On Writing Memoir–and the Art of Narration in General

Patricia Hamilton, who published my book The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir (Park Place Publications, 2013), has commenced a column in our local paper, Cedar Street Times (Pacific Grove, CA). Patricia’s column is called “The Importance of a Strong Family Narrative,” and it is focused on documenting one’s own life and passing what you’ve learned and known on to “future generations.”

Patricia contacted me and asked if I would respond to four questions posed by Dr. James Birren, “a pioneer in the field of gerontology,” questions which address the benefits of “writing our life stories and sharing them with others.” All too true to my nature (and “Blog Baroque” style), I responded to the questions in full, and answered them as completely as I could. In her first column appearance, Patricia only had room for brief quotation from my replies, so I would like, here and now (given the space that a blog provides), to present what I sent her in full—and even add some additional thoughts on narration in general. And I may slip in some photos at a couple of points, as  “illustrations” of what I’ve been talking about (I hope), or just to liven things up a bit, visually.

Here are my responses to the suggested benefits:

  1. Increased self-knowledge by telling your story and listening to the stories of others:

When I undertook the book project that took six years to complete—The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir—my major intent was to explore areas of my life I had deliberately avoided or ignored. I grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan: a boy who just wanted to be a boy who played ice hockey (goalie, no less), liked to box (a sport made popular by Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson), play jazz piano–and hopefully find a girlfriend. However, that boy was inundated with (imposed upon, to his mind) tales his parents told of “illustrious ancestors.” I tried my best not to pay much attention to them, swamped as I felt I was with tales of relatives who, as for their American history, went  back to 17th century New England and Middlesex County, Virginia; Civil War heroes on both sides (Confederate and “Yankee”); and notable 19th century authors who wrote praiseworthy memoir and hobnobbed with not just Mark Twain himself but Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. It would take this boy–me–a number of years to “reconcile discordant elements.” The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir told the story of that endeavor—and the extent of “increased self-knowledge” I would acquire was considerable.  Listening, at last, to so many “stories of others” and facing up to my own, I learned that we are everything that surrounds us—and I found myself part of an extended family I came to love.

(2) Awareness and appreciation of having lived through so much:

We all hope to get “better” somehow with age. Memoir is one way to make that happen. Aristotle called an act of improvement (rather than one that entails slowing down or falling short) “entelechy”: the fulfillment of potential. In theology, Thomas Aquinas applied Aristotle’s concept to pure being in a state of realization. Today, we can—by way of memoir and a thorough examination of family history—keep our individual worlds large and as complete and inclusive as possible. We can make what we have lived through ourselves and what others have lived through come alive again, on compatible terms—and the result is greater awareness of ourselves and of the gift of life which is the possession of everyone.

And here are photos of the good folks who helped put my book together–Patricia Hamilton of Park Place Publications and Christopher Hebert, editor–with the book itself in the middle. The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir is available at: http://www.amazon.com/Inherited-Heart-American-Memoir/dp/1935530712/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1415460740&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Inherited+Heart%3A+An+American+MePatricia Hamilton   Front Cover  Chris Hebert

(3) Greater comfort with other people by sharing experiences and struggles:

The lives I discovered—by way of books about my relatives and others written by them (I discovered that both my father’s and mother’s families were “filthy” with writers: good writers!); research at the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; visits to former “Minor” homes in Virginia, and taped conversations with my “Yankee” mother, learning the history of her family—did teach me that we are linked, through inheritance, by all that surrounds us. I discovered that many of these folks leapt off the pages of books and letters in which they had been buried for years, some to the point of becoming “close friends,” as if they were living contemporaries. I not only shared the experience of writing the book with them, but contemporaries: my immediate family and friends; Chris Hebert (the best editor I’ve ever had); and Patricia Hamilton of Park Place Publications, responsible for making the book available in print—for coming up with the innovative idea of the postage stamp-sized photos (with captions) in the opening pages, and for getting me started on a blog (this one: Bill’s Blog, with WordPress).

