Some Notes on Memoir from
“Food for the Hungry Writer”
©2011 by Jack Remick and Robert J Ray.
Not since the 18th Century have we seen anything like the flowering of memoir writing in our time. Is the hunger for memoir symptomatic of the Politics of the Individual? or are readers, fed up with fiction, turning to the trials and triumphs of real people for inspiration and validation?
Accompanying the flood of memoirs is the journal, a personal kind of writing without form, without structure, without, necessarily, style. The memoir isn’t a novel yet it travels beyond journal. It has structure and form, it has inhabitants and villains, it has suspense and mystery as well as delicate, intimate, exploratory writing.
History of timed writing. Automatic writing comes from the Surrealists. Robert Desnos taught the surrealists to write the waking dream; Jack Kerouac and the Beats loved automatic writing, blowing deep as outlined in Kerouac’s Twenty-One principles of Automatic Writing; Natalie Goldberg adapted automatic writing into Writing Practice when she put a timer on it. In Taos, generations of writers learned timed writing, which leads to memoir. Natalie’s favorite line: I remember…. and its counter: I don’t remember….
First Rule: Always open up: let your hand guide your memory. It is in you, you have to get to it.
Structure of timed writing:
Write until the timer stops. Why? Writers have a hard time starting, they have a hard time keeping going, they have a hard time finishing. In timed writing, you finish what you start. Every time. For five, ten, fifteen or twenty minutes, you write and your only guide is the clock. You finish what you start.
Go deep—that means you write from the known into the unknown. If you encounter fear, write about the fear; if you find pain, write about the pain, if you find joy, write about the joy.
The Three Don’ts: Don’t cross out or edit as you write. The editor is, as Natalie Goldberg taught us, the keeper of the Jewels. The jewels are the truth. The closer you get to the truth, the more the gatekeeper screams at you that you’re getting too close. If you listen, if you back up one step, you give in. Don’t give in to the internal editor. Listen to the clock and while you’re listening to the clock your hand takes dictation from the unconscious where everything is stored just waiting to be mined, retrieved, brought out into the light. So, don’t edit while you write, don’t cross out, don’t think.
Memory and Time: The Memory String
The personal memoir is about memory and time. Memory and places. Memory and objects or things. The past. You’re bringing the past into the present.
The trigger that unlocks the past is the startline: “I remember….” and its variants, “I remember the time when…” and I remember that place where….” and “I remember how it felt to….” and “I don’t remember anything about…”
Memory in time can be playful, sporadic, joyous, painful. Go there. No matter where it is, you have to go there. To help you get there, you use the startline over and over to build a memory string.
Moments in the String – “I remember the time when…and I remember the taste of that….”
This is a memory string. To get a memory string you take dictation from the unconscious without worrying about order. Memory is curious—right now you can remember what you had for breakfast and in a flash you remember your first visit to the doctor. Unconnected, except for being part of your life, those two events are in you. So you write them down:
I remember that I had raisin bran with milk for breakfast, AND I remember the first time I went to the dentist and I remember graduation night and I remember….
Memory is global. The entire past is present in your memory as you sit in that chair reading these lines. Some of your memory is in deep storage, some of it is right now. Your goal is to get to it. The memory string is your best friend here. You sit down and you write: I remember the time when….and I remember how it felt to…. and I remember my first day at school…. and I remember the day my mother died….
You take it as it comes. You don’t worry about chronology (time) and you don’t worry about connection (sequence, cause and effect, order, or logic) you just take it as it comes.
Exercise: Right now, set your timer for ten minutes. Use this trigger line:
I remember the time when….