The past is present, and the present isn’t yet. We are what we remember plus the current circumstance. Time hurtles forward, but look at us contradicting ourselves as we zig and we zag all over the place.
Those of us who wish to write memoir—to engage with the facts and confessingly subvert them, to measure the actual scene against the aspiration—have a challenge. We forget too much, and we’re overwhelmed by what we remember. We work so very hard to hold our storytelling frames, but paradoxically our experiences can seem less true when we present them as one breathless continuum.
But what if we allow our writing to reflect the fragmented nature of life itself? What if we rely on white space and seams, celebrate explicit contradictions, make more room for the tangent and the metaphor and the sideways glance? What if we decide that the whole is not just bigger than the parts, but also that it may be more finally true for having been assembled in pieces?
Lately, I’ve been reading some exquisite books that show how powerful this approach can be.
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When Sonja Livingston began to write about her life with an itinerant mother and six siblings in the raw corners of western New York, she wrote, she says, in snatches. “I wrote of living in apartments and tents and motel rooms. Of places where corn and cabbage grew in great swaths. Of the Iroquois on their reservation outside of Buffalo.”
But when Livingston tried to connect these fragments into a memoir, she told Bookslut interviewer Elizabeth Hildreth in March 2010, she ran into a problem:
I tried to connect them in [a] way that was more typical in terms of a traditional narrative. At one point, I think I had twelve long chapters. But it felt all wrong. . . . So I returned to the manuscript, and began structuring it the way the memories had come to me, in distinctive snapshots, and ended up with 122 little chapters.
The book, Ghostbread, became a kind of memoir-in-essays—a poeticized true story in which all the unnecessary things are absent from the pages. There are, indeed, 122 small chapters, plus an epilogue—some chapters no more than a paragraph long, most stretching over two to three pages. There are no forced transitions between these chapters, but there is the continuity of chronology, with the book beginning with the author’s lineage and birth and ending (just ahead of the epilogue) with her graduation from high school. Livingston never pretends, in Ghostbread, that memory unfurls like some single silk ribbon. She upholds the integrity of each “distinctive snapshot.” Singularly, these elements seduce us. Together, they relate a life.
In The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, Megan Stielstra also relies on distinct, self-contained pieces to present a sustaining view of the life she has lived. Like Livingston, Stielstra works chronologically, presenting her life in four primary sections, each pertaining to a decade lived—ten, twenty, thirty, forty. Unlike Livingston, however, Stielstra chooses to explore and present her life through longer essays (four per section) that consistently spring from her stated determination to “look at the fear.” Stielstra’s fear of being stuck. Her fear of dogs. Her fear of losing her father. Her fear of depression. Her fear of the possible outcome for a child sick with cancer. If chronology dictates the placement of the pieces, fear provides the thematic adhesive.
The memoir built of pieces is gigantically plastic; it welcomes new versions, new interpretations. In Meet Me in the In-Between, Bella Pollen explores the roots and impact of her insatiable wanderlust in narrative true stories—about the inevitable need for attention by the young middle-child version of herself, say, or about love affairs gone wrong, or about encounters with her elusive father in movie theaters—bridged by alluring graphic art that economically and emotionally relays stories Pollen chooses not to tell with words, such as the ones about her family’s transatlantic journey and her parents’ separation. These miniature graphic memoirs, created by the illustrator Kate Boxer, enable Pollen and the reader to see Pollen’s world through (as Pollen notes in the acknowledgments) another pair of eyes while also marking the passage of time. There might be a lesson here for the rest of us—the possibility that we, too, someday, will ask an artist to embolden our book with their own particular take on our lives.
