Memoir, at the very least, does two things: tells a story from the past and tries to make sense of the past. Storytelling is the showing part of the equation since it requires you to use familiar tools—dialogue, character, description, and setting—to create scenes. Reflection, or trying to make sense of the past, is something entirely different, something largely unique to memoir. It requires ruminating on the page, thinking aloud, sifting through thoughts and feelings from your own unique point of view. Reflection, in other words, is the telling part.
—Ana Maria Spagna
As an essayist/memoirist, teacher, and editor of a literary journal, I’ve read thousands of personal narratives, many of which were written with great clarity and precision. The majority, however, seem to focus only on the narrative’s external events. The same can be said of a good number of MFA manuscripts I read.
That said, what I don’t see enough of are “inner” narratives. By that I mean, personal essays and memoirs that reveal what’s going on inside of the author’s mind, especially as that writer struggles with a problem or conflict. That internal struggle, which is the hallmark of the personal essay, is largely what sets literary nonfiction apart from fiction, poetry, and drama, the three other literary genres.
Writing Personal Narratives
You give me your story, I get mine.
Years ago, I wrote a stand-alone memoir entitled Trading Off. The story—that is, the circumstances, events, and situations—centers on a young boy’s four-year struggle with a willful, hard-nosed high school baseball coach. But running beneath that surface is the inner story, by which I mean, the young boy’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions as he absorbs his coach’s strategic punishments.
Here’s an excerpt from that piece.
It’s early September, my first day of high school. In homeroom, the teacher, Mrs. Klinger, hands me a note, “Be at my office 3 o’clock sharp.” It’s signed by Jack Kerchman, the baseball coach. My first thought is, “This guy must be a mind reader. How in hell does he even know who I am?”
A socially inept kid and wannabe baseball player, my dream, ever since junior high, has been to pitch for the varsity team. Since tryouts are held in February, I thought I had plenty of time to worry before I’d have to undergo that test. What then, could this coach, a man I’ve never even met, want from the likes of me?
The rest of the day is a blur. I’m too distracted to listen to anything my teachers are saying, I pick at my lunch, and every time I open a book, my thoughts begin to drift. By three, my stomach’s in knots.
I’d attended some high school games and already seen for myself what some of the perks of being a varsity athlete are: Adults—your own parents and friends, actually paid a buck to watch you play; cheerleaders chanted your name (“Steinberg, Steinberg, he’s our man, if he can’t do it no one can.”), and they kicked their bare legs so high you could see their red silk panties.
According to some of the older guys in my neighborhood, the benefits didn’t end there. After school, you got to sit at the jock table in the State Diner wearing a tan leather sleeve team jacket with a big blue and red “R” across the left breast. And your girlfriend, if you had one, wore your letter sweater to class. Maybe the biggest ego-trip of all was when everybody watched with envy when you left sixth period Econ for a “road trip.”
I tried to push those thoughts out of my mind as I timidly knocked on Kerchman’s door.
“It’s open,” he rasped in a deep, gravelly voice.
The room was a ten-foot-square box, a glorified cubby-hole, smelling of Wintergreen, Merthiolate, and stale sweat socks…Kerchman stood beneath a bare light bulb wearing a blue baseball hat, white socks, and a jock strap. He was holding his sweatpants and chewing a plug of tobacco.
“You’re Steinberg, right?” He said my name, “Stein-berg,” slowly, enunciating and stretching out both syllables.
“I don’t beat around the bush, Stein-berg. You’re here for one reason and one reason only. Because Gail Sloane told me you were a reliable kid. What I’m looking for, Stein-berg, is an assistant football manager, and I’m willing to take a chance on you.”
“So, that was it,” I muttered under my breath. Gail Sloane, our next-door neighbor, was Kerchman’s secretary in the Hygiene office. Rumor was that the coach had the hots for her. And, in spite of my protestations, last summer my father asked Gail to put in a good word for me. I was pissed at him for what he did and at myself for letting him to do it.
Too late now, though. I wanted to run out of the room and find a place to cry. Assistant football managers were glorified water boys; they did all the “shit work,” everything from being stretcher-bearers to toting the equipment.
He sensed my disappointment and waited a long beat while I composed myself.
“Gail also tells me you’re a pitcher,” he said, as he slipped his right leg into his sweat pants.
Another tense beat. “In February, you’ll get your chance to show me what you’ve got.” And to make certain there was no misunderstanding, Kerchman added, “Just like everyone else.”
