For me, this picture evokes how memoir writing often begins. Facts and details remain obscured through the fog of time. You know something’s out there, after all, it was your experience. Then sometimes the fog lifts, and events glitter with clarity from a bright recollection. At other times, certain details elude you and as a writer you do your best to fill in the blanks, linking the parts you do know.
Memoir is also a tricky process, because memory is a relative experience. Mention an event shared by family members and each person may paint a different picture. Sometimes the shared memory is close and other times the recollections are strikingly different. Perspective and age color many thoughts, so that when you share a memoir with someone who was there they may wonder what you’re talking about.
From my perspective, memoir is storytelling, similar to good fiction, though names, places, and events are very real. But, why would anyone care about someone else’s personal memory? Especially if they weren’t even there or know any of the parties involved. Who cares? Well, good storytelling is entertaining. We all know it’s been a staple of mankind since language began. Back when the Oggs invited their next cave neighbors, the Ughs to a woolly mammoth steak dinner, the après-dinner entertainment may have included something like this.
“You know Ugh,” Mr. Ogg began, tossing a bone in the fire, “That reminds me, back when I was a just a caveboy and my Pop taught me how to start a fire.” Ogg smiled, suppressing a giggle. “That shaggy old Neanderthal grabbed a couple of sticks and started rubbing them like mad. There he was, down on his knees, head bent over, rubbing, and rubbing. He always had to explain what he was doing, as if I was some kind of dumb Australopithecus, who didn’t know my opposable thumb from a rock. He kept talking and looking at me to make sure I was paying attention. As he got closer to ignition he grinned at me, with long stringy hair flopping across his furry face, while his hands kept working those two sticks faster and faster.
“When I saw the first wisps of smoke, I tried to tell him, but oh no. My old man kept rubbing and warning me about safety. Boy, was he surprised. He suddenly set his hair and beard on fire!” Mrs. Ogg and the Ughs began to laugh.
Encouraged by the laughter, while trying to control his own, Ogg continued. “The poor guy looked like a tree struck by lightning, only he was running in circles, slapping at his fiery hair and beard, leaving a ring of smoke hanging in the air. Finally, he jumped into the river—right on top of a hungry crocodile!”
Sure Ogg could have simply said, “Pay attention when you start a fire so you don’t burn yourself.” But he wanted to relate a memory to his wife and friends in the form of an entertaining story. So it is with my approach to memoir. At an early age I learned my words could make people laugh, so I developed a taste for telling stories. Now, as the senior years dawn for me, I’m trying to capture my memories into a collection of memoirs—stories—that I can share and hopefully entertain my readers, while offering a slice of a bygone and sometimes alien world and spark long dormant memories of their own.
In the interest of storytelling, I choose the narrative-driven nonfiction style. This includes the use of dialog to breakup expository passages. While some memoir writers believe in absolute accuracy, and therefore it’s impossible to remember exact conversations, other memoir writers use dialog that expresses the flavor of conversations that happened. I belong to the latter group and believe good dialog improves storytelling.
What do you think about memoir and the writing process of capturing your past and sharing it with others? How do you approach the fog shrouded memory and elicit clarity? What are your thoughts about the use of dialog? I’m always curious to know what other writers think and how they go about crafting their work.