Thirty years had passed before Natasha Trethewey allowed herself to return to the scene of her mother’s murder—a death enacted by an angry ex-husband, two bullets, and a gun.
She’d received the news of her mother’s death when she was a nineteen-year-old college student, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet writes in her memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir (Ecco, July 2020). She’d traveled, stunned, to her mother’s home. She’d walked past chalk lines and blood stains and emptied that apartment of nearly all it had contained—her mother’s furniture, her mother’s record collection, her mother’s clothes, her mother’s shoes. And then—just a handful of books in her hands, her mother’s belt, her mother’s favorite plant—Trethewey tried to go on with her life, forcing herself toward forgetting so that she might, so suddenly motherless, survive.
It’s when evidence from the long-ago murder comes to light that Trethewey begins to reckon with the questions that have long serpentined through the darkened chambers of her heart. What had Trethewey suspected about the stepfather who had cast a threatening, violent shadow over much of her childhood and adolescence? What had her finally emancipated mother allowed herself to hope for once the divorce was filed? What had Trethewey kept hidden from herself? What scream had she not screamed? What tears had she not cried?
Remembering is never continuous. All memoirs finally work by way of assemblage. In Memorial Drive, Trethewey relies on photographs and dreams, I and you narratives, transcripts of conversations and police reports, haunting video footage, a broken cassette tape, and encounters with a medium, among other things, to seam together the fractionated pieces of her past. There are lessons in what she finds—new perspectives, new wounds, new meanings embedded within familiar metaphors. There are also lessons in all that seems to be lost, and in the signpost significance (as she puts it) of the memories that are urged to the surface by research, patience, and courage.
Still, it’s a scattering process, this writing about a mother lost too soon and under the most horrific circumstances. Trethewey writes her memories, she says, on scraps of paper. She loses the scraps. She records audio notes, but her voice does not sound like it belongs to her. Try as she does, try as we must, it’s hard to find the narrative.
Recorded “facts” live inside documents. Lived moments change each time they are recalled, or tested, or written down, or placed beside this transcript, beside that photograph, beside this dream. The facts are the facts, in other words, but the meanings are mutable, a point Trethewey makes by way of example in her graceful memoir but also speaks to explicitly in the text. Memorial Drive, then, is a heartbreaking personal story that offers instructions on the art of assemblage. It is a book that teaches us what we must endlessly learn, as people and as writers: that we are, we’ll always be, the remembered and the lost, the guilt and the sorrow, the prosaic and the profound, the things we think we know and the things we’ll never know. We are, we’ll always be, negotiating our own stories—running away from ourselves, and then returning.
A few days ago, in our new room on the University of Pennsylvania campus, my fifteen students and I studied the essay “Documents,” the Charles D’Ambrosio piece that can be found in his collection, Loitering. It’s a short piece, a powerful one, that presents, in passages separated by white space, a father’s poem, a schizophrenic brother’s letter, fragments from a brother’s suicide letter, and a correspondence (mostly alluded to, only sometimes quoted) between the author and his father.
As a class, we looked at how the juxtapositions and the white space work, at the powerful interplay of certainty and uncertainty, at which documents D’Ambrosio quotes at length from and which he mostly paraphrases and why, and at the powerful final image that you can find right here, in The New Yorker, which published the piece in June 2002.
Some of my students wondered if D’Ambrosio had written personal distance into his essay, if, by relying so heavily on the documents themselves to create his narrative, he was once-removing himself from the story’s impact. I suggested that the deep emotion of the essay lives inside passages like this one below, found under the heading Letter from eldest brother (2001). Here, I suggested, is where the crushing emotion lives. Here, in the author’s desperate and gorgeously enacted attempts at survival, in the relief he finds in remaining upright:
Two years ago, I moved to Philipsburg, Montana. In the fall, I went for walks and brought home bones. The best bones weren’t on trails—deer and moose don’t die conveniently—and soon I was wandering so far into the woods that I needed a map and compass to find my way home. When winter came and snow blew into the mountains, burying the bones, I continued to spend my days and often my nights in the woods. I vaguely understood that I was doing this because I could no longer think; I found relief in walking up hills. When the night temperatures dropped below zero, I felt visited by necessity, a baseline purpose, and I walked for miles, my only objective to remain upright, keep moving, preserve warmth. When I was lost, I told myself stories, recounting my survival, implying that I would live and be able to look back at it all. At some point, I realized that I was telling my father these stories.
