When I mention that I teach memoir writing, I often get the reaction, “You must hear a lot of heavy stuff.” I do, and I feel I live a wider life because of it. But writing memoir is not about the heavy stuff. It’s about what the writer makes of the experience, and about shaping that experience into an engaging story....
When I mention that I teach memoir writing, I often get the reaction, “You must hear a lot of heavy stuff.” I do, and I feel I live a wider life because of it. But writing memoir is not about the heavy stuff. It’s about what the writer makes of the experience, and about shaping that experience into an engaging story.
About a year ago, I attended an event featuring a woman who had been on the Kindertransport in 1939, during which the United Kingdom accepted 10,000 Jewish children from the German Reich. I expected to hear an amazing story; to my surprise, I didn’t.
She told us what we could have found in a Wikipedia article — the who, what, when and where. When the audience prodded, she told an anecdote about how much fun it had been to feed the pigeons on the boat to England. But we wanted to know: What was it like to say goodbye to your parents and, as it turned out, never see them again? In her case her stepmom had sent her away, thus saving her life. What had prompted that decision? We didn’t want to hear about the families she lived with, their towns and what their professions were. Those are just the biographical cornerstones. We wanted to hear what it was like to suddenly have to fit into an English household.
At its best, memoir is a “report from the front.” It’s the reason why The Diary of Anne Frank is the most popular book about the Holocaust, along with Elie Wiesel’s Night. Both are personal accounts. And yet The Diary of Anne Frank is ultimately not about the Holocaust per se, but about a 13-year-old girl worrying about boys and about who she is, despite what’s going on around her. We can relate to that 13-year-old because we used to be 13, too. It tells us what daily life was like during that harrowing time. Night does the same. It tells us not only what it was like but answers the question of how: How did the narrator survive?
Listening to the Kindertransport survivor, I realized that not everyone who has a story can tell a story. And therein, to me, lies the privilege and also the challenge of teaching how to write memoir. It’s a privilege because it is a joy to witness literature in the making; it’s a challenge because it is incredibly hard to create a story out of life’s messy details. As V.S. Pritchett famously said about writing memoir: “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”
In a beginner’s class, students often come with a big project in mind. Life is big, and they want to tell the story of their time in the Peace Corps in Africa, or caring for an estranged mother who developed Alzheimer’s at a young age, or a brother who committed suicide. And yet, over the six years that I have been teaching memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago, I have seen that students are most likely to find success in going small, in distilling one particular event into a short memoir. One well crafted scene can show more of the mosaic of life than 25 pages of exposition.
Case in point: One of my students has been writing the story of her adolescent son’s battle with, and ultimate death from, leukemia. While she knew that her story is about how she survived as a mother, she struggled with all the entanglements a family story brings — what to leave in, what to leave out. Then, after much practice in writing scenes, she turned in four pages describing how twice a week, she and her son would settle in as she changed the dressing on the central drug-supply line in his chest. It was a highly dangerous task, especially for a lay person, because any infection could prove lethal. And yet she felt it was something she needed to do for him, rather than having a nurse come by.
Her four pages are fluid; they are stunning. In telescoping in on this event, she managed to show everything: the family situation, the intimacy and the clinical aspects, the adolescent and the mother, the ease and the fear, the mundane and the extraordinary. As I read those pages, I knew she had turned a corner as a writer. And to me as an instructor, there is no greater joy — really, no greater privilege — than nurturing a writer to come into her own.
Annette Gendler has been teaching memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago since 2006 and considers it her dream job. After teaching introductory classes for two years, she created a monthly Advanced Memoir Workshop to discuss book-length memoirs (picked by students) and workshop manuscripts. A few students who began with her still take her class, others cycle in and out, and new ones join. She is particularly proud that several of her students, who started as beginners, have had their work published.
Photo credit: Patty Michels