What Do I Mean?

“You should write a memoir.”

Various folks have said that to me over the years, and always I’ve had the same response: “I couldn’t possibly do that. I’ve made it a firm rule of my writing life never to write about people I know, and how could I write a memoir without invading the privacy of those who have shared my life?”

But then one day for reasons that had nothing to do with memoirs, I wrote a verse entitled “Remembering Peter.” It was about my son, his coming into the world and his leaving it, and once I’d gotten past having said some things “aloud” that I hadn’t spoken before, I had a realization. I could write a memoir this way, by dipping into my life then stepping back again, by revealing myself in small glimpses without exposing more than I chose to about anyone else.

And from that moment I began writing a memoir in verse, playing with the material granted me by my own life.

7_22glasscastleWriting my untitled memoir was fun, more writing fun than I’ve had for a long time. And when I shared what I was doing with others, the pieces elicited a strong response. I was off and running!

But about the time I had really settled into the work, I realized I had a problem. I had lots of individual verses, but no overall frame. All was tied together by being part of the substance of my life, but except for the fact that I could sort what I was writing into a vaguely chronological order, the pieces had no relation to one another, no purpose.

What is the point of my life, after all, except that it has happened/is happening? What’s the hook? Why should anyone, beyond the small handful of folks who know me well enough to care about my history, bother to read this odd piece?

7_22mennoniteAsking a question like that is very close to asking What is the meaning of my life? A question that I suddenly find extraordinarily awkward to answer.

Most days I know what I’m doing with my life. I’m loving. I’m learning. I’m keeping up with the day-by-day maintenance required to keep body and home and relationships together. I’m doing the good work that has been given to me, creating meaning out of words, out of story. But none of that justifies a memoir. Well, it may justify writing one, just because the writing serves me, but why should anyone read it?

The question I’m left with is both simple and extraordinarily difficult to answer: What do I mean?

7_22GraceofSilenceSo I’ve been reading memoirs and recalling those I’ve already read. Some like Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress take pain and turn it into humor. I admire such ability, but it’s not mine. Some use the substance of their lives to examine a much larger question, like Michele Norris (The Grace of Silence) uses her life—and her father’s—to consider racism. But what would my question be? And then there are memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love that manage to combine laughs with deep questions . . .

My reading has brought me no closer to finding the point of translating my own life into words. And maybe, finally, I will have to decide that there is no point. But before I do, I am here asking. Do you have a memoir to recommend, one that you love, one that might inform my vision? After all, writing, all writing, is as much about imitation as it is about innovation.

And I’m wide open.

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23 thoughts on “What Do I Mean?

  1. Anna Marie Black

    The genre of memoir evokes many emotions, for a writer, doesn’t it? It forces us to consider what’s been important to us in our lives, and what is or might be important to others–and it might not match up. Ironically, I enrolled in a memoir-writing course offered at a local high school for residents and am continuing with the workshop facilitator and a small group of women. The workshop aimed at helping us discover the memories, emotions, and details of our lives that we then could put down in words and share with others. For me, it ultimately helped me remember childhood memories that I could not remember for so many years. But the question of what part of my life is so important to others, so interesting, so compelling, so necessary to be told–and how to frame and focus that story–still eludes me. (I’m still waiting for the workshop leader to guide us in that struggle.)
    So, what threads of your life can you weave together into a whole fabric?

    That reminds me: I’m reading Jack Gantos’s Hole in My Life that shows us his youth in drug dealing and its consequences. I just realized (while writing here) that what Jack has threaded throughout his memoir are his thoughts and attempts about wanting to write and his inability to put pen to paper at that time in his life. I haven’t finished reading it yet. And we know there’s a good deal more to Jack as a person. What would his memoir contain now? What will yours?

    We both are in our “second adulthood,” to borrow from Gail Sheehy. How do we want to be remembered, Marion?

    Reply
    1. mdanebauer

      .An interesting question, Anna Marie, and one for which I have no easy answers. I want to be remembered through my writing, for a little while, at least, I have no illusions of literary immortality. But only that? When I look at my grandchildren, I know that the writing is . . . not incidental. It can never be that. But secondary. But then everyone feels that way toward their grandchildren, and those kinds of feelings don’t make for good memoir.

      Reply
  2. Yvonne Pearson

    I notice, in your responses to comments, you said you have been thinking about going with your strength and aiming toward writers. I know that would be a memoir I would be interested in. But it also occurs to me that yours could be about a spiritual journey. When you talked about interplay, and you talk about your son, and you talked about your picture book, The Stuff of Stars, they all seem to me to be very much about a spiritual journey. Have you read “The Story of the Universe” by Brian Swimme? It is kin to your picture book. There is also a memoir called The Scent of God by Beryl Bissell that I loved. It’s a lot about her struggle with religion. She married a Catholic priest, and it’s beautifully written.

    Reply
    1. mdanebauer

      You’re absolutely right, Yvonne, that part of what I want to write about is my spiritual journey. And one of the questions I’m left with is whether the verse format is best for that. I’m beginning to move toward a mixture of prose and verse, but I’ll have to figure out clearly what I’m doing with each. And yes, I have read and loved The Story of the Universe, though I didn’t find it until after I’d complete The Stuff of Stars. I don’t know The Scent of God, though. I’m definitely going to locate it. Thanks for the suggestions.

