Like other writing genres such as the short story or poetry, there are certain creative constraints within memoir.
In a March 2017 article published in The Atlantic, “When a Writer’s Great Freedom Lies in Constraint,” author Joe Fassler writes, “Artistic freedom, paradoxically, relies on the presence of constraints.”
I find these creative restraints in memoir to be quite good, oftentimes. Other times, I find myself returning to where I was while a student at the University of Virginia shortly after I read ATTENTION. DEFICIT. DISORDER by Brad Listi, a book that greatly affected me at the time. I read it shortly after my friend Jeremiah died from brain cancer.
“It’s an unabashed autobiographical novel,” Listi, who now runs the popular literary podcast OTHER PPL, said to me during my subsequent interview with him in 2008.
And this is where I find myself now. Fiction is alluring. A dash of the autobiographical or semi-autobiographical will free up and liberate some of my stories that have nowhere to go in the memoir form, save for a vignette.
An example from my childhood…
STEPPING BACK IN TIME TO 1992
It’s a day I find myself continuously looking back on. It’s as if I’m supposed to write the story. But if I write it as memoir, it’s not much of a story. It is by and large a vignette, and nothing more. As memoir, it would go something like this…
It was a summer day, the sun high in the sky, the typical humid weather of Virginia forcing its weight on us as we walked along the railroad track behind the baseball field. To give ourselves reprieve from the sweltering orange ball of fire casting long shadows from our lanky bodies, we stepped down from the tracks onto a tiny path of red dirt and and made our way into the woods.
We walked a bit further in, a place we’d never stepped before, then further still; and as we did, we came upon an area of forest with fescue grass, soft and lush, a deep green unlike the scorched crabgrass in our own backyards.
As we came upon this patch of lush grass and towering pines and hundred year oaks, at that moment, Ricky, in his sometimes unexpected philosophical manner, said, “It’s like we’ve gone back in time.”
And we all laughed, silently agreeing, because, it was as if, right then and there, we had indeed stepped back into an era where we did not belong. We were no longer in Phenix. We were somewhere else far removed from 1992.
After a short spell of sitting on the grass, we rose and began walking again, deeper into the woods. About a quarter of a mile later, we came to the opening of the forest and into the light again; and there constructed outside the tall pines and cedar and oaks an old tobacco barn, red clay mud lodged between cut logs holding its structure together, a door closed with a wooden bar across its front begging for us to open it, and so we did.
Inside, just at the opening of the door, sat two golf bags and a box of golf balls. It was then that we realized we had not truly gone back in time. The modern world we were still a part of.
The golf balls were clean and modern. Titleist was written in black script across its front. There lay a few orange balls and a yellow ball, but mostly white, some new, some old.
Somehow, prior to exiting the woods, and before entering the old tobacco barn, we had missed the makeshift driving range just behind us.
So, we take the golf clubs, each of us, about ten of us in all, a hodgepodge of kids, some not even from Phenix but visiting nonetheless, and half of which had never hung out with the other before, and we place the clean golf balls down into the grass, some on tees, others not. Some we toss into the air, and as they bounce from the grass, we catapult them far into the acreage ahead of us with the clubs in our hands.
That’s when we first hear the dogs…
They were coming right at us. Their barks pierced through the air and it sounded as if there were six to eight of them. Large, vicious, protective of their property in the modern world.
We all dropped the golf clubs, except two of us, and we tore off on foot, running as fast as we could to escape the gnashing teeth quickly approaching our heels.
Knowing the forest would slow us down, we opted to run for an open field we saw in the distance. We ran through the tall grass in the field as the dogs drew closer and closer, their barks louder, fiercer, inhuman in their quest to destroy us.
We reach a rusted barbed wire fence and press down our young weight on the wire, and leap to the other side; and as we look back once all are safe, we see the dogs, far behind where we are, and they are brown and black, dispersed in opposite directions; then we realize, not all of us are here. Some are still in the field.
Where are Craig and Tater?
Out of breath, the dogs still gnash their teeth and we realize that those still in the field will be torn to shreds.
THE LIMITATIONS OF MEMOIR
This, for me, is where memoir gets tricky. Bear with me.
There’s not much else to the story. While it was exciting for me to live through at the time, and perhaps you felt a rush of adrenaline reading the last few paragraphs, that’s mostly where the story ends.
Perhaps in describing that day, I could tie it to a lesson learned or some great metaphor I’ve come to know as I’ve grown older and escaped the gnashing teeth of the world at large, but when I think of this day, that’s not the story my memory wants to tell. It wants to continue the story past what actually took place.
Of course, no one was torn to shreds by dogs. Craig and Tater, realizing they’d not make it to the far end of the fence went toward the side of the field, as opposed to the far end, and leapt over.
