In a recent online article, writer Molly Fischer takes a passage from Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” to address writing about our favorite subject: Ourselves. Didion advises staying “on nodding terms with the people we used to be.”
This is one of the greatest challenges we face when we are trying to recreate our past—that is, trying to write a memoir and being “on nodding terms” with the people we used to be. Dig up your old diary; find your old school notebooks; look at the way you decorated your room; dig through a box of stuff you saved a long while back, and you’ll discover a person more than a little different from who you are today. If you are writing a memoir or memoiristic essay, remember that that person you politely nod to is you. But not you: He or she is a character in your story. Write about that person the way you would any other one in fiction. And even though many of us believe we have the advantage of a ready-made backstory, you have to do that work for yourself, as well—your story may not have happened the way you remember its happening. Aunt Rosalind may have been taller, or shorter (where are those photographs?), or not really have had red hair (why did she change it?); your grandparents may have seemed archaically out of touch, but what were they thinking when you died your own hair red when you were in seventh grade? Most central, you must figure out—“fact check”—why you did color your hair, to begin with. Aunt Rosalind? “Everyone is doing it, Mom?” A dare from your sister, the resentment of whom you have been repressing for thirty years? Rita Hayworth? Why Hayworth and not Lucille Ball?
Look at yourself as a character. You didn’t pop out of the womb, fully character-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, ready to foster heroes. Your love of artichokes, fear of rabbits, and interests in railroads or Henry VIII came from somewhere. Do your research, discover what was culturally common where and when you were growing up, not just in your school or neighborhood, but everywhere? What was the political environment? Know your parents—they are secondary characters in your story—and dis-cover as many of their secrets as you can, knowing that your family’s testimonies should probably go under the same scrutiny. Are you buying whole a story your great-aunt used to tell about you? To whose benefit was that story? You-as character needs as much of a researched history as any character does. That complex backstory might not show up in the words on the page, but you must know it or your reader will not find you believable and will not engage. With carefully chosen details, you can locate yourself in time, place, class, culture, and character—we are all “types” of one sort or another. But we are also unique—and that uniqueness is at the crux of our stories, then and now.
So, a memoir writer must be a bit schizophrenic. We need to be ourselves, but we need to be someone else, as well: the person we are trying to investigate, and the investigator. In other words, we are not that child or pubescent or euphoric or miserable spouse from years ago—we are more self-reflective, realistic, seasoned. But we still must recognize that other person as we do a familiar acquaintance we bump into at the famers’ market whom we haven’t seen for a while. Nod, show respect, but always remember: that’s not you now. That’s good material.
Winona Winkler Wendth freelance writer, editor, and writing mentor and teaches various courses in writing and the humanities at Quinsigamond Community College. She is a cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative. Contact her at email@example.com.