I’d asked my students to bring to class documents that somehow tell the story of their lives. I left that term, documents, as open as I could—photographs, I said, cards, passports, licenses, texts, anything actual, tangible, physical. I put the students into pairs so that they might interview each other about the artifacts now in their hands. What are they, in fact? What might they mean? What is the story that arises from them or somehow can be found in the gaps between them, in the memoiristic steam?
That story? It’s the essay my students are working on this week.
I extend the prompt to you.
When Annie Ernaux, the beloved French writer of autobiographical novels, set out to write her memoir, she had structural ideas, formal longings, possibilities to consider: “She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of the generation,” she explains, in Alison L. Strayer’s 2017 translation of the memoir she did finally write, continuing, a few lines down: “Her main concern is the choice between ‘I’ and ‘she.’ There is something too permanent about ‘I,’ something shrunken and stifling, whereas ‘she’ is too exterior and remote.”
Ernaux opts for the ‘she’ and, often, the ‘we.” Her memoir, The Years, first published in France in 2008, is sprung from the cumulative and accumulating self—the self inextricable from history, the self contextualized. It becomes, as Ernaux writes toward the end, “a slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life.”
No chapter breaks, no subtitles, no first-person readerly asides. Just time passing, history being made, history imposing itself upon the life. The Years is composed of politics and consumerism, family conventions and conversations, sex and desire and more sex, none of which is expressly personalized, except by extraordinary implication. Found photographs bring Ernaux’s ‘she’ into focus. Headlines, protests, social pressures, brand names, modern conveniences, and new technologies are characters, are scenes.
An example from early in the book:
For now, our most stubborn desire was to possess a record player and a few LPs, expensive objects we could enjoy alone, endlessly, ad nauseam, or with others, those considered the most progressive among all the tribes of youth, the affluent high school girls who wore duffel coats, called their parents” the oldsters,” and said ciao instead of goodbye.
An example from the closing pages:
We never stopped wanting to click on “save” and keep all the photos and films, viewable on the spot. Hundreds of images were scattered to the four winds of friendship, a new social use of photos. They were transferred and filed in seldom-opened folders on the computer. What mattered most was the taking of the photos, existence captured and duplicated, recorded as if we were living it—cherry trees in bloom, a hotel room in Strasbourg, a baby minutes after birth, places, events, scenes, objects, the complete conservation of life. With digital technology, we drained reality dry.
Memoirists who abandon the ‘I’ in favor of a different pronoun contribute to, in my mind, a fabulous genre unto themselves. Abigail Thomas deploys multiple pronouns in Safekeeping. Mark Richard writes primarily in the second person in House of Prayer No. 2. Brian Turner takes us on a carousel ride of form (fiction/truth, remembered/imagined) and pronouns in My Life as a Foreign Country.
In her memoir about the domestic abuse she suffered at the hands of her lesbian partner, In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado writes primarily as a ‘you,’ except when she is writing as an academic ‘I.’ Things happen to the ‘you,’ in other words. Things are contextualized (though this division is not absolute) by the ‘I.’ The prose is delivered in fragments or parcels, in recognition and exploration of literary types, with chapter titles such as “Dream House as Lesbian Cult Classic,” “Dream House as Menagerie,” “Dream House as Creature Feature,” and “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure®.” The spare archives on domestic abuse among same-sex couples are consulted; this new archive is offered; a hope is, in the acknowledgments, offered: “One day—when [‘a comprehensive account of contemporary research about same-sex domestic abuse or its history’] is written, if it is written—I hope this very rough, working attempt at a canon will be useful as a resource, in addition to honoring the work that has gone before.”
