MEMOIR WORKSHOP: What’s a Memoir?

Posted by Ann Evans in Memoir workshop | 0 comments

Fiction can be written from the point of view of one or several characters, or the narrator can be omniscient. A memoir is nonfiction and has only the voice of the author. It also has a theme or makes a point. The genre “memoir” has its own shelf under the category “nonfiction.” The memoirist must tell the truth, but it is impossible to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The whole truth about anyone’s life would take up a million pages, so you must choose a set of facts and memories which make your point. Truth is never unimpeachable. If you want to run a short test of this statement, ask your children about something in their childhood and see if it comports with your own recollection. Ask your spouse what happened the first time he met Aunt Millie (you have probably mutually honed the one about your first date, so choose something where you have not created a mutual memory). Ha!  I told you so. You are only required to tell the truth as you remember it. Remembering ancient truths takes work, patience, and persistence. Since you are promising the truth; you are therefore telling the stories of all the other people in your story as well as yourself. You will relate conversations or incidents as you recall them, and if the other person might be compromised, you can change names or minor details, but not the integrity of your narrative. In Daring to Date Again, I write about an affair with a policeman. I changed his name and changed the town he worked in (he wasn’t keen on ever letting his mother and his fellow cops know that he had dated a woman who was twenty-four years older than he was). This change did not affect the truth of my story. But if we had, say, gone out to dinner one evening with the woman who later became his wife, I would be altering the truth of the story if I replaced her with another woman or left her out. You might be embarrassed to admit that the love of your life was missing two front teeth, or got drunk every night, but the color will quickly fade from your tale if you don’t fess up. A common trap for memoirists is to replace what really happened with what they wish had happened, or what was the right thing to do. In all good literature, there are surprises, twists, and failures. When you are writing about your own life, it might be difficult to admit to your own silly, deluded self, but readers need not only truth but authenticity. Since you are trafficking in the truth, you’re going to run into situations which you’d rather not talk about, yet which are necessary to make your point. So remember that it is hard to shock a reader. The prominent memoirist Anaïs Nin wrote about both sex with her father and bigamy and, if anything, these admissions enhanced her reputation. Your readers will have had some shocking, eccentric, perhaps illegal experiences themselves, and you demean them if you don’t admit your frauds, failures, and flaws. A memoir is different from an autobiography. Famous people often write remembrances of other famous people they have interacted with, or the circumstances around their accomplishments. Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx, strikes me as such a book. In it, he presents himself as the public persona which appeared in the Marx Brothers’s movies – the prankster, the keen observer. One review wrote that the book “is a chatty, colorful story designed for shockeroos and honks and only gets dull when there are no more pranks to play.” Harpo may exaggerate and cherrypick the facts in the interest of entertainment, but the reader would be shocked to learn, for example, that the two boys who threw him out of a window at P.S. 86 in Manhattan in third grade were actually two Jewish boys (Harpo was Jewish) and not two Irish boys. We must trust his honesty and his memory. People who are not famous write autobiographies for the edification of their family and friends, or because they have a unique story to tell which depends more on the story itself than on the author. There is a fine line between autobiography and memoir. An autobiographer becomes a memoirist by restricting the scope of the book and becoming more confessional or confrontational with a deep truth. Instead of introducing the twelve-step program to overcome alcoholism, your book might become the screenplay for Days of Wine and Roses, the film in which “An alcoholic marries a young woman, whom he systematically addicts to booze so they can share his "passion" together.” Some books are close to memoir, but have been fictionalized. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie surely uses a great deal of her own experience to tell the story, since both she and the protagonist are Nigerian women who came to America. But once the story veers significantly away from personal facts, it becomes fiction, and the author is no longer responsible for its truth.  If a writer wants to make a point which she feels strongly about, but has not lived through personally, she may choose to fictionalize characters and scenes. Or if an experience is too shattering to face publicly, fiction might serve as the best vehicle. Identifying the vehicle which conveys your story will help you to corral your project.

Insomnia Overcome

Posted by Ann Evans in Being a writer, sleep | 0 comments

  I had fibromyalgia for many years, and came to agree with the doctors who told me it was a sleep disorder.  Now that I am free of its constant pain, I cherish a good night’s sleep. The only other person I’ve known who was so enamored of sleep was a Greek man who remembered having to get up pre-dawn in the Army. Ruined him. A lot of my writing is done in my sleep – I wake up in the morning with the resolution of a challenge, a few choice words, a title to something, an idea for a new project, whatever. I also used sleep when I was studying foreign languages – I read over the vocabulary lists before I went to sleep and remembered them better in the morning. When your mind is asleep, it is still prioritizing, analyzing, and digesting ideas and intentions. Insomnia doesn’t happen often, and one reasons that is so is because I have become familiar with a practice called YOGA NIDRA. There are places online where you can be guided through various Yoga Nidra sessions. I use The number one pick on Google is and I nearly conked out while evaluating it for you. Here are two yoga practices which put me to sleep without fail.

