But Laura’s voice stays with me: Tell the story, she says. It’s the least you can do. i mean i am your sister.”

And a final example from Mark Doty’s Firebird, the end lines of his prologue which, again, I feel prepare the reader for the journey ahead and establish the voice, as well as the urgency for combing through certain dimensions of the past: “The book he’s reading configures this space: house and mother, sister and closet and father, endless hallway, tumult of wings. His book angles and skews them by artifice, and then tries to use artifice to set them right.”

As for me, once I understood the work that a prologue can do to spark the journey that will take place over the rest of the book, I decided to write one myself, and I settled on an episode that occurred nearly a decade after the trauma in my family had, I thought, been solved. In this prologue, the person called “I” sits next to a girl on a city bus—a girl who’s clearly in a bad state. She enrages me, disgusts me, an emotional uproar that soon strikes me as far too visceral for such an encounter. I remembered how upset I was by her, and realized this was a moment I could elevate to scene, use to explore the ways the past wasn’t yet finished. The monumental task ahead meant a return to painful events, memories, and the willingness to see myself back there, faint as that presence was at times, to muck around until I got at least a glimpse of who I was then, to better know who I am now.

9 Responses to On Beginning a Memoir

  1. This is so timely for me, as I have been reworking my memoir yet again and focusing on the Prologue. That narrative distance issue does seem crucial (why??) and yet very slippery. It is so slight, as you note, in Stop-Time. I have also recently read the opening two pages of The Great Gatsby that function as a Prologue and with the narrator, Carraway, at a distance.

  2. Emily says:

    Debra! I was searching for some inspiration as I rework my memoir beginning and stumbled upon you. Thank you! I like the idea of being the wise one now, looking back, cultivating that voice while trying to tell that story. It’s very difficult. I worry sometimes that enough time has not elapsed for me to be doing my project… but I’m going to push on anyway.

  3. I know it’s better late than never to discover your article on beginning memoir. I write novels and have just gotten around to rewriting my memoir in earnest. In novels, I have learned a prologue is best left out. Let the action show the circumstance. However, your explanation of the place for a prologue in memoir makes perfect sense. Thanks for the advice.

    • debra says:

      Hello David Stewart–

      I did something to block myself from my own website (oh dear), so I’m getting back to you only now, very tardily. Thank you for your note on the “prologue in memoir” craft essay on my website. I’m glad you found it, and good luck on your memoir. Debra Gwartney

  4. ExitAisle says:

    You provide a vocabulary that gives me the missing link. Your analysis shows me what I need to put in and take out of the section that, I see now, is a prologue. You help me see the purpose in a new way. I ordered several of the good books you cited and will review the prologues in depth.
    I’ll remember to send you a copy of the book when I hit the best seller list (autographed, of course!)…

    • debra says:

      Thanks for writing, and I’m glad you have stumbled on the need for a prologue (I’m a big believer, obviously). Do write again and tell me what it’s like to be on the bestseller list. I’m curious!


  5. R. Rosenblatt says:

    Prologue appears to be useful in a one-memoir book; but what can I do for a collection of short short memoirs in one book. There are so many “me’s”.
    I have toyed with so many approaches. Now, I think I’ll just “announce” the stories, and be done with it.
    What do you think?

    • debra says:

      That’s an interesting dilemma–dealing with a collection rather than a book-length memoir. I’d suggest looking at the introductions/prologues of a few memoir collections, including Boys of My Youth, by Jo Anne Beard, and Where Rivers Change Direction, by Mark Spragg. Good luck with this!


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