From Memoir Reading to Memoir Writing

by Jack E Nelson


Anyone thinking of writing their own memoir would do well to add memoirs written by others to their reading list for awhile. Much can be gleaned from studying how others have put their life stories together. And there is certainly a wide selection available these days, whether at the local bookstore or in the public library.

A particularly good example of a memoir, which I recently read, is Judy Blunt's life story, Breaking Clean (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002). There are few who can write as well as she does, whether she is evoking the atmosphere of the wide open Montana prairie or retelling a story handed down through her family. But even if we can't match her writing skills, we can still learn much from how she writes and puts together her memoir of growing up in sparsely populated eastern Montana. Her knowledge of farm animals, her struggles against the restrictions placed on a rancher's wife, a dissolving marriage, and the loss entailed in having to leave behind life on the range and move to a city make for a compelling narrative.

What is notable in her book is how chronology fades to the background. Yes, she does recount her experiences of passing through stages of life, but the focus is on capturing stories. Weaving these stories into a tapestry, she portrays both the rugged demands faced by the hardworking ranchers and the conflicted intimacies of rural social life.

Memoirs don't have to start with the day a person was born and proceed from there with a rigid adherence to a time line. That can quickly become tedious, and a memoir writer needs to find ways to shift attention away from a listing of events in the order they occurred toward a theme and the drama of life.

Blunt opens her book by relating the story of the evening her father, on the front porch of their ranch home, sharing a bottle of scotch with the man who had come to ask for his permission to marry his daughter, gave his approval. The "deal" was discussed and sealed with a handshake, and another swig on the bottle, like they were settling a land purchase or closing negotiations on a herd of cattle. Without any explicit explanation, we get the picture of the nature of gender relations among ranch families, and the theme of the book is established.

We are also made aware right from the start how life is best remembered as stories. "Stories are the lessons of a year or a decade of a life broken into chunks you can swallow." She likes to distinguish between talking and speaking. "We talked in facts - work and weather, the logistics of this fence, that field - but stories were how we spoke. A good story rose to the surface of conversation like heavy cream, a thing to be savored and served artfully."

Less talk and more stories makes for a better memoir. Anecdotes help to recreate the scenes and the emotions of the time better than explanations can. As creative writing teachers like to emphasize over and over, it is best to show not explain. The more one can portray what occurred rather than simply explaining what took place, the more lively the text will be to read.

In writing her memoir, Judy Blunt reaches back to before she was born for stories passed orally down through the family. She depicts scenes from her early childhood based on what her parents told her, like the crushing winter storm that killed most of the cattle in the region. Her first year in high school, when she boards with an elderly woman in a nearby town during the week, makes for a great coming-of-age chapter. The forlornness she experiences as a housewife gets evoked when she portrays the domestic role she resents being confined to. She knows she can pull calves during the birthing process and rope them during spring branding roundups better than most men. Each segment is a semi-independent vignette, a thing to be savored and served artfully.

Advising a friend on how to get started on writing his autobiography, John Steinbeck suggested: "Don't start by trying to make the book chronological. Just take a period. Then try to remember it so clearly that you can see things: what colors and how warm or cold and how you got there. Then try to remember people. And then just tell what happened. It is important to tell what people looked like, how they walked, what they wore, what they ate. Put it all in. You will find that in a very short time things will begin coming back to you that you thought you had forgotten. Do it for very short periods at first. Over tell it in the matter of detail - cutting comes later. The form will develop in the telling."

Judy Blunt is a master at doing this, making the ordinary in her life seem extra-ordinary. The trick she uses is to not explain to us what life was like for her but to show us through vivid portrayals. Emulating what she does by drawing on one's own experience, as Steinbeck suggests, is something the beginner can do. Start with an episode in your life. Situate it with brief introductory remarks. Like an artist, paint the scene in detail. Describe the people involved, their personalities, what they look like, their quirks and habits. Recreate the dialogue, even if you can't remember the exact words. With a little practice, the stories of your life will start to unfold.


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