Whereas Ernaux’s ‘we’ and ‘she’ hold the reader at a slight if compelling distance, Machado’s ‘you’ magnetizes her story, making the suffocation of living with an abuser as immediate as the horror-laced fiction that lives within Machado’s award-winning story collection, Her Body and Other Parties. This, for example, is the whole of “Dream House as a Lesson in the Subjunctive”:
Yes, there are spiders in the basement, and yes, the floors are so uneven you can feel them pushing your right leg up against your torso if you run too quickly from room to room, and yes she’s never unpacked and is using tall cardboard boxes filled with bric-a-brac furniture, and yes the couch is so old you can feel the springs in your back, and yes she wants to grow pot in the basement, and yes every room has bad memories, but sure, the two of you could raise children here.
Like Ernaux, Machado writes freely and often of sex, wonders where and how her story might end, chooses and modifies her pronouns to ratchet her story past the confines of her individual circumstance. Ernaux’s one life stands in for many lives. Machado’s domestic abuse stands in for those stories of domestic abuse that have yet gone untold. Neither memoir is solely of and about the writer herself, and so both books pack a kind of reverb, a history, a warning that is bigger than the singular self.
In memoir, context matters. The socio-economics of the era. The political and global gestalt. The family structure, the neighborhood gossip, the technologies, the music, the art, the brands, the weather of the hour. What happened to you happened to you. But it happened within a web of circumstances, influences, pressures. Your personal history is all bound up with forces that are bigger than you are.
Choose a scene from your memoir—or essay-in-progress. Consult old encyclopedias, archived history, family scrapbooks, newspaper headlines, contemporaneous advertisements, dusty CDs—whatever it takes to find out more than you thought you knew about the scene in question.
Now see what happens to your understanding of yourself—and to the scene itself—as you make room for the world at large in the story you are writing.
Does your language change?
Do your conclusions?
Does your point of view?
It was the ice cream. Those mini cones that live in the Acme freezer cases that you bring home and retrieve—9 PM, say—as an end-of-day treat because it occurs to you that you deserve it. Or because it tastes good. Or because what harm can 280 calories do, especially if you cycled your stationary cycle with considerable speed in anticipation of the cool, the smooth, the sweet?
It took me close to a year to recognize that my headaches, my general sluggishness, my weight gain, and my overall lack of alacrity might just have something to do with that end-of-day sugar rush and that maybe, just maybe, I should go cold turkey.
If cold turkey means thinking about something for a month, then finally doing it, I went cold turkey.
I am feeling better now, more capable of wonder, slightly sharper, better equipped to take on the world and its news, then to step away from the news to see the world again. I am not young and will not be getting any younger. I want as much life as I can get.
Maybe it’s this insatiable desire of mine—more seeing, more living, more language—that has bound me, through all these years, to memoir. Maybe it’s because memoir is a puzzle I keep puzzling out—my old rules fraying at the seams, my new books doing battle with my old, my shelves bowing to the heft of my various explorations by way of deeply idiosyncratic reading into life and form. I don’t know how many memoirs I read in 2019, but some weeks, in search of this or that for a student, I bought and read three or four. I don’t know how many voices are now floating in my head, how many stories I may be confusing with my own, how many lessons I still want to learn so that I might teach them. I don’t know, and I’m not getting any younger, and so I will not stop to count.
But I do want to end the year by expressing thanks to all those memoir writers who engaged in conversation with me throughout 2019—Dani Shapiro, Carolyn Forché, and Nicole Chung on live stages; Margaret Renkl in the pages of Rumpus; Judy Goldman, Tawni Waters, Lorene Carey, and Jackie Shannon Hollis here, at Juncture; Jason Poole, Kristina Moriconi, and Mei Ling Downey by way of their work in our journal, Journey: A Traveler’s Notes; and those beloved writers who went on journeys of their own as they joined us either in Frenchtown, NJ, or in Wayne, PA, (and sometimes both!) for a Juncture memoir workshop.
