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Michelle's Musings

Born to Write? part I

If you had asked me five or six years ago whether our democracy would end up facing an existential threat, I would have said this country is just going through a phase. While I'm dismayed with our nation's current trajectory, this post addresses a completely different type of surprise.


During recent ancestral research, I uncovered tantalizing tidbits that would make good fodder for my writing. The problem is, I haven't figured out what type of project to pursue. Should I focus on one tidbit at a time, or is there a way to throw it all into one larger pot? I'm guessing the former is the way to go; I just need to wrap my head around a plan of attack.


While I contemplate the direction I want to pursue, I continue to unearth more mysteries, including the likely genesis of my interest in writing. After my father's recent passing, I received a box of his belongings that contained a fictional story and a screenplay he'd been working on. Because we'd been estranged most of my adult life, I hadn't known about his writing. However, after poring through the contents of the box, I recalled that in my teens he'd occasionally communicated with me through letters. And I'd responded in kind.


An additional surprising discovery that I pulled from the various creased, yellowing photographs and spiral-bound notebooks was a vaguely familiar orange weather-beaten pamphlet with a birthday poem I'd written for my father. I was probably six or seven when I took several pages of craft paper, folded them in half, and then bound them with knitting yarn looped through three holes made with a hole puncher. As with much of my childhood memories, I don't remember writing this poem, and I have only a hazy recollection of designing the card. But it apparently held special significance for my father given that he'd held on to it for decades.


Seeing that birthday card triggered my recall of another project I'd put together back in college when I was enrolled in a Children's Literature class. At the time, I knew I wanted to go into healthcare, so I designed an illustrated kiddie book about the digestive process using animated fruits and vegetables as my characters. I remember my instructor asking about the scientific soundness of my details. I'd done my research, and I was emphatic about its accuracy.


So here I am, decades later, contemplating the idea that my interest in writing started well before I knew what I wanted to do with my life. But I'm not yet done with the surprising discoveries. I recently unearthed a genealogical connection to a writing legacy that gives new meaning to the phrase "born to write." But as with any good suspense, I'm going to end this blog with a chapter break of sorts and leave you hanging. I'm hoping you'll return next month to learn the nature of this latest discovery because it's sure to wow you like it did me. For now, I'll provide this tantalizing hint:


"Lord we know what we are but know not what we may be." (From Shakespeare's "Hamlet" spoken by Ophelia.)


See you next month!

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Truth in Memoir

Since last month's post, I dug a little deeper into the differences between memoir and autofiction. My main concern was maintaining the truthfulness of memoir in spite of the absence of perfect recall. I was surprised to learn in my writing revision class that changing my characters' names introduces an element of fiction. Yet some reputable memoirists recommend doing so when needed for privacy concerns and protection from liability.


Depending on whom you talk to, you'll get diametrically opposed opinions on just how much liberty, if any, one can take in writing memoir. The concept of fictionalizing an autobiography (autofiction) is an intriguing one, especially in cases where memory recall is difficult. A key benefit with autofiction is the author can describe intimate or deeply personal experiences which might otherwise make them feel shamed by intolerant members of society. Since the emotional impact of a story may be more significant than its factual basis, autofiction appears to serve a purpose here. However, some writing experts believe autofiction should not be a separate genre.


I recently read We are Bridges: A Memoir wherein author, Cassandra Lane, imagined stories about her ancestors that represented her approximation of the environment in which they most likely existed. She was careful to weave into her narrative the fact that her recall was lacking or that certain specifics were unknown to her. Much of what she portrays as an unreliable narrator is speculation. Yet, her book title includes the word "memoir."


When it comes to writing about one's lived experiences, privacy is a priority for those still alive. I plan to stay with my first inclination to change names where necessary, prefaced with a disclaimer somewhere in the introductory pages. I'm not writing a revenge story, therefore, I'm not concerned about others being offended to the extent they'd want to sue me. However, I acknowledge that I have made and will make mistakes with my recall, and I plan to indicate when it might differ from that of others so the reader can trust that I'm delivering an honest product.


As a lifelong student, my perspective is not a rigid, hard-lined synopsis of everything I've digested. In fact, my most important take is that rules are meant to bend. To me, it's a matter of degrees. I'm writing my memoir as an example of journey, growth, and renewal that others may find useful for their lives now and in the future. My perceptions are my truth. If I stay true to myself, my story, and my readers' expectations for a resonating message, then I will be successful.

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When is Truth not Truth?

In a recent post, I mentioned I was finalizing an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress for submission to my revision writers class. While our focus at the time was creative nonfiction, our instructor commented on the current trend toward fictionalizing memoir and the efforts underway to reverse the trend. He asserted that whenever a fictional component is introduced, such as in the reconstruction of dialogue that took place years or even decades earlier, the memoir work should be deemed fiction. This statement threw me for a loop.