He said, as if it was a done deal, “So what’s it gonna be, Stein-berg?”
It had all happened too fast. I couldn’t think straight. In a trembling, uncertain voice, I told him I’d think about it and let him know tomorrow.
At readings, when I introduce the piece as a memoir about and not about baseball, a good number of men sit up and lean forward in their seats. But the women’s body language isn’t quite so reassuring. Some roll their eyes, others cross their arms, still others grimace or frown. Not exactly a confidence builder, right?
And who can blame them? Most likely they’re thinking that they’re about to hear the kind of jock story that their boyfriends or husbands might have told them over and over again. I’m hoping though, that they won’t feel the same way after I’ve finished reading.
The coach, as it turns out, is a flat-out gatekeeper. He knows that the young boy desperately wants to pitch. And, as coaches are wont to do, he takes full advantage of it.
Over the course of the narrative, he deliberately tests the boy’s will and determination, mostly by keeping him on the bench. The kid, in turn, puts up with the frustrations and disappointments because on some level, even at fifteen, he understands that if he wants to pitch, this is the tradeoff he’ll have to make.
As I’ve said, that’s the surface story. But the more compelling part of the narrative is what’s going on inside the mind (and heart) of that confused, frightened kid as he agonizes over how badly he wants to make this team. At the same time as he’s obsessing over that, he’s constantly questioning his decision to put up with this coach’s callous tactics.
Throughout the memoir, he repeatedly asks himself, “Why am I doing this?” Yes, why is he doing this? I’m sure a lot of aspiring athletes (and their parents) will want to know the answer as well.
After I’ve finished, it’s clear that some of the audience’s body language has changed. A handful of men (and women, too) have figured out that the memoir isn’t really about baseball. Baseball is the lens the adult narrator is looking through as well as the setting, the stage for an ongoing battle of wills between the boy and the coach.
Later on, a few men will come up to the podium and tell me their war stories—encounters they’ve had with similar kinds of gatekeepers—punitive teachers and coaches, school bullies, abusive parents, and so on.
More surprising though, is that, every so often, one or two women, women who’d initially resisted the piece, will openly disclose their stories to me as well. A middle-age attorney, I recall, said that the young boy’s ordeal with his coach reminded her of her own teenage struggles with a harsh and demanding (or so she thought) ballet teacher.
This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, but it’s exactly the response I hope for. That’s because I don’t want readers or listeners to come away thinking this is another “poor, poor, pitiful me” story. I want them to feel the young boy’s deep humiliation, shame, and despair. I also want them to understand why, at fifteen, the boy willingly chose to make this devil’s bargain with his coach.
But had I written only the literal story, the “here’s what happened” narrative, no matter how descriptive, how dramatic, and/or how compelling it might be, I doubt that readers or listeners—especially the skeptical ones—would be able to (or even want to) make a personal connection between their own struggles and those of the teenage boy.
It’s true, we all like to hear compliments from audiences and readers. Yet, when we’re writing about our own struggles, we want readers and listeners to be remembering what their vulnerabilities and helplessness felt like. And in order to make that connection, the writer’s charge is to render his/her thoughts and feelings as lucidly and intelligibly as possible.
Teaching Personal Narratives
In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, one that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self. This second perspective, the author’s retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past, is not merely an obligation but a privilege, an opportunity. So it startled me when I began to discover among my writing students (both the young and mature) a fierce reluctance to allow their current, mature reflections to percolate through accounts of past experience.
Many personal essayists and memoirists are, by character and temperament, meditative, reflective types. And so the personal essay and memoir are ideal vehicles for their interior explorations.
In “A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf (one of our very best personal essayists) writes, “the reason so many personal essays/memoirs fail is that they focus on the events or what happened and leave out the person to whom things happened.”
As Woolf suggests, in order for readers to connect with a particular narrator’s story, they need to feel that person’s presence—whether the narrator is at the center of the story or is a witness/observer.
It seems to me then, that no matter what the subject is—baseball, a personal relationship, family, or anything else for that matter—essayists and memoirists are more likely to claim their readers’ attention by revealing their deepest fears, confusions, and doubts—as well as disclosing their brief moments of exhilaration and success—those qualities, in short, that link us as human beings.
When I teach, I frequently tell my students that there are as many different reasons and impulses for writing a memoir as there are memoirists. Some write to tell their story, others to preserve a family history. Some want to reminisce, still others write in hopes of discovering what the center of the narrative is and what it might mean.