(4) Fewer regrets as to our life choices and “the road not traveled”:

When I finished The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir (an undertaking that came to 476 pages, “edited” down from more than 600), I did not have room left for regrets regarding life choices of my own (one of which had been waiting until somewhat advanced age to start this project). I no longer saw options in terms of Robert Frost’s “two roads,” but saw my life (and that of many others) as a very wide river, a veritable Mississippi of “roads” made up of endless options I was in a position to take advantage of. “Memoir” was originally distinguished from reminiscence writing in general in that it was an account written by someone of importance who had lived through a significant era—but what is that other than “finding oneself” in a particular era? We are ALL someone of importance, and every era is significant. And the way to make that fact known is to explore your own life and family history and write about it—“not for glory and least of all for profit,” as William Faulkner said (although perhaps a touch of both just may fall your way), but just to tell your “story” and that of all the others who helped make you what you are.

Time out for photos I used as “prompts” for The Inherited Heart—some of which I did include in the book itself, both “postage stamp-sized” at the start and in an eighteen page photo gallery–and I think I’ll contrast the “eras” in which they were taken, just for kicks. Here’s my great-grandfather’s first cousin’s son in 1861, Charles Minor Blackford, age 27, and me with his Civil War sword in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2008; my mother and father with their first born son, my brother Lance; my mother and father, at about 50 years of age, in the living room of the home I grew up in; and me feeding our two sons, Tim and Steve, when I was 24.

Charles Minor Blackford  CSA Cavalry Capt Bill Minor  3.  11  Bill as Dad with Tim and Baby Steve

When I’d finished with the responses Patricia requested, I realized that, at the time she asked me to shape them to Dr. Birren’s set of benefits, I was reading (and still am; it’s a very large book!) Thomas Mann’s major work, Joseph and His Brothers, sixteen years in construction, four “books” actually (The Stories of Jacob, Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, Joseph the Provider)–amassing 1492 pages (in the masterful John E. Woods translation). If a major task of memoir is making the past come alive again, as best you can, I can think of few writers who have done a better job than Thomas Mann, although he did so not with personal history but Biblical history in Joseph and His Brothers. For Mann this effort was an act of  imagination (and considerable research), not memory—or at least not memory in the sense of personal reminiscence; but he employs a narrative technique throughout that I find remarkable: one which, if I had the nerve to try it on for size, I would love to attempt to make use of in memoir. A paradox: Mann’s work reads like “memoir,” an account of one person’s experience throughout a particular era, although that era is devastatingly distant from ours and the overall point of view is not that of Joseph but the author himself.

Throughout Joseph and His Brothers, Mann takes his audience, the reader, into complete confidence, as if the reader were (for each moment of time in the book) participating in the process of re-telling the traditional story (or stories), is actually involved in the writing to the point of  assisting in and sharing decisions as to just how the tale should be told. The reader becomes a co-conspirator, as it were, when it comes to what to include, and what not, and also the approach to storytelling overall.

For example, when faced with depicting the ambivalence and intricacy of Joseph’s brothers’ feelings after they have deposited a beaten, bruised, and naked Joseph, shorn of his coat of many colors (the garment itself ripped to shreds), in the dry well, Mann writes: “Some instances are best served with only half-words,” previously explaining: “In the end, what they had done to their brother they had done out of jealousy—and everyone knows what emotion is wrenched and distorted into jealousy. To be sure, when one looked at Shimeon’s and Levi’s well-oiled brutality any reference to that emotion might seem quite inept, which is why we need to speak obliquely, in half-words.”

That “we” is not just the classic editorial journalistic “we.” Mann means “us”: you and him, reader and writer. He seems to be consorting with his readers, seeking their approval of what he intends to do, or not to do. After such consultation with the reader as to whether he should name “that emotion,” Mann makes the decision on his own to resort to “half-words.” On other occasions he’ll issue a “warning” as to possible conclusions (“Once again, let readers be warned that they ought not consider Jacob’s sons to be especially hardened louts and deny them every sympathy.”), or he will take the reader into full confidence (without providing a “no disclosure” clause in the “contract” between them!), stating, “Just between us,” when revealing why Ruben has left the brothers behind to pursue his own “very different activities.”

