Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Work of Art

Last week a few things finally crystallized for me. Writing a memoir from recall is very tricky stuff. It's a genre unto itself and raises untold questions from accuracy to ethics. Fortunately my writing group began the process of making this kind of writing possible for me to do. Then, quite by chance, last week I stumbled upon a little workshop at Portland State led by Debra Gwartney. I had met her along with her significant other, poet/writer Barry Lopez about a year ago at another event. I was pleased she remembered me. "I was the dude who stood up and read a poem," I reminded her. "Of course," she smiled.
Most of the other folks that showed up were writing memoirs about their father's WWII experiences. And then there was a woman whose 92 year old father, a Holocaust survivor, was about to visit her. Her life has been shaped as metaphor for the survival of her father. Powerful stuff. There was also a woman who was forced to move many times throughout her life. She never revealed why but she is a quilt maker and houses keep showing up in her work.
So, my process has become one of writing a draft to get as much as I can remember down. Then go back and develop these simple one dimensional stories into complete scenes. When I asked Debra about the use of quotations, and mentioned that it's very difficult to recall just what was said, she reminded me that it's OK to embellish the remarks a bit. "Do you think every quote in Angela's Ashes is just as it was said?"
She then added that memoir writing is a work of art, and that the scenes and the dialogue make it that way.
That reminded me of a time when I couldn't sleep some years ago when I lived alone. I turned on the TV about three in the morning and caught the last minute of some program about to end. There on the screen was a wise old figure who looked like a cross between King Neptune and R Crumb's Mr. Natural. A voice off screen askes his if he has any final thought on the secret to a happy, healthy, fulfilled life. The old man smiles and says, "Yes; think of your life as a work of art."

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