Debra Gwartney books
Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Few Memoir Pitfalls, and some thoughts on how to avoid them


Following is a talk I gave in Sozopol, Bulgaria, on the edge of the Black Sea in May 2012. A gloriously wonderful time with gloriously wonderful people! Thanks to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for the opportunity to join in on the discussions about the writing life.


I’m here as a writer—as someone who’s grappled with the genre of memoir for many years (a grappling that never seems to let up, no matter the years I keep on with this writing). I’m also a teacher who’s led workshops on memoir writing for over a decade, and I’ve noticed over the years certain tendencies that students fall into. It’s easy to get caught up in such little things—but then as we all know, little things add up to big things— that make it more difficult for the reader to make good sense out of what’s happening on the page. If our first goal is to engage the reader, whether those readers are our friends and family or as many strangers as we can draw in, then it’s worth the effort to create clarity, to shape the prose so that our readers stick with us.

It’s overly obvious, I suppose, to say that memoir is based on memory—on the emotional life of the narrator. A memoir that truly engages (this is my opinion) is dedicated to exploring emotional patterns, the relationships that draw us in and that still have their hooks in us for reasons that are often unconscious. These memoirs recognize that the person called “I” is attached to a certain version of the past. What’s that attachment all about? At the same time, it’s important to remember that memory is malleable—our memories shift over time. Just ask your sister about a certain day in your childhood, and no doubt you’ll have divergent details of whatever episode you brought up. Also, the way you remember a childhood incident today is likely not how you remembered that same experience five years ago. Our memories are there to serve us. The ways we need to be served change as we change. Tapping into this very notion—just how are my memories serving me?—is a door into compelling memoir writing.

Patricia Hampl, in her marvelous essay, “Memory and Imagination,” says it like this: “We store in memory only images of value. The value may be lost over the passage of time. . .but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging on to. And, of course, often we cleave to things because they possess heavy negative charges. Pain has strong arms. Over time, the value (the feeling) and the stored memory (the image) may become estranged. Memoir seeks a permanent home for feeling and image, a habitation where they can live together.”

That is, we store details that consistently remind us who we are. It’s not memory’s aim to gather up details that are irrefutably “true.” True to me, absolutely. True to some other guy? Who knows. Again, from what I’ve read about studies on memory, our memories are there instead to constantly, consistently remind us of who we are and how we fit in the world.

Following this line of thinking, the most skilled and engaging memoirists, to my way of reading, don’t dwell quite so much on what happened, but instead on the question that I feel is at the heart of memoir: why do I remember that particular episode (series of episodes) that way? Again, how is my version of the event (not the event itself) serving me and my sense of self?

A few books that go about this exploration with breathtaking power: The Memory Palace, by Mira Bartok; Bereft by Jane Bernstein; Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy; Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, Half a Life by Darrin Strauss; Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick; Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat. So many others that take us on a “voyage of discovery” that is utterly moving and satisfying.

What the reader doesn’t want, and can’t invest in, is a self-pitying narrator. The those bad people did this to good me mode of writing memoir gets tiresome in a hurry. “Don’t sue your reader for sympathy,” I once heard the great Phillip Lopate say.

Instead of self-pity, then, self-curiosity. Instead of a string of excuses, the memoirist does her best to set aside defensiveness before entering the past and examining it anew. As Sven Birkerts writes: “Now, then. Past, present. The sine qua non of memoir, with the past deepening and giving authority to the present, and the present (just by virtue of being invoked) creating the necessary depth of field for the persuasive idea of the past.”

Often what happens in a memoir is that the narrator has an experience—the death of a parent, an illness, an accident, a divorce, an old friend coming to town and stirring up the past, a dream even (Michael Ondaatje’s brilliant memoir, Running in the Family, starts with the line, “It began as a bright bone of a dream”)—that startles her into a new kind of awareness about the story she’s long told herself about the past. The narrator indicates to the reader that something has compelled her to return to those past events, and to muck around there to gain new wisdom, insight, and self-awareness. The narrator, along the way, is able to see her own role in what happened in a manner she hasn’t before. Recognizing agency: that is one of memoir’s central aims.

In his essay, “Marketing Memory,” Bernard Cooper writes, “A good memoir does more than dredge up secrets from the writer’s past. A good memoir filters a life through resonant narrative, and in doing so must achieve a balance between language and candor. . .[discovering] language’s capacity to name what was once nameless, to define what had once been vague and chaotic. The chief privilege of writing a memoir was the opportunity to go back and make sense of events that left me dumbstruck, mired in confusion, unarmed with the luminous power of words.”