Or perhaps the writer will choose, as Brian Turner does in his memoir about his experience and perception of war, My Life as a Foreign Country, to imagine one’s self as a “drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body.” Turner’s worldview has been shaped by his time as a sergeant in combat. His sensibility is that of a poet. His book operates as a series of not-always-continuous distillations of war, of family history, of reckoning. Each piece—some a single paragraph long, some running over the course of many pages, some reading like prose poems, some reading like narrative—stands on its own. The adjacencies are sometimes obvious, and sometimes less so; this is not designed to be a straightforward read. Turner, it seems, wants us to see his world as he now sees his world—in fragments, in fractions, in fever dreams. He wants to present us with the insoluble puzzle of war and its long drag on memory. The cumulative force is extraordinary and suggests a potential way in for those of us who live with competing versions of ourselves, our character, our stories.
A Song for the River takes as its primary material the years Philip Connors spent as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness. His themes are isolation, loss, and the afterlife of forests and friends—themes that might have easily been presented as a traditional collection of essays.
The five long essays (some stretching to over fifty pages) and the final “Catechism for a Fire Lookout” of Connors’s book are bound as if by centripetal force. The characters we meet early on in one essay are met again in the next. The metaphors suggested in one essay reverberate in later pieces. Connors’s quest to understand why what he loves—a lookout friend who dies while taking a ride on his horse, environmentally minded teenagers who are killed when the plane they are flying in goes down, the forest itself—keeps disappearing is not just catalogued but magnified, until the man who is “scribbl(ing) to mark my passage through those places I have loved most” in the third essay is writing, by the fifth, “We are learning more all the time about how to love.”
Connors apportions the essays and arranges them so that the reader is able to grow with him—to watch as, despite all those losses, he extends past his naturally lonesome self. In essay after essay, Connors returns to his lookout and considers what he sees. In essay after essay, he struggles to come to terms with the changing landscape and the death of friends. By the end, Connors has become a more symphonic self—no longer isolated in his solitude, unafraid to speak of and for those he has lost, capable of hearing music in the river, capable of sharing it.
Connors, with his book, teaches us the art of iteration and the power afforded by the memoir built of pieces. He makes us believe that his discrete essays—some elements of which were first published in very different forms—are somehow aware of one another, looking back over their own shoulders, or arcing ahead, or pausing to remember what has or has not yet been said, has or has not yet been felt. Connors has done far more than simply arrange his pieces, in other words. He has deliberately and with great skill folded them into each other. In doing so, he teaches us how to study our own work for echoes and persistent themes.
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Sometimes the book we hold in our hands is a composite—prose poems, visual collages, photography, filmstrips, essays that together sweep us into the raw, intimate urgency of memoir, demanding our attention and our empathy. Such is the case with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, described by Hilton Als as “the best note in the wrong song that is America.” In Citizen, Rankine’s voice arrives in seven primary parts, or what the musically inclined might call movements. She begins: “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” Rankine’s process is, in her words, associative—a remembering of abrasions and incidents held within the containers of prose poems and essays and art. Her prose poems have accumulating force. Her minimalism is her power:
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
The words are clear. The white space is implicating. The effect is greater than any continuous narrative line of autobiography could ever be, for it’s not that the pieces add up to a whole or even more than a whole. It’s that the accumulating pieces shatter simplistic calculations of race relations.
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Sometimes a memoir is a construction of like things—an imaginary wall of cubby holes into which clever similars are organized, side by side, one above and one below. In Dear Mr. You, for example, Mary-Louise Parker compiles and constructs like things—in this case, letters addressed to the men she has known or been affected by, titling her chapters “Dear Grandpa,” “Dear Daddy,” “Dear Yaqui Indian Boy,” and more. She letters through teachers, lovers, betrayers, friends, a cabdriver, a doctor, the “future man who loves my daughter” until, in a tour-de-force piece titled “Dear Oyster Picker,” she returns to her father, now on his deathbed:
When I heard from his doctor that he would die in a matter of months or even weeks, I called him. I tried to talk both of us out of it altogether. I knew he was afraid and I tried to say all this stuff about, I don’t know. It sounds so inane now.