And my memory may be amiss here. Was it Craig and Tater, or Kevin and Brandon, or was it someone else that day? That’s not all that important in the grand scheme of the story.
The night would fall and it wouldn’t be until the next day, when we met up at Kevin’s, that we realized everyone had survived.
The man who owned the dogs had apparently seen some of us hitting golf balls from his house in the distance and recognizing the youngest son of Robert Hancock, stopped by Kevin’s house that morning; and we all sat there silently, pretending as if we weren’t involved, and instead of getting angry, the man invited Kevin and another (Brandon, maybe?) over to hit golf balls whenever they wanted.
The man didn’t know that one of us had ran off with one of his golf clubs, the hand frozen at the soft black grip of the club when the dogs made their presence known to us.
Hypothetically, what if I did transition this from memoir to fiction?
What if, when we found our way to the deep green fescue and Ricky announced, “It’s like we’ve gone back in time,” that we actually did go back in time?
What if that time was 1865 nearing the bloody end of the Civil War and instead of the truce at Appomattox, an alternate ending took place and a new battle waged 25 miles south in Phenix, Virginia, that forever changed history?
Or, what if it was a dystopian future we found ourselves fast forwarded to in which the world is at war and we must survive as young guerrilla rebels in the woods, sabotaging military equipment passing by on the rails of the Norfolk-Southern railroad that ran through Phenix?
When I was a kid, after more than one time watching the original 1984 version of RED DAWN with Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and C. Thomas Howell et al, I used to envision a foreign military power taking over the United States, and I would prepare my mind for what I would do in that situation, and it always involved heading down toward the railroad tracks in some act of sabotage that would alter the outcome of the war, and save Phenix, save America.
My mind went here often as a kid.
For this memory, this is the type of story I would like to write or something like it.
So, you will begin to see this on my blog. It will keep me from being limited in what subject matter I can write about and what stories I can tell. It will also keep me from sidestepping important topics and issues that I perhaps would not touch for fear of hurting the feelings of someone I love or respect in my family or within my family tree, past or present.
In fiction, a character can be veiled and a story still told in a way memoir does not allow.
I will continue to write memoir on this blog. And I will not James Frey anything and say something is memoir when it’s fiction or only partially based on truth. WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT AT 10:16 will continue to be a work of memoir, and I will continue to work diligently writing and revising it.
However, there are other stories I would like to revisit and transform from fact to fiction to allow them a place in the world to breathe and live.
SLEEPING BIRDS DO NOT SING is one such story. There are dozens more—some short story length such as DANDELIONS about a little girl who is able to bring the magic of uncontrollable laughter into the rooms of terminally ill cancer patients, and others greater in verbiage such as THE DEVIL’S KETTLE about two friends, one of which disappears into the water while canoeing.
I love memoir and I admire the writers of memoir for what they can do within the constraints of the form; but having lived an otherwise ordinary life, I don’t want to force myself into a box with writing if I believe in my heart there is more to the story.
Because, in the end, I love story more than anything.
It can come in any medium: film, music, art, fiction, nonfiction.
A good story is a good story.
And if a story keeps knocking at my door asking to be told, I need to open the door and tell it.
WHAT A GOOD STORY DOES, BE IT FICTION OR NONFICTION
To return to Brad Listi’s novel ATTENTION. DEFICIT. DISORDER: it’s the only book I’ve read more than twice. I’ve read it now seven or eight times. I would say I’m a bit embarrassed to have read it so many times, but I’m not.
It was exactly what I needed at that time in my life. It’s a perspective I needed when Jeremiah died, when my dad died, when my friend Brian passed away, and so many others. It’s also funny as hell on more than one page, which I can appreciate. Weaving humor into a novel is no small feat, particularly when the subject matter is heavy.
While the novel is largely experimental, it places death, and coming to grips with death, in a certain context that spoke to me those years ago and still does.
There’s a scene early on in which Wayne Fencer, the novel’s protagonist, acknowledges how his friend Horvak, having not known Wayne’s ex-girlfriend, cannot be shaken by her death in the same way as he:
“He knew her peripherally through me. Nothing about her death was debilitating to him; none of it really affected him. Beyond the kind of standard empathy that occurs in decent people, nothing much would transpire within him on account of her passing. There would be no resonant impact. He would escape unharmed.”
Reading this paragraph the first time all those years ago made me feel less alone in my grief—and I felt very much alone during that time, far removed from family and friends, far removed from the place where I was born and raised. And suddenly, I was no longer as alone as I was just minutes before those words came into my line of sight.
And that—the ability to tap into a wide range of emotions and offer new perspectives—is what good storytelling does.
I will continue to write memoir, but I will return to fiction when I feel it is necessary.
I am full of stories, true, untrue, and partially true, that want to be told in one genre or another. All, however, are rooted in some way to the ordinary life I led in an ordinary town known as Phenix, Virginia.