Thursday, May 12, 2011

Memory, nonfiction, and writing about the here and now

I've always been interested in how nonfiction writers work with memories, recreating on the page the events of our past. I even occasionally give presentations to writers groups about it, and also cover the topic in some of my classes. I'm interested in how we can retrieve bits of stubborn memories, how the writing process itself helps loosen additional details, and what we can do to work around, through and sometimes without, the memories we think are necessary to tell a particular story.

I think this intrigues me because a large portion of my creative nonfiction work has pivoted on incidents from at least five years in the past, and some goes back further – 10, 20, even 30 years ago. Although my freelance journalism activities have included a fair share of reporting and opining keyed to current events, for creative nonfiction, it's looking back, often far back, that has always felt more comfortable to me.

Then my father died in 2006, and suddenly I had a compelling need to write about that experience, not so long after it occurred. Slowly, over the four-plus years since, more and more of the present (or more recent past) has crept into my work.

And then last summer, I did what for me, was rather strange: wrote a personal essay about what was happening in my life, right then. I did not fool myself that the piece had the same kind of depth and nuance, the same kind of reflective insight and long-lens perspective I liked to see on the page; but then again, there was a certain energy and tone to it that I liked. Here's how and why it happened.

Last May, I was asked to write twice a month for the Love Mom section at Your Tango. Technically, this made me a (paid) blogger, though my editor and I agreed my pieces wouldn't be casual chronicles, but personal essays. The site typically skews to a younger readership, but I was to represent the slightly older Mom voice, the one with experience, teenage children, and a 22 year marriage.

It was an interesting learning curve, as my (now former) twenty-something editor and I wrestled with getting the tone right, somewhere between here's-what-I-know-for-sure and despite-my-experience-I'm-as-clueless-as-every-other-mother. I experimented with essays that reached back to specific events from when my boys were babies – such as how a miscarriage once affected holiday plans, and my initial reluctance at the prospect of motherhood -- and those noting current struggles, but still reliant on echoes of past experience – such as my annual family-free week, and making peace with being just good enough.

Then last summer, faced with a deadline and operating on scant sleep while across the country at my mother's and on the third week of hospital bedside duty, and missing my family, I decided to let fly with an of-the-moment essay about the mixed emotions stirred by the situation. After getting over the small tremor of fear that my siblings would be upset by the piece, I rather liked the experience. Since then, I've continued to write about what's happening, as it happens, including a follow-up when my mother had another heart attack and I decided not to fly to her side. In one of my favorite pieces, I wrote about anticipating how much I'll miss the family routines we take for granted today, when they are one day gone.

While I don't write or think of these essays in the same manner I do the longer, deeper pieces I continue to work on for other venues, I've grown quite fond of writing them. As I tell my students all the time, shorter is harder, and at less than 800 words, these short pieces are a useful way to practice what I teach.

Going back to the idea of memory, I've also discovered – or rather reconfirmed what I probably already knew – that all memory is tricky, and rich, and so very fallible. Recalling what happened two weeks ago -- and what it means, how I felt, the way others reacted, and who said what -- is as much an act of using one's imagination, as to mine material from decades past.

Turns out, I like getting a story out to readers without even knowing for sure it will all turn out. (Why I should be so surprised, given my initial journalism training?) That part though is a risk for someone like me who is much more comfortable knowing the end of a story before putting a single word on the page. But then again, I need to remind myself that most of the time when I write a very long piece about something which took place 20 years ago, the "end" I eventually write toward is rarely the same conclusion I had originally attached to that story in my memory.

This week over at Love Mom, I wrote about how the preparations for the SAT -- and my son's not-so-subtle stance against my inner-Tiger Mother instincts -- had me re-evaluating the hovering blunders I've made, and how I'm now trying to change that pattern. And who knows, two months from now it may be that I've not really changed at all; that "lesson learned" may have faded to a missed opportunity and I may feel slightly nauseated that I touted what turned out to be an unearned epiphany.

That's the risk I guess of writing in the present. I've avoided it a long time, and so for now at least, I want to see how that particular writing glove fits. Good thing too, since now I'm contributing an essay weekly at Love Mom. I hope you will hop over from time to time to see how it's going, let me know how I'm doing. (All of my pieces at the site are listed here.)

1 comment:

Delia Lloyd said...

This is really interesting, Lisa. I'm the opposite-I almost always write about exactly what's going on right at the moment in my essays, and only rarely delve into the deeper past. But I'm definitely intrigued to do the latter. Perhaps we are all just constantly trying new things-in fiction and non-fiction as well - to keep things interesting and to keep learning as writers. Thanks for this.

Delia Lloyd