That’s the end of my longish preamble, which leads me to the first tendency that I so find often in prose written by those who are newly trying out memoir writing—

1) The “I” is largely undeveloped. We may be better acquainted with other characters in the piece, but we don’t quite know what to make of those characters because they’re not doing enough to reveal the narrator “I” to us. The central stakes in a memoir relate to the person called “I,” and “I” alone. We’ve been taught, I fear, that it’s narcissistic, that it’s navel gazing, to talk so much about yourself. Well, that’s true if you’re piece is focused on poor me, look at all I’ve been through and how much I’ve suffered. But if the memoir is focused at the excavation of memory that leads to self-awareness, then writing about yourself is the exact opposite of navel gazing. Such an intimate search for self-meaning is human and authentic. But we cannot enter the story unless we are allowed to know the person called “I,” unless we can rely on her, beginning to end, to be our filter and our guide.

I have noticed, over the years of teaching, that new writers of memoir tend to hide themselves in a crowd (of sorts). That is, the plural first person “we” takes over, supplanting “I.” If the first paragraph is something like, “Every Tuesday in the summer we walked to the store to buy popsicles,” the reader’s question is, who the heck is this “we”? A brother and sister? A neighborhood of kids? The entire fourth grade? And if we’re asked to continue on with “we”—“We climbed the steep hill to the neighborhood grocery and chose our favorite flavors from the freezer,” etc.—then our disconnect only deepens.

With the overuse of “we” comes a distinct lack of a guide who’s going to take us through the experience, and emphasize precisely what we need to see (hear, touch, smell, etc). “Tuesday afternoons in the summer, my brother talked our mother into pulling a dollar bill from her purse and, once that bill was wadded in his hand, he let me follow him out our door and up the steep sidewalk—five or six blocks that seemed like miles as I scurried to keep up with his longer legs—where we dug around in the freezer for our favorite flavors of popsicles. His was root beer; mine was orange.”

OK, nothing that’s going to win a literary prize—but do you see my point? By allowing the reader to see “I” as a distinct person, separate from the brother, we fall into cadence with our guide, and we begin to recognize the first nuances of the family dynamic.

A writer who understands, brilliantly, the balance of “I” and “we” is Tobias Wolff. In This Boy’s Life he often uses a group of characters to reveal the “I” to the reader. That is, the group is dynamic and interesting, and each separate character is distinct and real—but the primary function of the others is to show us aspects of “I” that he couldn’t announce to the reader himself. Here’s an example:

“At five o’clock we turned on the television and watched The Mickey Mouse Club. It was understood that we were all holding a giant bone for Annette. This was our excuse for watching the show, and for me it was partly true. I had certain ideas of the greater world that Annette belonged to, and I wanted a place in this world. I wanted it with all the feverish, disabling hunger of first love.

At the end of every show the local station gave an address for Mousketeer Mail. I had begun writing Annette. . .I gave Annette some very detailed descriptions of my contests with the friskier fellows I ran up against. I also invited her to consider the fun to be had in visiting Seattle. I told her we had lots of room. I did not tell her that I was eleven years old. . . .

As soon as she appeared on the show-Hi, I’m Annette!—Taylor would start moaning and Silver would lick the screen with his tongue. ‘Come here, baby,’ he’d say, ‘I’ve got six inches of piping hot flesh just for you.’

We all said things like that—it was a formality—then we shut up and watched the show. Our absorption was complete. We softened. We surrendered. We joined the club. Taylor forgot himself and sucked his thumb, and Silver and I let him get away with it. We watched the Mousketeers. . .and we didn’t laugh at them. We didn’t laugh when they said nice things about their parents, or when they were polite to each other, or when they said, ‘hey, gang.’

We watched every minute of it, our eyes glistening in the blue light, and we went on staring at the television after they had sung the anthem and faded into commercials for toothpaste and candy. Then, blinking and awkward, we would rouse ourselves and talk dirty about Annette.”

As readers, we’ve already come to know the boy Toby in the earlier pages of the book, and now Wolff the writer wants us to see Toby within a group of boys, so that we can see who he is with these (all of the boys on the cusp of change, leaving childhood behind to enter the teenage years), and how he is distinctly himself and different than the others as he goes about that shift.

Too often in the pieces I get in workshops, the “I” isn’t given enough to do. We don’t want simply an observer who’s standing back and filling us in on what happened. We want our narrator to act, to be in on the action, as young Toby is in the Mouseketeer scene and in every other in the book.