  1. While lying on your back, breathe in on a count of three, hold for three, breathe out for three. Breathe in for four, hold for four, breathe out for four. Continue until you reach fifteen. You’ll feel a touch of oxygen deprivation when you get into the higher numbers (which might be the secret of this exercise). If you aren’t asleep by then, count backwards to three.
  2. Begin by tracing, in your mind, the outline of your pinky toe, then your fourth toe, until you have finished the toes. Trace the tendons running from the toes to the heels (try to identify them in your mind), go around your ankle and up the shin, then down the back of the shin, circle your knee (I am sure to make an “x” I front of the knee where the ACLs are), up the front and back of your thigh, around your hip, into your hip joint, out around the back of your sacrum. Then do the same with your other leg. From your hip, move upward to outline your liver, gall bladder, spleen, large intestine, small intestine (I’m getting sleepy just writing all of this), the full length and width of your lungs, your pancreas, you heart and all its chambers, your thyroid gland, thymus, down your throat, around the back of your neck, your shoulder joints, then outline your fingers, wrist, forearm, upper arm on both sides. If you’re not asleep yet, trace the line of the jaw right into the joint, then trace your teeth, outline your tongue, relax your lips, outline your sinuses, honor the pituitary gland, which sits right behind your nose, your eyes, being sure to relax all the little muscles surrounding the eyes, make your eyes into two lakes, the eyebrows, outline the ears, making sure to hit every little nook and cranny. Let your remaining thoughts ascend through the top of your head into the air.
I am generally asleep by the time I reach my knees. Sweet dreams…………………  

BOOK REVIEW: City of Thieves, by David Benioff

Posted by Ann Evans in book reviews | 2 comments

It is said that there are two basic plots: a person goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. This is a man, or rather two men, on a journey through the cold in starving St. Petersburg during the siege of that city by the Germans in 1941, when slabs of human flesh were available in the market, after all the rats were gone. Given the desperate situations encountered in the book, the premise is whimsical: the Russian general’s comely daughter is going to be married the following week, and the general wants a wedding cake, but there are no eggs. Two men, the author’s grandfather and another man named Kolya, take on the assignment of finding two dozen eggs in exchange for their lives after they commit minor crimes. The charm of the book lies in the voice of the narrator. The author has taken his grandfather’s story as told to him, and turned it into a story. The depravity and suffering he encounters, and the air and snow so cold that toes and lives can be easily lost, could be considered fantastical nightmares not bearing close examination, but given the matter-of-fact, teenage mind telling the story, they all fall into place. I found myself thinking yes, this could have happened. If anything, Grandpa may have avoided telling of even worse deprivations and cruelty. City of Thieves resembles two other books I have recently read: Suite Française, which tells the story of the panicky exodus from Paris when the Germans threaten the city, after which the French realize it had not been necessary to leave after all; and Matterhorn, the story of a group of god-forsaken American Marines in Vietnam who take a hill only to leave it to the enemy after it is captured. The two boy-men in City of Thieves go through similar hell to capture two dozen eggs. It is, you see, the oh-so-familiar plaint about the exploitation of the helpless, of the lengths to which human beings will go in order to survive, and the surprisingly optimistic revelation that a person can remain almost dead for a very long time. It makes my worries about a mole I hadn’t noticed before or a missed meal seem self-indulgent. The cover blurb, written by Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, is “The perfect novel.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a well written story with engaging characters, a well drawn historical setting, and little superfluous flimflam. In these days of impending Armageddon, it is worthy of contemplation to wonder if I could be as resourceful and brave as the Russians in this book. Have I become so spoiled by warmth (and air conditioning) and ease that I would soon be dead under such circumstances? How many risks would I be willing to take to find an egg for my family? How could I weather the grief? But seriously, it’s a good read.

