Monday, November 30, 2009

On Memoirs ... and Quakers

What haikus, images, memories of the past could you share?

Memoirs are in the air these days from Ben Yagoda's book to Sarah Palin's memoir to classes in memoir writing. The Quaker Writing group I was part of in Maryland coalesced around memoirs.

Memoirs, as Yagoda apparently notes (I haven't read his book) are interchangeable with autobiography. Even if they purport to be about someone famous, they are inevitably, in part, the story of the writer.

Most often, however, people tell their own stories in memoirs.

We get interested in memoir writing when we're old enough to realize that a world we thought was timeless and unchanging was in fact bound to a certain time and place. Things that seemed permanent--natural--the order of being--surprise us by changing. We see that the seemingly eternal is ephemeral. Hence, we realize we our identity is more fragile than we once believed, bound as it is to a world in flux. And as we reflect on that change, we want to capture and communicate some of what once seemed fixed and solid before it dissolves and before we dissolve with it. In that way, memoir is much like photography--never objective, sometimes arranged, but always meant to capture, somehow, a slice of reality, to hold it, freeze it, keep it. Not a random reality but an iconic reality that contains meaning, that traps the elusive feeling of a time or place. We want people who did not live in that time or place to know a little of the flavor of what we experienced, and to know--although they won't--that what they see as fixed in their own lives is similarly prone to flux. Most of all, we want to reassure ourselves that what we remember really did happen. Sometimes we think we might have imagined it and hence that we might be the butterfly dreaming of being a human, that our own identity may be in question ... so when we write it down, as when we take a snapshot, we bring it to the safety of a common space, hedged by the certainty of words and punctuation and the tangible affirmation of other people's eyes on the page. Memoir brings us into community and hence into life.

I first became interested in what I will call, with not a little irony, the drama of my own life, when I entered my mid-thirties, and it became clear that the world had altered in strange ways since my childhood. This was brought home to me through having children of my own by this time and recognizing that their childhood would be different from mine. While I did not have what might be called an ideal childhood, there was much about it that was good and that I wished my own children could experience: going out to play without play-dates or adult-organized activities, the now-dissolved but then-intact ethnic community we used to visit in New York City, with it's own language, food and customs, walking to school with friends, playing endless games of jacks and pick-up sticks and later on, Monopoly, the thrill of unsupervised (and sometimes illicit) friend-making, the time to dream with friends ...

On a larger level, my family lived, albeit unwillingly, through such "social movements" as white flight out of Baltimore City, and I have as well memories of the sixties and the then sense of imminent upheaval and all the odd details of social change--my teacher wearing a paper dress to school (disposable dresses were to be the new thing)-- a pink paisley shift that made her anxious all day, she said, that it would tear. Not two years later, we were concerned with "pollution" (such as too many paper products) and participated in the first Earth day, trooping out as a class to the baseball field watch colorful balloons (yes, balloons, those enemies to birds and other living things) drift into the sky to commemorate the moment. How cutting edge we thought we were!

Of course, in what we choose to write, the details we remember, the way we frame events or understand people, we reveal ourselves. That leads me to my one rule for memoirs: Be generous to those you write about. There's nothing more chilling, for me, than reading of a person long dead, or simply not around, unable to defend himself or herself, who is knived in someone's story. I always imagine a person tied to a chair, mouth duct-taped shut, hit by blow after blow.

Quakers, as we know, focus on the spiritual autobiography, a form of memoir in which interiority is given form and substance. Writing becomes our icon, our cross, our bread and wine, our faith made incarnate and tangible, our symbolic and yet real participation in the flesh of earthly creation. It's interesting that early Quakers rejected other forms of representation--music, painting, etc.--but not writing. Perhaps this goes back to the gospel of John and Word made flesh. It connects us, in some ways, to Judaism and Islam, and to Eastern Orthodoxy, where the icons are understood not as representations but as words.

I wonder though, why memoirs are so popular today. Any thoughts? Any thoughts on what we might be writing about in these times? How important is it to capture history through our personal lenses?


AbiSomeone said...

One of the most challenging, yet amazingly rewarding, tasks I have ever undertaken was to serve as my father's "editor" for his memoirs.

What began as an offer to take his simple Word document and format it (with page numbers and table of contents and insert photos), turned into 14 months of looking for the right way to order the stories so that there was a natural flow. Dad was grateful for my help and we realized that we had something worth making into a book for family and friends.

So we turned to a self-publisher who offered whatever level of support we needed ... and were able to print 60 hardcover and 200 paperback copies -- in time for him to personally inscribe and deliver hardcover copies to each of us six children and his 17 grandchildren at our family reunion celebrating my parent's 60th Wedding Anniversary.

Dad was able to send copies to all of his siblings still living, and to each of his nieces and nephews. He was also able to send copies to his school, church and work associates who were mentioned.

It has filled up his later years with interaction with his family and friends in ways he could not have comprehended ... and it has been a source of gratitude for me to have been able to step in when I did and help him finish well.

...11 months later, we would be shocked with a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease ... which was a sobering answer to some of the decline we had been watching (he didn't have the classic shaking associated with this disease).

In the foreword I challenged each reader to take the time to share their stories -- as they remember them -- and I am hoping some will do it. Especially for the sake of their children and grandchildren.

My blog has been, in part, the beginning of this process for me.

Sorry to ramble on so long, but this post called me out of my current hiblogernation. ;^)

Diane said...

Hi Abi,

Glad you came up for some (cyber) air! :)

What a great story. I especially like that your father was able to find interaction with people (a community) in his later years through the memoir. I know many people would love to have their relative's story rather than their material goods as a legacy.

AbiSomeone said... of the best parts was that he had been associated with a Christian college for over 30 years, which meant that it constituted a significant part of the book. The current president of the college came after dad retired, and while he knew who dad was, he had no idea of dad's influence.

Dad sent him a copy to put in the university library, so the president (one of our cousin's wife is his exec assistant) decided to read through it. He was so taken by the depth of dad's influence and the breadth of his involvement over three decaded, that he proposed that the college present dad with their Founders Award, which is its highest honor, at commencement.

It was just in time ... and a very timely thing, at that. If nothing else had come of the book, that event was worth it all.

...back to cybernation ;^)

Diane said...

That's a fabulous story! You just never know where things will lead ... I hope the cybernation is fruitful for you!

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