As Phillip Lopate writes in his wonderful essay, “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character”: “If you are so panicked by any examination of your flaws that all you can do is sputter defensively when you feel yourself attacked, you are not going to get very far in the writing of personal narrative. . .The point is to begin to take inventory of yourself so that you can present that self to the reader as a specific, legible character.

2) Which takes me to the second tendency, and that has to do with scene writing. Many times new writers will turn in memoir pieces that they (the students) believe include scenes. But they haven’t written a scene. They’ve recounted a scene. Scenes require that we’re in a specific place at a specific time, and that action takes place in that place and time. Dialogue. Setting. Something has to change, alter, and become revealed to the reader.

Here’s an example of student’s work– she presented this as a scene:

John and I had 10 p.m. curfews throughout high school, and while I generally stuck to it, he often wandered home in the wee hours of the morning smelling of pot and booze. His eyes and his actions, however, indicated his nights consisted of substances far more sinister. His boots on the hardwood floor woke my mother and they screamed and argued with one another until Kyle and I peeked out of our rooms and our wide eyes met. Kyle scurried back to bed as John approached the room they shared and my mother returned to her bedroom and slammed the door. Most nights, I was left staring into an empty hall. It was seldom, though, that much time would pass before I heard my brothers’ bedroom door creak open. John, comfortable in pajamas, emerged and we snuck down the hall to the living room. He was always in charge of what we watched on TV those early mornings, and it was always The History Channel.”

Just because this passage has scenic elements does not mean it’s a scene. A scene takes place in specific time, while this passage takes place in general time. That’s a biggie. Also, though we get something of a sense of place, the family home and a mention of a hallway, space remains largely undefined. Where in this space are the separate family members, exactly, and most important of all, where is the person called “I”?

Another critical question: What’s going on with the “I” in this student’s story? Not enough is happening. A memoir can only be about the self—not about the mother or the brother who comes home stoned or the other brother scared in the hallway. She hasn’t yet identified her own action, her own stakes. What is her role in the family? Does she step between the brother and mother, trying to calm things down? Does she go over and hold her mother’s hand in solidarity? Does she slide over near her big brother, glaring at their mother, to let John know she’s on his side? Does she hide in a corner, soothing the younger brother? Her actions could tell us so much—every flinch and movement could add to the complexity and depth needed to make a scene matter.

Look how Tobias Wolff does just that in This Boy’s Life, in the scene that I consider the most effective in the book:

“We drove farther into the mountains. It was late afternoon. Pale cold light. The river flashed green through the trees beside the road, then turned gray as pewter when the sun dropped. The mountains darkened. Night came on.

Dwight stopped at a tavern in a village called Marblemount, the last settlement before Chinook. He brought a hamburger and fries to the car and told me to sit tight for a while, then he went back inside. After I finished eating I put on my coat and waited for Dwight. Time passed, and more time. Every so often I got out of the car and walked short distances up and down the road. Once I risked a look through the tavern window, but the glass was fogged up.

I went back to the car and listened to the radio, keeping a sharp eye on the tavern door. Dwight had told me not to use the radio because it might wear down the battery. I still felt bad about being afraid of the beaver, and I didn’t want to get into more trouble. I wanted everything to go just right.

[Here we get a passage of reflection/back story, which ends with:]

I could be different. I could introduce myself as a boy of dignity and consequence, and without any reason to doubt me people would believe I was that boy, and thus allow me to be that boy. I recognized no obstacle to miraculous change but the incredulity of others. This was an idea that died hard, if it ever really died at all.

I played the radio softly, thinking I’d use less power that way. Dwight came out of the tavern a long time after he went in, at least as long as we’d spent getting here from Seattle, and gunned the car out of the lot. He drove fast, but I didn’t worry until we hit a long series of curves and the car began to fishtail. This stretch of the road ran alongside a steep gorge; to our right the slope fell almost sheer to the river. Dwight sawed the wheel back and forth, seeming not to hear the scream of the tires. When I reached for the dashboard he glanced at me and asked what I was afraid of now.

I said I was a little sick to my stomach.

‘Sick to your stomach? A hotshot like you?’

The headlights slid off the road into darkness, then back again. ‘I’m not a hotshot,’ I said.

‘That’s what I hear. I hear you’re a real hotshot. Come and go as you please, when you please. Isn’t that right?’

I shook my head.

