“All memoirs have one thing in common: each book charts the struggle between the subject of the memoir and the self. Almost always the subject is something other than the writer while the self, of course, is the writer.”—Thomas Larson
Tom Larson is an author, essayist, and journalist. He’s a generous writing-world friend, one with slightly different taste in memoirs than mine, neither of which negates the fact that he’s a flat-out brilliant theorist of memoir. I favor narrative-driven memoirs, and I think he prefers more reflective ones. In any case, he knows what makes all successful ones work. His own memoir essays are wonderful; sometimes I have my students read his haunting “The Woman on the Corner.” I previously reviewed his books The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative and The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”
The excerpts below are from his new Kindle e-book, What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir, which is a great teaching resource and stimulating to any memoirist. I was especially struck by his thoughts on what, at base, is happening in an honest, effective personal story.
Truth in memoir refers to an accurate shaping of the writer’s emotions. The truth of one’s feelings, if you will. To get there we wrestle with our memories, for memory comes at us laced with emotions that have minds of their own: self-aggrandizing, defensive, unexamined, even false. The question arises: How do I find the truth of my feelings if I can’t quite trust my memory? What’s worse, those unfinished and less examined emotions in my life keep insisting I attend to them. Something haunts me, continues to form or challenge my character. Its truth—why I feel as I do—still escapes me.
Of my older brother and me, why was I my father’s favorite? Can I ever find the truth of what I believe was factually and emotionally true? Since I cannot know for sure—my father is long since dead—I shape my story to reflect what I feel based on reasonable evidence, evidence with which my brother has often disagreed. He has his side, and he must wrestle with mine.
If I delve deep enough, though, I will find an answer to why this question of favoritism in my family compels my attention. The irony here is that emotional truth is subjective because it is so often factually unknowable and must be got at or got to mostly via emotion and understanding.
Our attentiveness to such bedeviling questions plays itself out personally—the writer considers, analyzes, emotes, makes discoveries, pulls off the mask, is as honest as he can be. Indeed, the memoirist is trying to find and disclose what he doesn’t yet know about the subject or himself: that’s why he’s writing a memoir. The thing in us which resists honesty or disclosure may be a foe that we need to battle but we do not vanquish it as much as we measure its weight and integrate its relational power into our sensibility.