Friday, September 12, 2008

Writing Memoir? Read this book

I'm happy to be interviewing fellow UCLA instructor Lisa Dale Norton whose book Shimmering Images can jumpstart anyone wanting to write memoir. Thank you so much, Lisa!

1. Why do you think more people are writing memoir today?

I think it¹s a circle: As various books of memoir pull the spotlight‹and more and more do; all you have to do is scan the bestseller lists‹more people pay attention to memoir. They see it as a viable form, an outlet, something they too could try their hand at, and that action, by countless individuals, simply serves to make the form more visible further spinning the circle of popularity.

Plus, ours is a culture of self-revelation. From blogs to MySpace and Facebook, to reality shows, more and more people seem to crave the ³realness² of life experience, clothed in the garments of ³this really happened to me² (as opposed to the wisdom shared through fictional accounts), as a way to make sense of their lives. And in the end I do think that is why people come to memoir: to make sense of their lives. The process of writing memoir is a process of ordering the randomness of events and assigning meaning to those events‹this has to do with the very demands of story, of what it means to make a story, of what a story must do to be a successful narrative (as we have come to define it in contemporary Western culture). When this process of making a story from the material of the past (writing memoir) is done well, it opens up new possibilities for how a person might live in the future. That is the hidden power of memoir, and once realized, it is addictive and contagious in its appeal.

2. Can you talk about the pleasures and the pitfalls of writing memoir?

The pleasures cleave to the act itself. The very work of writing is a joy. And writing about one¹s own life contains within it the possibility of epiphany, or deep insight, a reordering of awareness. All this transformative kind of stuff is the meat of memoir, and while it is hard work, it is full of deep, enduring pleasure.

The pitfalls? Well, there¹s a learning curve, as with all the arts, and those who have had little practice and think they can just take up pen and paper and produce a great, publishable story‹because, well, it¹s their life, right?‹discover very quickly that such is not the case. Like all good art, writing memoir is simply not that easy. Just like the writing of fiction, poetry, or drama, memoir requires work. For many, this is THE biggest pitfall: the deceptive simplicity of writing memoir.

3. Can you tell readers what you mean by a shimmering image?

Shimmering images are iconic memories that stay with us throughout our lives of specific moments in time, which for some reason‹divined through the writing of the shimmering image‹we have never forgotten. These memories come back as little snapshots in our mind. They are not movies. They exist like photographs frozen in time. But there is a world behind each of those images, a world of story. And that is what writing memoir is all about: unearthing the meaning embedded in those images and in the reasons they have been remembered.

I have a Shimmering Image in my mind right now of a summer afternoon with my best friend when I was 12 years old. We are sitting on the stairs of my childhood home opening gifts we have given each other‹45 rpm records we bought at the drugstore of our small Nebraska town. The image exists as a still picture in my head of Terri sitting a couple steps below me. She is wearing a plaid cotton sleeveless, button-down blouse and a pair of shorts. Her hair is cut square around her face and her bangs ride the top of her dark eyebrows. She is wearing glasses.

And that is all there is to that image. I know though that there is a story behind that ³picture,² that shimmering image. That is part of why I say such memories ³shimmer.² There is the energy of the story, housed in the image, waiting to be told, and it brings a kind of visible resonance to the memory, which I swear, makes it shimmer. Were I to explore this Shimmering Image further in a piece of memoir writing, I am sure I would discover a deep sea of unexplored feeling and meaning attached to the memory.

Here¹s a little of what I would discover if I went one step further on the memoir path: A tornado warning has just been issued for our town. The crazy up and down howling of the siren from the fire station on the hill has alerted everyone for miles around to take cover. I can see the greenish-grey sky outside the kitchen windows, at the bottom of the stairs, swirling with clouds. My mother is telling Terri she must run across the field to her house; her mother will be worried and expecting her, but Terri and I sit placidly, slowly unwrapping the records, caught in that place of childhood immunity, stubbornly clinging to our summer day.

It is through this kind of exploration of our Shimmering Images that we arrive at the core of the transformation that is fundamental to the process of writing memoir. Because we can not know beforehand what will be revealed we, as memoirists, must trust the organic process of discovery and pick our way forward on the path of revelation as we work with material from the past.

Shimmering Images are the doorway to that path.

4. I'm obsessed with how writers spend their days, so can you tell me how yours is spent?

A work with many clients who are writing narrative nonfiction books, and so much of my time is spent talking on the phone with those clients, reading their manuscripts, writing critiques and supporting their process of creation. Midwifery, you might say. I read. I putter. I teach classes for UCLA, and I speak publicly around the country at conferences and workshops, so some of my day might be spent preparing for that work. My garden and my birds absorb me. I swim. I spend a lot of time keeping my main relationship healthy and my career alive, and I write‹all sorts of things: interviews, like this one; short pieces for anthologies and newsletters; missives to family and friends; critiques of stories; emails; web material; blogs for the Huffington Post ( ), where I muse about the power of story as it intersects with current events, and articles for my column on ( And always I am searching my bookshelves and my memory shelves for the next piece that will guide my new book.

5. What are you working on now?

A new piece of literary nonfiction, the shape of which is currently like a ghost in the shadows. I feel parts of it, but do not have a complete sense of the threads I will bring together. I do know, though, that the story is set in Europe.

6. What question should I have asked that I didn't--and why?

The question is: What aspect of your new book, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR is most sacred to you?

The reason why that question should be asked is because it allows me to get at the heart of why I wrote SHIMMERING IMAGES.

What I have to say about this follows:

I firmly believe that the act of crafting a personal story from the random and often blisteringly chaotic events of a life is an act of sanity. It is a way of making sense of nonsense, of assigning meaning, and of organizing the core of who we are. Writing memoir allows us to reorder how we interpret the past; if we ³re-see² what we have always believed the past to mean, we establish new soil out of which the future can grow.

I see the act of making a memoir as an act of personal transformation. I have had this happen. When I wrote HAWK FLIES ABOVE: JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE SANDHILLS, I had no idea that it would close my past in such a profound way. I did not know that one narrative, that one choice of how to select and package the past would become so definitive. By writing HAWK FLIES ABOVE I learned that the one story we commit to in a book of memoir becomes our default interpretation of the past; it becomes our history. I didn¹t really get that before.

Many people think that memoir is just: This happened to me...and then this...and then this. But that is a serious misunderstanding. Memoir is the crafting of a narrative arc from an endless list of possible life experiences. Which ones we choose to include define how we, and others, will view our lives. The events that are left out of the story fall away, and this is as it should be; not everything can or should be included. (That is not memoir. That might be autobiography or just a compiled list, like something you might take to the store while shopping.) But a story has very specific demands‹in this respect memoir is no different than fiction. We must adhere to the demands of story when we craft a tale from life material.

What that means, though, is that we must be clear about the choices we make and why we make them. They shape our past, our present, and our future. When we realize this, we see that writing memoir is one of the most powerful forms of art. Inherent in it is the act of transformation.


Clea Simon said...

What a wonderful interview. Thank you, Caroline and Lisa. I started reading it as something that would help me help my students - and came away with thoughts for my own writing.

petersteel said...

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