‘That’s what I hear,’ he said. ‘Regular man about town. Performer, too. That right? You a performer?’

‘No, sir.’

‘That’s a goddamned lie.’ Dwight kept looking back and forth between me and the road.

‘Dwight, please slow down.’ I said.

‘If there’s one thing I can’t stomach,’ Dwight said, ‘it’s a liar.’

‘Marian says you’re quite the little performer. Is that true?’

‘I guess,’ I said.

‘You guess. You guess. Well, let’s see your act. Go on. Let’s see your act.’ When I didn’t do anything, he said, ‘I’m waiting.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Sure you can.’

‘No, sir.’

‘Sure you can. Do me. I hear you do me.’

I shook my head.

‘Do me, I hear you’re good at doing me. Do me with the lighter. Here. Do me with the lighter.’ He held out the Zippo in its velvet case. ‘Go on.’

I sat where I was, both hands on the dashboard. We were all over the road.

‘Take it!’

I didn’t move.

He put the lighter back in his pocket. ‘Hotshot,’ he said. ‘You pull that hotshot stuff around me and I’ll snatch you bald-headed, you understand?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘You’re in for a change, mister. You got that? You’re in for a whole nother ball game.’

I braced myself for the next curve.”

Every one of Toby’s (who has changed his name to Jack at this point in the book) actions adds to the deeper stakes of the book—which have to do with the potency and allure of deception—and every line of dialogue, every physical gesture reveals “I” to us and increases the tension. As cruel and unreasonable as Dwight can be in this book, he has hit the proverbial nail on the head here: Toby/Jack is adept at lying; he’s got lying down pat. And he does mock Dwight behind his back. The earlier reflection in the car, while Toby/Jack is waiting, is integral: just when he’s promised he’s going to be a different kind of boy and give up his errant ways, Dwight returns and calls bullshit on that plan. Dwight recognizes himself in the boy: a liar, a cheater, a manipulator.

3) The third point in my pitfalls argument has to do with tense. Memoir’s natural tense is simple past, as past tense allows for the reflective narrator as discussed above. If memoir is what I’ve claimed–not about what you remember, but why you remember is that way—then reflection is the way into such revelations. As Phillip Lopate has pointed out in many of his wise essays on personal narrative, the “I” in memoir has two dimensions: the character “I” in the action, and the narrator “I” who has lived past the event and is looking back on it with insight and wisdom.

And no one explores this dual-I better than Vivian Gornick, in her book The Situation and the Story: “The writer is possessed of an insight that organizes the writing, and a persona is created to serve the insight.”

I understand the allure of present tense. Many beginning writers I’ve worked feel they must have the sense of immediacy offered by present tense. It’s true that various memoirists have used present tense to great effect—Mark Spragg, for instance, in Where Rivers Change Direction has managed, so deftly, to place us in the “right now” of present tense and yet he uses diction, syntax, and a particular way of shaping insight to consistently remind the reader that the adult narrator is there, too, and the adult “I” is our guide and filter. The present tense boy doesn’t take over the prose—the adult is recounting the boy’s story in present tense. That’s an important distinction.

And it’s hard to do. More often, I see drafts where the child does take over the story. The problem here is that the child has no perspective, can offer no insight. Because the child is experiencing in the moment, he or she cannot possibly “excavate the self,” cannot recognize any pattern of self-delusion, or discover agency.

On the other hand, look at this brilliant passage of reflection from, again, Wolff’s book. He doesn’t add these in often—though there’s not a word, beginning to end, of this memoir that doesn’t come from the “I” narrator rather than the “I” character (except dialogue). But now and then Wolff the writer will bring in the narrator to create a larger context and thus a more profound awareness and meaning.

“I made excuses [for my father] long after I should have known better. Then, when I did know better, I resolved to put the fact of his desertion from my mind. I visited him on my way to Vietnam, and then again when I got back, and we became friends. He was no monster—he’d had troubles of his own. Anyway, only crybabies groused about their parents.

This way of thinking worked pretty well until my first child was born. He came three weeks early, when I was away from home. The first time I saw him, in the hospital nursery, a nurse was trying to take a blood sample. She couldn’t find a vein. She kept jabbing him, and every time the needle went in I felt it myself. My impatience made her so clumsy that another nurse had to take over.