The holidays rush at us, rush through us. Here, for me, it is the day after the day after I most relish. Leftovers in the refrigerator, gifts found and given, everyone off doing their own quiet thing, and so I can be quiet, too. I plan, in those quiet hours, to re-read Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, because the book itself was a gift and because there cannot be too much delight. I’m going to read again Marc Hamer’s How to Catch a Mole, because I am still stunned by its quietude and glory-strangeness. There’s an essay inside Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing that keeps tugging at me; I want to go back and deconstruct it. Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Felon has been waiting for me for a while; it is time. Essays One by Lydia Davis, green and chunky, demands my attention. Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat is more memoir than cookbook (which I love), and I’ll keep reading. And then there’s Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, bought after three separate people following three separate talks I gave came up and asked me if I’d read it.
Whatever might be on your shelf or on your wish list, what I wish for you is the time to read. It’s good to talk with ourselves. It’s good to raise a glass with friends and family. And then it is good, it is very very good, to find a chair, a blanket, a book, a lamp, and go far away and near.
Happy holidays from Juncture.
Here’s a strange conceit: My books speak to one another, there, on the shelves, where they live.
Patti Smith and Karl Ove Knausgaard are polishing boots and hanging up their hats to chat. Mary Oliver and Gerald Stern are debating the elemental. Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights (thank you, friend, for the gift) is lifting Maggie Nelson out of her Bluets.
Lately I’ve been imagining a conversation between Elisabeth Tova Bailey and Marc Hamer, authors of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating and How to Catch a Mole and Find Yourself in Nature, respectively. They’re whispering, of course. They’re abundantly aware of the sound of the spider bungee-jumping from its web, the chatter of the birds beyond the glass, the settling in of old floorboards. They’re neither racing ahead of time nor over-dwelling on the past. It’s the present moment they are distilling, the parenthetical now they choose to share.
Ill and bedbound, Tova, in her book, lives the hour as the minutes tock—and no faster. She devotes herself to seeing, to parsing the rise and fall inside a terrarium, to naming shades of green:
While the snail slept, I explored the terrarium from my bed, letting my eyes wander through the miniature hills and dales of its fresh green landscape. The variety of mosses was so satisfying, from a deep, loose softness to dense mounds with fuzzy and velvety textures. Their hues ranged from bright grass greens to deep dark greens and from sharp lemon greens to light blue greens.
In Mole, Hamer directs our attention to sleep slept beneath stars, fallen leaves molting into soil, the shards of pottery beneath the surface of loose earth. The book reflects on Hamer’s life as a former molecatcher in Wales, tracing back, occasionally, without hurry, to years spent homeless as a teen. Mostly the pages purify time—honor and declare it—which is not, I think, the same as stopping or freezing time, a distinction I’m finally discerning.
There’s no rushing through this gorgeous, sometimes unnerving book. The tempo of the prose ushers the reader into Hamer’s terrain. He teaches us how to see, and how to wait for words:
Often I do not disturb myself with language and I just look and enjoy. At other times words come silently creeping in on insect legs. Some start to build a nest, develop a theme—a twig here, a bud there—so I let them. I like to write bits, tiny bits of stuff that fly by like leaves, insubstantial, scattering, and could be gone if I didn’t grab them out of the air. Bits of ordinary stuff that I see and that I can hold in my head in their entirety.
Hamer questions truth in his book. He questions memory. He carries his readers distances, encases them within his solitude, shelters them beneath a tree:
As I walk around the field I can’t help noticing the odd place, under a massive rhododendron for instance, that might make a safe and sheltered bed for the night—a habit of looking that I have never broken. I notice potential overnight stops as a matter of course, wherever I am. To be able to rest is perhaps the most important physical and mental survival skill that I have. Tiredness is lethal. The most restful place I know is under a tree—any tree other than a holly—on a warm spring evening, watching the webs drift across the branches and waiting for the blackbird to sing me to sleep as the stars begin to show through the darkness.
