Memoir: Not just a 'recital of events'

Tomorrow my second packet of writing and book annotations is due to my graduate school professor. Yikes! Earlier this week I was feeling energized and confident I could get another 10 pages written (for a total of 20 due). Today, I am struggling to piece together what seems a jumbled mass of images, memories, snippets of dialogue and characters.

I am writing about a childhood trauma – a car accident that nearly killed me when I was 5 – and trying to link it to decisions I made as an adult that turned out to be not so great. But going back to that time has proved difficult, if not painful. Trying to mine those memories for insights that will connect with others is the challenge. How did my experience affect my family? How I related to others? What others expected of me? How to weave all those pieces together?

In The Situation and the Story, the Art of Personal Essay, Vivian Gornick writes: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

So, then, what have I come to say? I thought I knew, but every time I try to grasp it and write it down, it wisps away like a dandelion seed carried on the wind. It feels as if it’s there, under a sheet of thin ice, just out of reach. So, here I sit today, writing scenes, preparing dialogue, opening my veins. But I can’t seem to bring it forth.

Gornick, again: “The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom – or rather the movement toward it – that counts.”

Aha! The “movement toward it.” That opens up the possibility, the potential, of connection. What did enduring 17 surgeries from ages 5 to 19 have to do with who I became? How has my adult insight at middle-age changed my understanding of those experiences, and how can I write that so that others can relate to it?

“…(M)emoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription,” Gornick says. “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Trust in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”

Now, I’m moving toward it.

What is your experience in writing memoir? How did you approach it so that it did not become, as Gornick says, simply “a recital of actual events”?