According to Roy Peter Clark's essay "How Truthful are Memoirs?" writers should not use "invented dialogue…. Any words in quotation marks must be the result of a) written documents such as trial transcripts, or b) words recorded directly by the writer or some other reliable source. Remembered conversations—especially from the distant past—should be rendered with another form of simple punctuation such as indented dashes."


The use of indented dashes –like this- for reported speech (vs. direct speech) aims to "relieve the burden of exactness," according to my instructor who also advised that the use of fictitious names for fear of retribution is unwarranted if the writer wishes to stay true to the genre of nonfiction. He suggested using an initial or a description of the person's natural status (e.g. "the short woman") or their role (e.g. "the physician") instead in those cases where a character's real name can or should not be used. My inclination had been to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the work to notify the reader of my use of made-up names and to convey transparency as to my standards and narrative methods. However, inaccurate dialogue, the class was told, holds greater potential for threats of lawsuits against the author than does the use of a real name.


Just when I was at the height of confusion, our class instructor introduced the concept of autofiction, short for autobiographical fiction. Defined as a work of truth that combines elements of autobiography with fiction in which the author is the main character, the writer recreates the world according to their experiences without altering or falsifying the facts. Thus, the story often reads as a first-person account of the author's life.


Curious to get additional feedback on the use of recalled information, I polled members of a writing association to which I belong to determine if others were under the same impression as I about writing memoir, specifically with regard to the use of quotation marks for dialogue when the author's recall is not exact but represents a best approximation and conveys the factual essence of what the quoted individual previously said. Most respondents agreed: As long as the author is writing their truth as they remember it, the work could be deemed memoir.


Hardly anyone has a photographic memory. Dialogue, backstory, and narration from events that happened decades earlier are often a bit fuzzy in their recollection. I still find the distinctions between memoir and autofiction somewhat ambiguous. For next month's post, I'll delve deeper into this subject. Stay tuned!

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Going There

As much as I love writing, I'm finding it difficult to sit down for more than an hour at a time to write my memoir. While the process is cathartic to an extent, dredging up lots of emotional content also leaves me spent. Unfortunately, I have significant blocks in my recall; but as I keep pressing ahead, repressed memory sneaks to the forefront of my consciousness, leaving me surprised to learn that some elements of my upbringing were worse than I initially thought.


Even after taking a break, I find myself falling back to old habits of procrastination because of my reluctance to dig deep and really "go there." Sometimes my recollections are so vivid I see certain scenes as though they were taking place right before my eyes. I recently attended a lecture via Zoom that addressed caring for the psyche when writing emotionally charged material in which the speaker suggested memoirists pay attention to emotional cues and take frequent breaks, even if doing so results in a shorter than usual writing session.


I feel less productive with shorter sessions; however, some of those resurfaced memories provide an almost exponentially greater amount of inspiration to write (which is manna for any writer). Another positive is the inherent therapeutic benefit as well as the growing ease with which I'm able to identify my true sentiments about the chaos that was my early years. I'm more comfortable with being honest about those feelings even when they reveal my own prejudices and vulnerabilities.


Truthfulness is a critical component of memoir writing. While none of us has had the perfect upbringing, it is in the discovery of and reckoning with my truth that I find motivation to keep writing and, ultimately, conclude with a satisfying transformation.

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An Ancestor's Point of View

Since my last blog post, I've been reflecting on the ramifications of systemic racism. Yesterday, I presented a personal essay via videoconference to a group of Mills College alumnae and their guests after enhancing my June post with details I recently learned through genealogy research. I provided a historical context to my comments on racism by incorporating a brief story about a Reward notice posted in a local paper back in 1837 for a runaway "Negro" male and his supposedly free "Mulatto" wife.


DNA technology confirmed the runaway woman to be my third great-grandmother. That same technology confirmed the White "owner" who posted the notice to be my third great-grandfather. Upon further exploration, I found additional White grandfathers of mine with multiple families, some with their White wives, and others with an enslaved Black (described as Mulatto) woman.


As I transported myself back to this painful time in history, I tried to imagine what the struggle of day-to-day existence might have looked like for my ancestors. I came up with multiple scenarios that undoubtedly have some basis in fact. I extended that wonder to imagining the methods enslaved people used to cope with their plight.


Folklore passed down from my ancestors can be found in the traditions of Louisiana Creoles. While the genesis of that lore is as grim as it is powerful, I've since incorporated it into my current novel-in-progress, much as I had done with my expanded blog post referenced above.


The opportunity to enrich my storytelling has also lit a fire beneath my smoldering desire to write my memoirs. Maybe, by presenting their tales through mine, I can do justice to the legacy of my ancestors.

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