Noted: Honesty & emotion in memoir

Talk about cold duck. Candyce Canzioneri took this photo on Alum Creek, Westerville, Ohio.

“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.


Filed under emotion, honesty, memoir, teaching, education

3 responses to “Noted: Honesty & emotion in memoir

  1. richard moore

    We are fortunate that so many of our best writers have reflected on how truth works in creative nonfiction, especially memoir. Mr Larson is especially lucid and sensible on this subject.

    I have often faced a particular dilemma in writing a memoir piece. It’s when I (as narrator) know a great deal about the main character, but am faced with crucial events that MUST have happened (a scene or dialogue) but which I did not personally witness, or even hear about from someone who was, etc. Now, its too late to ask. Yet, the story makes no sense without that missing scene, that dialogue. I am aware that such “created” material can be handled (I imagined that . . . .) but would appreciate hearing from Mr Larson how he handles such dilemmas. Thank you.

  2. At the risk of self-promo, you might want to see how I handle the episodes in which I imagine my father, mother, and grandfather hearing and feeling Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” at crucial moments in the work’s history. Yes, I tell the read (in my book, “The Saddest Music Ever Written”) that these are imagined moments. This is the only time I’ve done this in memoir but I felt it necessary to advance the hybrid narrative I was writing about the personal and familial power of a famous piece of American music.

    Otherwise, check out how Carmen Gimenez Smith includes her mother’s journal (again three short excerpts) which she imagines to great effect in her memoir “Bring Down the Little Birds.” She integrates her voice into her mother’s, emphasizing a different kind of longing in her mother’s young motherhood to contrast and converge with her own motherhood in the memoir. It’s beautifully effective.

    The way to handle things is to see how others do it, then experiment for yourself. I would be careful about creating too many scenes and too much dialogue about things you did not witness or have no evidence for. Then it really becomes fiction. But hybrids are fascinating in ways they can hold our honesty taut.


  3. Good way to put it Thomas… too many dialogues can make a story sound fiction. I must say that I recently read a book titled, “From Immigrant Housemaid to Harvard Ph.D.” by Jin Kyu Robertson Ph.D. and was pleasantly surprised at how well her story flowed. I seriously thought there would be too much to the book. It is about a girl who comes to the U.S. from Korea with very little, she works as a house made, and several other odd jobs, marries an abusive spouse, but then goes on to beat the odds. It is a lot to put into one book, but she did it beautifully.