Mann grants useful information to the reader, so that both reader and author can decide what to make of it and just how much to reveal or “tell”; or he comes right out and asks the reader, “Would it be saying too much if one were to include in his story how even now his thoughts [Joseph’s] built an airy bridge between these meadows here and his clan at home, his father and little Benjamin?” Mann abdicates authorial privilege, allowing the reader to contemplate whether the writer may have gone too far–even though the author goes right ahead to include what he’s just asked if he should include!

Mann will also warn the reader against “playing favorites” when it comes to the characters brought to life (those both author and reader have brought to life?). He warns readers to keep their distance from, or maintain control of their sympathies (a warning to himself as well?), saying, “We are easily moved to call some situation unbearable—it is the protest of fiercely outraged humanity, well intended and even beneficial for the person suffering. Yet such protest may easily also seem a bit ridiculous to someone whose reality is ‘unbearable.’ Those who feel outraged sympathy find themselves in an emotionally impractical relationship with a reality that is not their own; they put themselves in the situation of someone else who is already in it—an error of imagination, for precisely because of his situation he is no longer like them. And what does “unbearable” mean when it must be borne and one has no choice but to bear it as long as one’s senses are intact?”

Mann is constantly reminding the reader to be on guard with regard to her or his overall attitude toward the characters in Joseph and His Brothers—again, as if both reader and author had to collaborate on just how to make the right decisions, mutual decisions, as to how the characters might best be represented or rendered lifelike.

At times, he comes right out and offers an apology, or a disclaimer: “We are greatly concerned to impress upon everyone’s imagination a lively and real sense of such all-embracing discomfort. And yet, precisely for the sake of life and reality, it is likewise our task to ameliorate things out of concern that imagination not gain the upper hand and lose itself in empty emotion. Reality is sober and unimaginative—that is its character as reality.” In other words: Please help me decide just how far–and in which direction–I should go, Dear Reader! And in a subtle manner, he’s also teaching us, the readers, how to write–the important choices involved!

I love it! What fun! He actually cares about his readers! What a different, unique “twist” on a writer’s “superior” stance—a stance Mann had every right to adopt, for he’s obviously a genius and his own authorial prestige was large and lofty. I can think of few writers who can match his majestic sentences, sentences prolonged but hypnotic (like music) in the manner in which they unfold—and he has extensive, extraordinary knowledge (hard won knowledge, I know) of human behavior, just what makes us “tick,” both on the surface of things and down in the depths (of the well, of “the pit,” so to speak) of both self and “this world” we think we know so well and another some folks may anticipate. Throughout much of Joseph and His Brothers, Mann’s own wisdom strikes me as being as overwhelming as that of Jacob, Abraham, or maybe even God.

Subtle observations such as “Sympathy with pain that we must admit we have caused is very much like repentance” put the reader in the brothers’ place, so the realization goes two ways: theirs and ours, if we “buy” the truth of it. These “truths” as one-liners pile up, and I love ‘em: “For nothing happens twice, and everything is forever only like itself.” Yet, equally true, because looking ahead (to situations that will repeat themselves in Joseph’s life): “He had to descend into the grave again, for a man’s life revolves several times, bringing the grave and birth with it once more. Man must become several times over, until he has fully become.”

Time out once more! Let’s take a break from reading to look at some more photos I used as prompts for the new memoir project, “Going Solo.” Here I am playing tenor guitar at age 15, then playing a different tenor guitar at age 37; me with a pipe while attending Pratt Institute as an art student, age 20, and then visiting friends in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) age 44; as a fledgling pianist age 14, then privileged to play with local greats Jackie Coon and “Fast Eddie” Erickson at age 61, and as a seasoned pro (ho ho) age 74 (and thanks again, Gerry Ginsburg, for that cool photo!).