Women’s liberation comes from the inside — eating alone

Posted by Ann Evans in Dining Out Alone, feminism | 0 comments

I’ve traveled alone to dozens of countries for almost six decades. In most matters, I am undaunted, but I have always hated to dine out alone. I’d rather order room service or pick up a sandwich than take a solo table. This aversion is neurotic, but has a gauzy relation to reality. In 1965, I was driven by hunger to sit down at a café table in Lisbon, though there were only men in the café, and in all the other cafes I had passed. The waiters flocked to me as if I were their baby sister, offering me a free glass of green Portuguese wine, and making recommendations from the menu. I didn’t think that they were disparaging my ability to figure out what I wanted to eat. I thought they were protecting me from advances they might expect from the other, all-male, diners. I felt like a rare bird. In 2004, I was doing research on the endangered status of the Macedonian language in Greece. When evening came, I ventured into the hotel dining room, and the waiter sat me at a table in the bow window, separating me slightly from the rest of the tables. I had been warned that people had gone to jail for asking too many questions about the Macedonian language. Academics in Athens advised me to pay attention to cars that were following mine. It is rare that a foreigner knows semi-fluent Greek, and the hotel clerk became cautious when he learned that though I spoke Greek, my heritage was not Greek. Why was I there? Did the other diners think I was an agent provocateur. Was one of them a plainclothes policeman? That was an unusual situation, but even under ordinary conditions, I feel people are looking at me when I eat alone. In Paris, I often found myself an unwelcome optic, seated near the toilets. Was it my imagination that detected a flash of “Oh no, what are we going to do with her?” when I showed up? I can’t say whether a single man would feel similarly. When Dean Martin died, I read that he ate alone every night at the same restaurant in his declining years – a fact important enough to be included in his obituary. My husband always brings a book when he dines out alone, but I get sauce on the book and it’s awkward to hold it open with one hand while eating with the other. I believe that the root of my neurosis was the embarrassment that I felt in dancing school in the 1950s. I was taller than most of the boys and skinny as a stick, and was often left a wallflower, sitting grimly in my chair because nobody chose me as his partner. Three men have married me, and I wrote a whole book about the men I dated when I became single at 60, so you’d think I would have expiated the embarrassment of dancing school, but the feeling of abandonment must be lodged somewhere near my spleen, difficult to get at and even more difficult to remove. My embarrassment began to turn one evening in New York City a few years ago when my husband and I visited the new restaurant in Lincoln Center. It was full, so we sat at the bar, near an attractive middle-aged woman. I found myself committing the very mistake that I feared others would make if I sat alone at a restaurant bar – I wondered if she was cruising for a date. My husband and I struck up a conversation with her, and I told her that I hated eating in restaurants alone. “Hah! I’d starve to death if I did that. I have a line of tableware, and I go on sales trips all over the country. I’ve eaten out alone more times than I could count.” How ridiculous I was! How old-fashioned! How pre-feminist! Why would I imagine that a successful businesswoman should closet herself in her hotel room out of embarrassment that she was alone? “If I hadn’t come out alone, I would never have met you, “she smiled. “I’ve met the most interesting people of all at restaurant bars.” She had done the field work on this experiment, yet I still demurred. On my most recent visit to my son in Burlingame, California, I was alone at dinnertime. I wanted a fine dinner, maybe not the cuisine my son would prefer. I marched up to the hostess at Il Fornaio and requested a table, “On the patio, if possible.” She scrambled to clear a patio table, and I caught myself wondering if she was thinking she should go the extra mile to accommodate this abandoned older woman. But I smacked my brain down. “Ann, you can’t think that people in Paris are putting you in an obscure corner because you’re a woman alone, and at the same time object that people are going to extra lengths because you’re a woman alone. You’re being hypocritical and illogical!” I was an insult to feminism. I enjoyed the heck out of it. Without chatter, I could savor my food.  There is a yoga practice of silent meals, during which you are invited to pay attention to what you are eating – note the colors, the array of tastes, think where the food has come from and to whom you are indebted for it, from the person who planted the seed, to the truck driver who delivered it to market. I carefully crunched down on the sprig of decorative parsley, savoring its bitterness. I tried to identify the herb flavoring the sauce on my gnocchi– I think it was basil, maybe a hint of oregano, too. I took the time to remember the first time I had ever eaten gnocchi, at the table of the Sala family in Merate, Italy in 1961. There was no shadow meal going on across the table, just my own plate, with my own gnocchi. I ordered a glass of wine, and enjoyed pacing the meal without regard to another person’s preferences. Women’s liberation comes from the inside, and some of the outdated thought patterns of my childhood have been slow to dissolve. This aversion to eating alone was one of the last to go. I wonder which ones are left.