Jul 05 2013
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Memoir Writing: the Deep Truth

Recently, the English writer Hilary Mantel wrote this about memoirs:

“It’s hard for beginners to accept that unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing.  If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene.  The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint.  But she has to make it as true as she can.”

I think that a life’s STORY — the real story, is the MEANING in the writer.  A life, reflected on, is completely, even desperately relevant to others who are struggling with life too — which means, everyone.  And someone drawn to serious writing and reading is grateful for the light shed by one sincere reflection, one deeply honest struggle to articulate the depth of their experience of life, their story, which includes dreams, daydreams, memory: it’s a mysterious place where imagination enters.

What is imagination?  I don’t know.  I only experience its power to weave the seeming banalities of my day into the most profound meaning for me.  A meaning that is the substance of my life.  This is a very serious thing.  We all dismiss the importance of ourselves and of our lives, because we live at a great distance from ourselves, our reality.  How, for instance, do we carry this fact?  That we live on a spinning entity, our planet, held by unfathomable forces in a position relative to other such bodies.  Our planet is also rotating around a ball of gas and fire that holds the entire system of planets and moons in place, while also nourishing the system.

Place?! What Place?  We’re all in this — what? Space?!  And this system of unfathomable size is also moving in relation to things we can’t begin to sense.  We can barely sense our nieghbor, and are profoundly fortunate if we can begin to sense ourselves.

Then there is the internal Universe — and that is the subject of a memoir.  It’s a deep seeing of one’s life that actually comes through the medium of writing itself. And the mixture of imagination and memory IS the story.  As the painter, Edward Hopper, makes meaning out of someone sitting alone in a room, looking out a window.  An ordinary scene, to which Hopper brings the power of his painting, expressing the enormous emotional tension in the figure and room depicted.

So I’d go further than Mantel and say this: truth IS that story, that mix of sequential memory, and the powerful reality that we all sense beneath our everyday lives, in those rare moments of dreams, day dreams, reflection, meditation, religious insight, writing, that existential experience of life that is always saying: THERE IS MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE HERE.

As I see it, that’s a writer’s task.  That’s my task.  To touch, in another, that neglected and forgotten reality that has the power to nourish, has the power to RESOLVE IN TRUTH the mysterious and terrible and beautiful and enigmatic thing we call “our lives.”  So Truth is THE STORY our life amounts to — the story that is told through the palette of our years, dreams, hopes, loves, disappointments, griefs, wonder, fears, and the hunch, the intuition that it all holds MEANING.

And to express that,  Art must intervene: to tell what’s REALLY true.  Not to report on a life, or a day, or an hour or an interaction, but to reach beyond ordinary perception to find the living pictures that tell MY story.  So it can be imparted to the reader. And that’s WHY it is written from one person’s — my, your — point of view.

We are usually far removed from awe.  A memoir is an Awe-some thing, if one finds that deep place where one joins Everyone Else.

Helena Clare Pittman is the bestselling author of A Grain of Rice, in print for over 25 years.  She’s the author/illustrator of 16 other books, including a prestigious “Smithsonian Book” edition and a recommendation by The New York Times‘ Best Paperbacks.  Helena teaches widely at numerous institutions and is an Associate of the Center for Creative Writing.  Her newest book, the novel Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn, is available in a Kindle edition at Amazon.

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Comments on ... Memoir Writing: the Deep Truth

  1. Lynn Wyvill says:

    Beautiful post! The paragraph that begins “I think that a life’s STORY … ” is a wonderful reminder to me of what I’d like my writing to be. And then the idea that we dismiss ourselves and our lives because we live at a distance from ourselves. Wow! Now that is something to spend some time thinking about.