Bill with tenor guitar age 15   Bill with Guitar

Bill with Pipe   Bill in San Miquel

 Bill as fledgling pianist Bill with Jackie Coon and Eddie Erickson    Bill at Piano at Wave Street

Returning to Thomas Mann: he constantly reminds the reader of the difficulty (the dangers, the risks, even though it may seem a convenience) in telling any tale just one way, especially a story with so many overlays of history, reinvention, and mythical fabrication as that of Joseph and His Brothers. Robert Graves’ “There is one story and one story only/That will prove worth your telling” is definitely not Mann’s way of working.  He constantly reminds us of “the welter of motives that make life so murky”—and the multiple choices, options, we will run into, as both writers and readers, if we wish to get the story (stories) right. It is as if, faced with genuine storytelling as the delightful yet demanding art that it is, we need all the help we can get—both audience and writer!

Mann is a master of truly getting beneath the surface of a character’s life, and he may even leave the reader out, not consult her or him if he feels there’s an important aspect of personality the reader may have overlooked or ignored. Joseph’s true thoughts, when he is initially left in the pit, the well, “were not with his automatic and superficial pleas and wails, but rather somewhere below them: and below these thoughts other truer still moved as their shadows, their ground bass, their deepest current, so that all together, arranged vertically, they resembled agitated music that his mind was occupied with directly—top, middle, and bottom—all at once.” Mann is a master of disclosing such “agitated” music—of going where so many writers (and angels too, I’ve been told) fear to tread. He is a master of mixing and balancing both angelic and agitated music—and he produces a music all his own. That music includes humor, abundant irony, gentle wisdom, intelligence, invention, imagination, wit, originality, and suggestions (not statements of advocacy or coercive slogans that threaten to dry up or parch the prose) as to what may constitute a good life (dare I say “morality”?)–but he keeps, always, to the “very natural story,” and let’s it do the work.

In his novel, Snow White (an hilarious retelling of that tale), Donald Barthelme halts the raucous narrative halfway through the book and provides a quiz—as if to catch the reader off guard and see if she or he is really paying attention, or even still awake. If I can work up the nerve, after I complete the sequel to The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir I am, at present, hard at work on (“Going Solo”), I just may, should I live so long, commence a third memoir (Wow! I’d have a trilogy!) with a brilliant first sentence (something in the nature of “Call me Ishmael” or “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed”), and may then turn directly to the reader and ask, “Please, will you kindly tell me just where, from this point on, we—you and I, Friend Reader–should go?” Or maybe I’ll  be brave (or foolish) enough to ask readers if they feel I got off to the best start (whatever that first sentence may be) and seek permission to continue on my own!

Thank you, Thomas Mann, for the options.

Next Blog out, I will present a full summary of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (soon I hope, but perhaps in two parts)—a description and appraisal long overdue (well, at least two months), but kept in mind (Dear Reader, just for you) as potential writing all that time!

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Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published thirteen books: most recent Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958; also Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a comic novel (Trek: Lips. Sunny, Pecker and Me); three books on jazz (most recent: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), and six other books of poetry. A professional musician since the age of sixteen, I have released three CDs (most recent: Love Letters of Lynchburg--spoken word and original musical score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia). I was educated at The University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, The University of Hawaii, UC-Berkeley (MFA in Painting and Drawing), and San Francisco State College (MA in Language Arts). I taught for thirty-two years (English, Creative Writing, Humanities) at The University of Hawaii, Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, and Monterey Peninsula College). Originally trained as a visual artist, I have exhibited woodcut prints and paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. I have been married to Betty for sixty years and we have two grown sons: Timothy and Stephen. We live in Pacific Grove, California where, retired from teaching, I just write and play music, both of which I love.

1 thought on “On Writing Memoir–and the Art of Narration in General”

  1. Wonderful piece of writing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    And remember, “I used to be snow whote but I drifted.” Was snow white really a “D” cup?

    See ya monday,

    Bob

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