      Reply
  3. writersideup

    Marion, I’m not typically a reader of memoirs, though have been curious. The one memoir I’m definitely going to read is for two reasons: I follow this man’s blog, love his content and like him SO much, AND–it’s about creative people 🙂 I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but his name is Patrick Ross. He’s been blogging here for years: http :// artistsroad. wordpress. com/ though I believe he said he’s moving/moved a lot of that content to his new (and still tweaking) author site: http :// www .patrick-ross. com/

    His memoir is due out in October and I’m really looking forward to it! As for me, I have no desire to write a memoir, though there’s that part of me that wishes we would all write one, even if brief, for our families to know things they might not know, and for the generations to come to know their ancestors 🙂

    Reply
  4. Mary Ellen Goulet

    Are you familiar with Kathleen Norris? She is one of us from South Dakota. I am reading “The Cloister Walk” at this time. I love memoirs because the writers bring me into their world as they feel it, see it, believe it or struggle with it. Kathleen’s overall frame is the spiritual. Perhaps in your blog you have already realized a theme, or a connection to it.

    When I wrote my memoir I was trying to discover why I was living my life off of the grid, what brought me to that place in that time. Through that book I learned why and how those circumstances connected to my childhood. That discovery was good enough for me and, happily, for many of my readers who also identified with my very personal stories.

    I am looking forward to your memoir,
    Mary

    Reply
  5. Sandra Warren

    Marion, I think once you identify your audience, you’ll know what to write.

    Looking back at my great-grandmother, who lived to be 102 years of age, one can only imagine the stories she could tell. I wish I knew more about her, more than a story or two remembered.

    And so, I started a memoir years ago for my girls and their children so that I’ll be more than an old lady in a photograph in a photo album or a name on a family tree; something they can read to their children and their children’s children.

    Thanks for a thoughtful blog.

    S 🙂

    Reply
    1. mdanebauer

      How right you are, Sandra, and that’s where I’ve found myself in a tangle. I know I’m writing for adults, but which adults? I’m beginning to think I should go with my strength and aim toward writers. But still thinking.

      Reply
  6. Norma Gaffron

    Ah, Marion, you really got me thinking again on this topic..( And by the way, I like the way you include LOVING as one of the things you are doing day by day…)
    I completed my memoir some months ago, FOOTPRINTS ACROSS MINNESOTA, following the places I lived growing up and including adulthood. It’s a gift to my family and “published” on Create Space on the computer. Not for sale. I wrestled with the same questions you are asking now. My book is full of anecdotes. A relative in Norway says “I am glad to know that those footprints …are left behind by people bearing my own family name.”
    Is that enough? For me right now it is.

    But what do I MEAN? I must have given small glimpses into who I am, what I stand for. It’s up to the reader to discover those glimpses for her or himself and determine what they will.

    You’ll find your hook, Marion.

    I

    Reply
    1. mdanebauer

      Thanks, Norma. I think it’s a whole different project–and a most worthy one–to write for your family. Doing that, you have a wider reach, because they have reason to be interested in the whole territory of your life. It’s when I think of writing my life for strangers that the questions arise.

      Reply
  7. helencpyne

    Marion, Thank you for this post and for all your terrific pieces. I am enjoying your blog so much! Regarding memoirs, I recommend the YA book, FBI GIRL: HOW I LEARNED TO CRACK MY FATHER’S CODE by Maura Conlon-Mclvor. Set in the 1960’s in Los Angeles, the author writes about growing up as the daughter of a Hoover-era FBI agent.

    Reply
  8. Mary Atkinson

    I loved Maine writer Monica Wood’s WHEN WE WERE THE KENNEDYS because it’s well written, interesting story, and has tremendous sense of place and history. I also just read ANGEL IN MY POCKET by Sukey Forbes about a WASP mother who lost her 6-year-old daughter. It’s about Forbes’s journey through grief to acceptance in the context of her privileged and WASP background. Very well written and interesting to me because I come from the same stiff upper lip, don’t wear your heart on your sleeve upbringing. And finally, for an entertaining fun read, try Molly Wizenburg’s DELANCY about starting a pizza restaurant in Seattle.

    Reply
  9. Sharon

    I love memoir when it is tied to some subject or quest, a misadventure or a burning question that is sleuthed out by the writer and through which his/her personal story is revealed. Stephen King’s book ON WRITING is an example that I loved. Kristin Kimball’s THE DIRTY LIFE. Sara Wheeler’s TERRA INCOGNITA. Bruce Chatwin’s IN PANTAGONIA.

    Reply
    1. mdanebauer

      Thank you, Sharon, both for the titles and for your own thoughts about what it is you seek in memoir. That’s very helpful.

      Reply
  10. Kate Schwarz

    I am reading and loving Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of A Happy Marriage. It is so well-written, a collection of essays like the one you already wrote about your son, and it is full of nuggets of wisdom.

    Reply

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