Whatever their intent, no matter how young or old, I’ll challenge them to go beyond and/or probe beneath the literal story.
Essayist/critic Laurie Stone writes, “Too often, the writer mistakes his or her experience for a story instead of finding the story in the experience.” To that end, I advise writers and would-be-writers to think about their personal essays and memoirs as having two stories; that of the actual experience—the surface subject, the facts, the sequence of remembered events—and that of their internal struggles to come to grips with those facts and events.
I pose a series of questions, deliberately designed to get them thinking about why they’re telling this particular story, why now, and why it even matters enough to write about.
I ask them, for example, to consider if or how this experience has changed/ shaped them. Was there anything important at stake? If so, what were the costs? Hopefully, some of these questions will become part of their approach when they’re composing future narratives.
It would follow then, that in addition to having two stories, personal narratives—essays and/or memoirs—can have more than one persona or narrator.
As memoirist Vivian Gornick writes, “What happens to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
Articulating that double-ness, I believe, requires two narrators/personae; one telling the story and the other trying to understand and make some “larger sense” out of it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald says something similar when he writes, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
In the case of “Trading Off,” the adult narrator/persona is searching to discover what was at stake for the young boy. But, at the same time, he’s also attempting to explore/understand what the implications of those struggles might be. As Phillip Lopate has suggested then, the more mature narrator/persona is the one readers are most inclined to identify with and trust.
Another instance: in a scene from his memoir, Stop Time, the author Frank Conroy is describing in detail an incident where he and a few other prep school boys decide to defy their teachers by ducking out of the dormitory at “lights out.” As their superiors chase after them, Conroy’s young narrator says, “Can there ever be anything so sweet for a child as victory over authority? On that warm night, I touched heights I will never reach again…”
It’s a small reflection, barely two lines. But its transparency allows the reader to feel, understand, and identify with the young narrator’s brief moment of triumph. Without this window into both the boy’s thought process and what he’s feeling in that moment, Conroy’s scene would convey only the specifics of what happened.
In her essay “The End,” Judith Kitchen says, “The building of a process of thought is what interests the reader…The intimacy of the essay is a sharing of thought. We look as much for how an author approaches a subject as for the subject itself.” I’d say the same applies to writing memoirs.
Kitchen then adds some useful writing advice.
“Here are five things,” she says, “my students deny themselves as their stories draw to a close:
– Retrospection: a looking back, an assessment
– Intrusion: a stepping in, a commentary
– Meditation/rumination: a thinking through and around, finding a perspective
– Introspection: a self-examination, honest appraisal and discovery
– Imagination: (as distinct from invention/making things up) which allows for alternatives…juxtapositions…”
I couldn’t agree more. These are all things that Kitchen’s students—as well as my own—“deny themselves.” It’s an accurate, and, I think, a generous way to phrase it.
To those, I’ll add:
– Reflection: thinking things out, searching for meaning
– Speculation: playing “what if”
– Self-interrogation: asking the hard questions about yourself, the ones you don’t always want to know the answers to
– Projection: ascribing a feeling, thought, or impulse to someone else
– Digression: allowing the mind to wander away from the subject (some of my richest discoveries are in those digressions)
– Confession: not for the sake of itself, but only as it serves the larger narrative
“[A]n essay is…an expression of the self thinking…it’s not the thought that counts but the experience we get of the writer’s thought; not the self, but the self thinking.”
The writers I’ve cited, it seems, are telling us that the emotional connections between reader and writer have largely to do with the narrator’s internal struggle to make sense out of some nagging question, elusive idea, and/or confusing experience. Because no matter what the subject or catalyst might be: a teenager’s desperate need to impress a demanding coach; a prep school boy’s moment of triumph over his teachers; or a young girl’s anxiety and fear of her ballet teacher, our mind and imagination never stop analyzing, interrogating, asking why, and posing “what if” questions.
Let’s agree then, that by nature and disposition all human beings are reactive creatures. That is, we’re always responding internally. In any given situation or encounter, we probably couldn’t get past thirty seconds without having to call on most, or all, of the things I’ve just mentioned.
And so, aspiring and experienced essayists and memoirists (myself included) should continue to probe their uncertainties and confusions more deeply; analyze and interrogate their thinking more rigorously; ask tougher questions; and at the same time, continue searching for ways to find shape and meaning in their work. Which is still another form of inner struggle, is it not?
These, then, are the types of thinking/feeling selves I’d like to encounter more often in the personal narratives I read and teach.