Thanks to the letters-leaning-into-letters construction of Dear Mr. You, we’ve already come to love Parker’s father, to feel with Parker as she writes of him, early on: “To convey in any existing language how I miss you isn’t possible. It would be like blue trying to describe the ocean.” We’ve come to understand how the father’s legacy has shaped Parker’s own view of life and men. Parker’s chosen form—letter-sized apportionments, which read like essays—enables her to reveal what has made her life whole, all while avoiding gossip or belabored transitions. It doesn’t say more than it should.
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Finally, the memoir built of pieces is sometimes an arrangement of thoughts—the mind of the writer taking precedence over her life story. This is, I think, the case in Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, the meditative assemblage of true parts by Yiyun Li. Dear Friend revolves around Li’s relationships with writers—her actual friendship with William Trevor, her deep reading of the journals of Katherine Mansfield, and her obsession with the letters of Stefan Zweig, among others.
Li has no interest, in this book, in unspooling her life story. She’s far more interested in exploring the contradictions of her life, the intellectual choices she has made as a woman born in China who writes in English. One doesn’t read this book with the hope of tracing a life story. One reads it to get tangled up with Li’s thinking. One reads it in search of irresolvable questions and precisely because no ordinary logic dictates its beginning or end:
Sometimes I imagine that writing is a survey I carry out, asking everyone I encounter, in reality or in fiction: How much of your life is lived to be known by others? To be understood? How much of your life is lived to know and understand others? But like all surveys the questions are simplifications. How much does one trust others to be known, to be understood; how much does one believe in the possibilities of one person’s knowing and understanding another.
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It’s this plasticity of the memoir-built-of-pieces form that makes it so difficult to define—and so very liberating to write. When I teach it to my students, I urge them toward many things. Take care with your juxtapositions, I’ll say. Watch your white space and your fretwork. Trust the unsaid things to remain unsaid. Trust the silence to speak through the seams. Distill your best scenes into the very best scenes, then place those scenes in conversation with each other, make them refractive, reflective, and porous. Think of iterations and not additions. Think of how a word planted in one place grows roots in another, and then do the same thing with an image. Do not imagine that you are simply arranging the essays you’ve already written. A memoir built of pieces requires us to shape each element out of respect for, in deference to, the others.
I’ll ask my students to read, when they are stuck, Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. Late Migrations is assemblage art, a convocation, stories told as if under the cover of dark. The parts are small: Some essays are only half a page; few are longer than three. There are snatches of a grandmother’s history—transcribed and italicized. There are meditations on the natural world. There are shavings of memory and clippings of time. Personal history set off by a brother’s full-color illustrations. Current yearning is emblazoned by lore, and the grief that accompanies being alive, the grief that we would not trade for all the reasons that we love.
Late Migrations is a spellbinding book, constructed, it feels to me, of glittering charms. The light thrown off by one passage brightens the words in the next. The hard is alleviated by the soft. Expressed parallels within the prose become the stuff of poems.
The sequential pairing of “In Which My Grandmother Tells the Story of Her Favorite Dog” with “Howl” is one example of countless examples of Renkl’s talent for powerfully siting her fragments. The first is a single paragraph that tells the tale of a favored dog that “crawled right up under the school building, right under where I sat. That’s where she was when she died.” The second, only two paragraphs long, begins like this:
The old dog wakes when the door shuts fast. Click goes the back door, and thump goes the car door, and now the old dog believes he is alone in the house. When the whine of the car backing out of the drive gives way to the crunch of tires on the road, and then to silence, the old dog believes he is alone in the world. Standing next to the door, he folds himself up, lowering his hindquarters gradually, bit by bit, slowly, until his aching haunches have touched the floor. Now he slides his front feet forward, slowly, slowly, and he is down.
One dog dead. Another dog not yet dying. Maybe there are decades between them in actual fact, but there is nothing between them in Renkl’s imagination. There is nothing, now, between them in ours.
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“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged,” Virginia Woolf wrote in “Modern Fiction”:
life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?
Is that not a task we truth tellers also share? Is that luminous halo, that semi-transparent envelope, not also ours to put on the page?
Write the truest thing in the most true way. That’s our job, as truth seekers.