Discovering a Vanished Life

This week I finished another of the 10 books I am reading this spring for my master's degree program.

Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories is a collection of previously published essays on memory and autobiography. Delving deeply into what memoir is and what it isn’t, Hampl leads the reader through thoughtful essays focused on her own experiences as a younger woman reading Whitman, on her acquaintance with a woman who came to the United States during World War II who carried a terrible secret she could not tell, through meditations on Sylvia Plath, Simone Weil and St. Augustine’s Confessions. But the most compelling, it seems to me, are Hampl’s own meditations that book-end the collection: “Memory and Imagination,” at the beginning, and the final two essays, “The Need to Say It” and “Other People’s Secrets.” These three essays reveal insights into memory and writing memoir that I found engrossing and instructive for my own writing.

In fact, “Memory and Imagination” turned out to be a powerful catalyst for me in terms of discovering what my own memoir is about. Hampl says, “…I don’t write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know.”  She talks about how a first draft can be the key to understanding the real story, the story that reveals meaning. “We carry our wounds and perhaps even worse, our capacity to wound, forward with us. If we learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us – to write the first draft and then return for the second draft – we are doing the work of memory.”

She describes how she realizes the first draft of a memory about her first piano lesson is most likely about her father. I have struggled for several months to write about a trauma I suffered as a child. Suddenly it occurred to me that my story is about my relationship with my mother, a difficult relationship that was forged and cauterized in that moment of trauma.

Later, in “The Need to Say It,” Hampl says, “…(M)emoir is not about the past. As I understand it, memoir is not about nostalgia. Its double root is in despair and protest (which, at first, seem no more kissing cousins than memory and imagination). …

“Out of dread of ruin and disintegration emerges a protest which becomes history when it is written from the choral voice of a nation, and memoir when it is written from a personal voice. The dry twigs left of a vanished life, whatever its fullness once was, are rubbed together until they catch fire. Until they make something. Until they make a story.”

Now I am about the task, to make a story – a raging fire – of a vanished life. Thanks to Hampl, I finally have a framework from which to fan the flames.