Memory, Memoir, and Memorabilia
It was August, 2002. I was traveling in a school bus, putting down the Alcan Highway, moving from my old place of residence, Butte, Montana, to my new place of residence, Palmer, Alaska. All my possessions, minus the 97 boxes of books that I mailed northward two weeks previously, were stashed someplace in this, the vehicle dubbed the Mothership, or back in the rear of the Toyota pickup named Sputnik. To pull forth any container, even something as innocuous as a battered tool box, was to open a cache replete with memories. For example, in the metal box under my seat was the yellow handled screwdriver that I took with me on my first cross-country bicycle trip. Back in 1980 there were no multi-use tools, so I carried a bulging nylon sack full of repair items . . .
The above is a journal write, one in which I again attempted, in essay form, to implicitly began making the connections between the terms “memory,” “memorabilia,” and “memoir.” I say “again attempted,” because I didn’t get very far. Mid-sentence, my partner Pete Praetorius and I arrived at the American/Canadian border, where a burly customs official informed us that in order for our bus to be street-legal in Alaska, we’d have to paint it a non-school bus color, that is anything but its existent bright orange. No, he said in response to our query, putting metallic tape over the word SCHOOL wouldn’t cut it. When finally, we assured the official that we’d soon take care of the matter he let us go. Having lost my train of thought, I’d closed my journal and stuffed it into my backpack. When, three hours later, at noon, I pulled forth and re-opened my journal, it was with the intention of compiling a grocery list.
The journal write brought to mind the thought that memorabilia can be used to trigger memories, thoughts that we often draw upon when writing memoirs. It’s true, I surmised, that numerous writers have made implicit connections between these terms. However, none that I knew of had made explicit connections. If, I thought, I did this, say by providing a theoretical rationale for a practical teaching exercise, I’d add credence to the growing belief that memoir writing is a valid form of scholarly discourse, particularly when employed in the teaching of graduate and undergraduate writing courses.
Bump, bump, bump bounced the bus, a 1983 Bluebird, over the exposed bedrock of a two-mile long construction site. I glanced up at, then waved when the flag person, a tall blond haired woman, pointed questioningly at five sea kayaks strapped to the roof rack. Unbeknownst to her, I was now mulling over the adage “once a teacher, always a teacher.” Although I wasn’t planning to teach in the fall, I suspected that in due time I’d teach again.
Yes, once a teacher--I’d previously taught undergraduate courses in creative nonfiction writing, editing and publishing, and journalism. And yes, always a teacher—I could envision putting together a self-designed course, one entitled “Memory, Memoir, and Memorabilia.”
I began considering the theoretical substrata. My belief, that the three M’s are intrinsically related is one that fiction writer Tim O’Brien was going with when he wrote The Things we Carried, a series of Vietnam–based vignettes in which objects (such as malaria tablets, mine detectors, dog tags, love letters and illustrated Bibles trigger past memories.
And this was the premise that poet Richard Hugo was going with when he wrote Triggering Town, a book in which the former bombardier’s return to a pre-World War II Italy triggers poetic insights.
And this was the premise that nonfiction writer Beryl Markham was going with when she wrote West with the Night, a series of essays about her coming of age in Eastern Africa in the 1930s.
None of my books were handy; however, I’d previously memorized the first paragraph of Markham’s text. She begins her work by asking both herself and her readers, How is it possible to make order out of memory? I’d like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, this is the place to start; there can be no other” (3).
Seemingly throwing her hands up in the air, Markham then decides to elaborate on a memory from her pilot log book, one of many, she tells us. This then gives the first woman to fly east-to-west across the Atlantic permission to go with a discontinuous chronology, one which is more memory than time-dependent.
Related to the above was the thought that many contemporary memoirists (Patricia Hampl, Vivian Gornick, Judith Kitchen, Lauren Slater, Michael Steinberg, and Mimi Schwartz included) believe that providing a blow-by-blow account of what really happened isn’t what’s most important. What’s most important is what one remembers. The latter is what Schwartz calls “emotional truth.”
“Yes,” I mumbled to my dog, who bored, had tossed her carwash mit into my lap, “I’m on to something.” In this course that I was envisioning teaching, we’d spend half our time discussing the above-mentioned writer’s work. Questions we’d consider would be: How are Markham, O’Brien and Hugo defining the above terms? In so doing, what genre-related conventions are they adhering to and ignoring? And how have reader/reviewers responded to this?
We’d then spend the rest of our class time sharing our own work-in-progress. (I’m using the third person plural here because I, like writer- teachers Wendy Bishop, Lynn Z. Bloom, Donald Murray, and Nancy Sommers, believe that teachers should share their work-in-progress with students). Consequently, the first part of a lengthy sequential assignment would go something like this: I’d ask students to bring an object to class, something material that is of importance to them. Examples might include written memorabilia, such as family letters, diaries, or books; visual memorabilia, such as photos, illustrations, or drawings, or personal memorabilia, such as glasses, jewelry, or footwear.
In a series of in-class freewrites, we’d respond to prompts, some of which would include: Explain how this object came into your possession and why it’s important to you. Also, consider the consequence of your losing it. After writing, responses would be shared with group members. Some of the questions then, that all would consider in giving classmates’ an Elbowian movie of their mind would be: What ideas here are of interest to you? Why? Are there places where your mind wavered? If so, why might this be?
After my students and I completed a series of freewrites, we’d write essays, an essay as defined by 16th century writer M.M. Montaigne as a nonfiction work that’s exploratory, open-ended, speculative, and associative. Students would subsequently workshop their drafts. Post-workshop conferences would be mandatory.
The next part of this assignment would involve urging student writers to do as Hampl, Gornick, Kitchen, Slater, and Steinbeck have done, that is to blur the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction. Again, we’d do a series of freewrites, one in which pre-determined questions would motivate us all to use composite characters, fictive scenes, and invented dialogue. Again, all would share their responses with group members, elected volunteers would share their responses with the class as a whole, and all would write essays and conference them with me. When done, we’d talk about the rhetorical challenges one faces in generating multi-genre prose.
Pleased with my ruminations, I peered out a dust-covered window, at a vast landscape that was now comprised of spindly spruce trees. Pete, after pulling into a roadside rest area, stood and stretched.
“Did you finish writing the grocery list?” Pete asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Well then, what have you been doing?”
“Do you want a response that’s narrative or information-based?”
“Both,” he said.
“Well here you are,” I said, standing and handing him the first draft of this essay.
Hampl, Patricia. If I could Tell You Stories. New York: Norton, 1999.
Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story. New York: Farrar, 2001.
Hugo, Richard. Triggering Town. New York: Norton, 1979.
Markham, Beryl. West With the Night. San Francisco: North Point, 1983.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway, 1990
Schwartz, Mimi. “Memoir, Fiction, Where’s the Line?” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of Creative Nonfiction. Eds. Robert L. Root Jr. and Michael Steinberg. Boston: Longman, 2002: 338-43.
Schwartz, Mimi. “Roundtable: Emotional Truth vs. Factual Truth” Conference College Composition and Communication, Denver: 2002.
Slater, Lauren. Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. New York: Penguin, 2000.
Steinberg, Michael. “Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the Real Truth?” The Fourth Genre 1.1. (1999): 142-43.
Steinberg, Michael. Still Pitching: A Memoir. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2003.
Kitchen, Judith. Only the Dance. Columbia:
U of South Carolina P, 1994.