What you put in. What you leave out. It all comes down to this—and the leaving out is the hardest part, the heart of the art that is memoir. Autobiography is what happened first, what happened next, what happened then; it is bricks and mortar. But not memoir. Memoir is distillation and sculpture, a probing of the places in between, a life cranked daringly apart: What was it all about? Memoir is the chronology of ideas, and the supervalent thought, and the mind in pursuit of eloquent collisions. It is the air let into the tent.
Every memoir I read is a lesson in craft. Every memoir I own has been shuffled into taxa (childhood memoirs, illness memoirs, nature memoirs) and then shuffled again (first-person memoirs, second-person memoirs, graphic-art memoirs), aligned and subsequently exiled. Lately I’ve been particularly intrigued by what I think of as the “artful dodgers”: those memoirs that do more with the void than most memoirs dare; those memoirs written by memoirists who have, in some exceptionally brilliant way, trusted the reader with secret unsaids.
Take Paula Fox’s Borrowed Finery, a late-in-life memoir written to capture a well-loved writer’s “highly unusual beginnings.” Fox was the daughter of a mother and a father who were immune to the idea of parental sacrifice. She was born and soon after shuttled off to live with whoever might have her—Uncle Elwood, the gentle pastor; Candelaria, the Cuban grandmother; Mrs. Lesser, the friend of her mother; et cetera. Every now and then, a parent would appear—the father more than the mother, both characters exercises in bewilderment (at best) and in psychological abuse (by most people’s standards). Yanked across the country, into Cuba, up to Montreal, from one school to another, Fox was denied both continuity and reliable companionship. If anyone has earned the right to moan in a memoir, surely it is Fox. But that’s the thing: she doesn’t.
Indeed, Borrowed Finery is a tour de force of self-restraint—a hammering in of landscape and incident until the fractured childhood miraculously coheres. Fox tells us what she remembers and what she doesn’t, leaving white spaces in between to mark the broken time. But the true white space here is Fox’s refusal to condemn the parents who condemned her to such a fate. Borrowed Finery, a memoir saturated with the details of place, person, and thing, is stunningly silent on matters of accusation and retribution. Fox’s white space leaves us room to intuit. It ensures that we do not cast easy blame. That’s because Fox (unbeknownst to us) is reckoning with something bigger here, something she doesn’t reveal until her memoir’s very end. Fox, like her mother, gave birth to a baby when quite young. Fox, like her mother, left a daughter with questions. “It was a hopeless wish that I would discover why my birth and my existence were so calamitous for my mother,” Fox writes early—a line that means infinitely more by the time we encounter the memoir’s final pages.
Calvin Trillin’s childhood was as different from Fox’s as any childhood could be. He was the son of a Jewish grocer, a boy who knew where home was and what the future likely held. “The man was stubborn,” Trillin’s Messages from My Father begins. “Take the coffee incident.” Eight simple words, and we know we’re in for a story that is playful, honoring a father who has his quirks but who makes his children laugh. This father isn’t a Big Somebody, but he keeps his son in food, clothes, and dreams of matriculation at Yale.
The easy sway of Trillin’s language lulls us. We take the father as he comes—stubborn and taciturn, a man who “did not make a strong first impression,” a collector of yellow-hued ties, a person with a secret knack for rhyming ditties, the sort who would ask anyone fluent in a foreign language to translate The left-handed lizard climbed up the eucalyptus tree and ate a persimmon. It’s sweet. We read along. Where is it all going? Suddenly, it hits us: this not-a-big-somebody is damned important after all. He has an ethos that we—blindsided, entering through Trillin’s carefully hinged and hung back door—have absorbed. “You might as well be a mensch,” the Jewish grocer is reported saying, and suddenly we readers want, more than anything, to be a mensch. Suddenly all this funny business is meaning business. We are left admiring goodness most of all—a lesson held in the book’s generous margins.
I found Chris Offutt’s The Same River Twice in a used bookstore; it strikes me as timeless. It is a woven tale, a past tense/present tense rotation between Offutt’s hobo years on the road and his time in the woods just before the birth of his first son. Violent, vulgar, weird, beautiful, squirming, festering, wild—the whole works like some encrusted poem. We know a baby will be born by the time this memoir finds its end, but Offutt nevertheless holds us in supreme suspense, for surely the young man that Offutt tells us he was is destined not to survive his own severe wanderlust, his inability to stay put or out of trouble. “I hope for a son who is not like me,” Offutt writes, in the woods, in the present tense. “The journal was my life, and the rest of existence only a fiction,” Offutt remembers thinking, back then.
It’s between the alternating past and present that Offutt lodges his white space. It’s how he doesn’t feel the need to explain how that feral man became this husband and near father. Offutt just tells us the stories and lets them collide, refuting the possibility of an unshakeable conclusion and leaving the messy things messy. “I think of all the things I want to tell him, and say nothing,” Offutt writes in the epilogue. Exactly. The power of white space.
I’m almost out of room, and so then briefly, finally: Patti Smith’s Woolgathering, a tiny book that traces and briefly tethers that which is considered, that which is remembered, that which is wished for. Patti Smith, the great punk rocker/poetess/photographer/friend, produced in Woolgathering a brief memoir of awe. She leads the way but does not direct, leaving readers with lines like these: “And I wandered among [the woolgatherers], through thistle and thorn, with no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, as a tuft of wool, from the comb of the wind.”
How ambiguous is that, and how surreally lovely? It is white, white, white; it is spectacularly wide open.
For Further Reading
Other “White Space” Memoirs
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
This story about growing up in an unusual family of thwarted and hidden love is told through impeccably drawn images. It’s a graphic memoir, in other words. Readers are left to imagine much even as they are given a window into the shame, hurt, and affection of Bechdel’s childhood.
Compiling medical records, personal evaluations, societal prejudices, and memory, Kaysen takes us into her nearly two years at McLean Hospital, among sociopaths, schizophrenics, former addicts, and depressives. There’s not a trace of self-pity. There’s plenty of room for the reader.
The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska
Both a memoir and a chorus—a personal story often told with plurals about the four years the author spent running operations for a bush community airline in Fairbanks, Alaska. The story is never just about the author. Still, we never do lose sight of her.
Running in the Family
A gorgeous meditation on an exotic childhood and childhood home—a tapestry woven out of history, prose poems, meditations, family interviews, and all the unsaid things in between.
Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself
This memoir explores the spaces between the many private moments of a life and the emotions that arise from being a son in a sometimes-volatile family. We don’t need many of the specifics; it’s enough to feel the confusion and love.