Tova and Hamer are writers I don’t wish to disturb. I tiptoe in, I sit with them, I don’t assert myself, I don’t make claims. I will watch a snail from my bed with them. I will watch the stars creep in. I will stop wanting to make something with language because language, when we wait, when we are very still, will finally make something of us.
Patti Smith moves through her books—across hotel rooms, into dark cafes, beneath the desert night, toward the company of friends, phantoms, strangers. She dreams on her feet. She writes in her sleep. There is coffee, occasional bad vodka. Throughout it all, she only carries what she needs. It isn’t much. She names those things in Year of the Monkey, her latest meander-of-the-imagination memoir: “I spread my few possessions on the bed: my camera with crushed bellows, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money.”
Those notebooks. Always those notebooks. Without them we would not have Smith’s books. Without them, we might have lost her mind.
In “A Tibetan Dog,” an essay found in Surfacing by the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, a dream wakes the author to a memory. The memory sets her off in search of an old notebook—for details, for provocations, for proof of her youth. In the attic, such stuff is found. Many notebooks. Many beginnings. Many lost things, found, made tangible:
I rummaged down through the layers of my own life, as stored in the notebooks. Some were spiral-bound, good for opening flat on the knee. Some were small enough to slip into a back pocket, most were slim enough to bend.
My many notebooks and journals are right here on a shelf, but they are less complete than I wish they were, less riveting, rarely profound, never neat, and, in places, waterlogged. Still I am glad for what they do yield: A cluster of found words. Treatises on architecture. Dreams for a garden. Notes on books. Amusing (now, anyway) exhortations. My multiple, compounding failures, as research became a novel, a novel became a story, a story became a picture book, and yes, a picture book—that is all. There it is, in the notebook pages, proof of my folly, or is that process?
When Bill and I created Journey: A Traveler’s Notes, we hoped that, within the seedbed of Bill’s art and my own poetic fragments, other artists’ stories would grow. That an odd face, a strange adventure, a half dream, or a near echo would spark something specific, precious, true to those holding the journal in their hands. Something that would have value when it was rediscovered later, or something that would have value right this minute, now.
Lately we’ve been hearing from some of those fellow travelers—who, through art, stories, and one fantastic essay, have described to us the Journal journeys they’ve been on. We’ve been grateful for the news from their imaginations. Heartened by the unexpected blooms. We’ve been so inspired that we’re sharing some of that with you, with the hope that it will send you off on your own journeys—with color, lines, and words.
Try this on for size, then: Go searching for your old journals and find out who you once were. Open the pages of a brand-new journal (we hope you’ll consider Journey) and discover who you are right now, who you’ll leave behind for a future self. Now set the old you and the new you together in one place. Write a page or two that bridges you to you.
Kristina Moriconi starts us off with her beautiful words, and, then, her immaculate pages. Jason Poole follows, with a fantastic story within a folded story (just read it through). And, finally, the beautiful art of the up-and-coming Mei Ling Downey, who brought her colors to our black and white pages with vivid Mei-ness.
Journeying, with Kristina Moriconi
I keep it in the pocket of my laptop bag, alongside my marbled composition book. And, always, a pen. The essentials. My tools. I travel everywhere with them.
Journey—A Traveler’s Notes—, there to inspire, to prompt, to coax words at times when they seem more reluctant to come.
Sometimes, it is the drawing, in its whimsy or riddle, its mystery or revelation, taking me to an imagined place. Or summoning a long-forgotten memory.
Sometimes, it is the lyrical language, like music, lifting me, carrying me from one rumination to another, my own thoughts and words fragmented yet beginning to find meaning beside one another on the page. Or letting me rest (caesura) on a single image, stay there until the pulse of a poem or an essay begins to beat.
The marbled composition book is where I go when a poem or an essay or a project is solid, refined—forming, taking shape.
The pages of Journey are my refuge when I sit down to write and I need to spark the generative process, when I begin collecting the ideas, the imagery, the language that will later become those more refined pieces.