When I finally got my hands on him I felt as if I had snatched him from a pack of wolves, and as I held him something hard broke in me, and I knew that I was more alive than I had been before. But at the same time I felt a shadow, a coldness at the edges. It made me uneasy, so I ignored it. I didn’t understand what it was until it came upon me that night, so sharply that I wanted to cry out. It was about my father, ten years dead by then. It was grief and rage, mostly rage, for days I shook with it when I wasn’t shaking with joy for my son, and for the new life I had been given.”

I could point out more of these so-called “pitfalls,” but I’m going to stop here for the sake of time and attention. Though please allow me to end with more wisdom from the two writers who express, better than any others, craft and style issues related to personal narrative:

“If writing a personal narrative is a juggling act, the art may consist of keeping the balls of irresolution and doubt in the air as long as possible. By asking my students to think on the page, I want them to figure out something on their own, some question to which they don’t already have the answer when they start. Then they can truly engage the reader in the adventure of following their quest, as they try to come up with the deepest, most honest and most surprising insight, without self-censorship. When they surprise themselves, it will make them happy and their prose elevated. There is nothing more exciting for the reader than following a live, candid mind thinking on the page.”

–Phillip Lopate

“In fiction, a cast of characters is put to work that will cover all the bases: some will speak the author’s inclination, some the opposition—that is, some represent an idea of self, some the agonistic other; allow them all their say, and the writer moves into a dynamic. In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension.” –Vivian Gornick, from The Situation and the Story


8 Responses to A Few Memoir Pitfalls, and some thoughts on how to avoid them

  1. Gene Bodzin says:

    Amazing what you were able to put into a single essay. I’ve been working on the same issues for years, and they never get resolved. Writing is an ongoing struggle against incomprehensibility and meaninglessness, and this advice is about as pithy and comprehensive as I’ve ever seen in one place.

  2. Hi Debra:
    I haven’t been to your blog before, but I will now look up your memoir. Excellent post, pulling in relevant voices and examples.
    PS You need a tweet button…I’ll spread the news, but it makes it much easier to get the word out & people to your blog.

    • debra says:

      Thanks, Christin. I’m glad you liked the post. And, yes, you’re absolutely right that I’m way behind on being technologically saavy. I want a tweet button, but I’m not sure how to get one. Off to research the answer to that question right now. . .


  3. Heather says:

    I have one question in particular I’m having a hard time finding an answer on! I just started editing as a freelancer and my client has written a memoir. We decided sticking with past tense was best. However, there is some friction when deciding on if certain sentences should be jolted into present tense ‘because they are still accurate’…..

    *I worked at ‘this place’
    *Matt was 5’8″

    And second…. The beginning of each chapter has a testimonial from those who went through her journey with her. They were there and wrote about what it was they thought at that time.

    The majority of the testimonials jumped from past to present and back again! I thought it best, again, to make it all past tense. But, for sake of example, we’ll say the author’s name is Rachel…..should this be made present tense?

    Rachel was so strong. I could have never went through what she did.

    Is is clear that Rachel is not dead? And that they are referring to the time in which things happened? And/or should it be “Rachel is so strong. I could have never went through what she did.

    To be honest, I changed absolutely everything to past tense, but one of her friends thought saying ‘she was’ made her sound dead. And when referring to the husband’s height, it should be present because he is still that height.

    Hopefully you have some insight on this dilemma I am facing! I have yet another memoir coming my way in a few short weeks!

    • debra says:

      Hi Heather,

      Thanks for your note, and your challenging query about tense. It’s a tricky element, I agree, especially when there’s an inclination to move from past tense to present and back again. Smooth transitions are critical, of course, and hard to achieve. One writer who does this very well is Vivian Gornick in her memoir FIERCE ATTACHMENTS. I also found the move between tenses successful in Blake Morrison’s AND WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER? I’ve studied both texts for help on this matter.

      I guess my overall point would be that the writer must (in my view) establish what I call “The Time of the Story,” that is, the through-line of time that grounds the reader in temporal space by identifying the “where” and the “when” of the narration. That’s the “now” narrator, looking back on his or her “then” younger self. That now-narrator could certainly state lines such as, “Rachel is my favorite aunt,” and then move immediately into past tense, “but she was grouchy and difficult the day I visited.”

      Is that what you’re talking about? I hope I’m not off the mark. I sure recommend Sven Birkerts oh-so-helpful book, Time and the Art of Memoir (I hope I have that right)–

      And I wish you good luck!

      Debra Gwartney

  4. Pingback: Past or Present Tense in Memoir? | Memoir Writer's Journey

  5. Pingback: Deciding on the Right Tense for Your Memoir | Memoir Writer's Journey

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