Mei Ling Downey
My brother remembers everything. He’s the genius in the family. He’ll ask me, say, what I remember about a family vacation by the beach some fifty years ago, and I’ll stop and ponder and proudly declare that we stayed in a bungalow, and that the bungalow was red, and that the red bungalow had a white pebble lawn, and also—check out my totally wow memory here—on the day we were set to leave our rented red bungalow behind we scrambled for a lost something in the couch pillows—maybe pieces from a Monopoly game.
My brother doesn’t skip a beat. He blinks once. He says, “Actually, it wasn’t Monopoly pieces. It was Bingo chips.”
He gets me every.single.time.
“Wild Game does not pretend to tell the whole story—” Adrienne Brodeur reports in the Author’s Note of her new memoir, continuing: “years have been compressed into sentences, friends and lovers edited out, details scrubbed. Time has scattered particulars. What follows in these pages are recollections, interpretations, and renderings of moments that shaped my life, all subject to perspective, persuasion, and longing. I am aware that others may recall things different and have their own versions of events. I’ve tried to be careful in telling a story that is not mine alone to tell.”
It’s the sort of prefatory commentary we find in countless memoirs now, the fessing up to the customized lens of the tale. Of course, there are many ways, besides an opening confession, to shorten the distance between what we think we know and what others might remember. In Tyler Wetherall’s No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run, for example, the author recounts a childhood with a fugitive father, a succession of disguising family names, and quick escapes from homes and people that will never be seen again. Wetherall, like the rest of us, is not in possession of absolute recall about those years of long ago. She, like Brodeur, shares an opening author’s note: “The scenes and dialogue in this book are reconstructed from my memories and the memories my family has shared with me….”
But Wetherall also demonstrates, within the story itself, just how she has enlisted the help of family in her quest to get her story right. Here she is with her sister, Cait. The author is flipping through old journals in search of facts. She stubs her toe on a detail:
I seldom wrote about the important things happening in our lives, like whether Dad was going to prison and what that would mean for us if he did. I couldn’t write those things then.
Cait hands back the journal. “I didn’t realize how much we knew,” she says.
“No, me neither. That’s the only entry I can find. I was looking for something about my birthday in Saint Lucia. I wanted to start with Dad in the cornfield from the car window—”
“It was a banana field,” Cait interrupts, matter-of-factly.
“Really?” I say as I scan the cornfield in my memories.
“I don’t think they grow corn in Saint Lucia.”
“Are you sure?”
She pauses, as if in thought, and then: “Yes, definitely bananas.”
It may seem like a small detail—corn versus bananas, both things we eat, both of them yellow. But it’s not. Corn versus bananas changes the view, the texture, the tone. The conversation with the sister—presented not as note but as part of the story—also signals this author’s process, measuring her memory against her sister’s memory, leaving the reader with the either and the or.
Sarah M. Broom begins The Yellow House—a memoir, as the flap copy puts it, “about the inexorable pull of home and family, set in a neglected New Orleans neighborhood”—with an aerial view of the piece of land where Broom’s memories live:
From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is a minuscule point, a scab of green. In satellite images shot from higher still, my former street dissolves into the toe of Louisiana’s boot. From this vantage point, our address, now mite size, would appear to sit in the Gulf of Mexico. Distance lends perspective, but it can also shade, misinterpret. From these great heights, my brother Carl would not be seen.
Broom is talking about topography, of course, but she’s also talking about memoiristic distance. The farther we get from the thing that we lived, the more distance, purportedly, we’ll have. But also, the farther away, the more we lose sight of the particulars that shape our perspective.
How do we strike the balance between the near and far, the specific and general, the personal and universal? With what color do we draw the lines? Broom is a family historian but also a social one. She’s obsessed with the yellow house, but she’s also, embracingly, obsessed with issues about home. It’s her deep, deep dive into particulars, ironically enough, that make this memoir bigger that Broom herself.
If you’re searching for a new way into your life story, try this: Read again the paragraph above (I highly recommend reading the whole book). Then give yourself a drone’s-eye-view exercise. Rise in your imagination to a sustainable height, and then look down upon a thing you’ve loved. What do you see? What do you learn? How might this be the start of your story?