Lately, I’ve found myself awash in waves of nostalgia, warped by the fog of years. I began writing this on my birthday, sitting alone in a hotel bar, soaking in a beer-bolstered Aussie’s insistent conversation several seats away. Normally I’d have been irritated by forcefulness with which he asserted his sense of self on the room at large, but it was a good day and the raucous regaling felt àpropos for whatever reason. A short while before I took up my notebook, my parents had gone back to their room, leaving me, per my request, to drink in the atmosphere. Behind the Aussie, at the nearest table, a demur older couple spoke in veritable whispers. The bartender, in her overtly traditional dress shirt, black vest, and bowtie smoothly slid in and out of various groups, her comments offering a tempo to the room. So many stories. It lulled me as much as it invigorated me. I felt at home, nestled in the words of strangers. Yet I wasn’t really listening to them. The conversations coalesced into calming white noise, covering my conscious mind and letting it drift. I thought about my childhood, the birthdays that brought me to that one.
I don’t remember many of them, or much of the life led between them. The surreality of that had struck me before, that I could have forgotten so much of my own life. It unnerved me how frail my memories were, how malnourished. Perhaps that’s why I’d been speaking with my parents about our old house in California, reflecting on how there were only a handful of spaces in it that I recalled. It became a corny sitcom parody after a while: I’d say where one was in relation to the other and they’d correct me at the punchline. But I could’ve sworn that your bedroom was at the top of the stairs…There was a hall? Seriously? What do you mean we didn’t have a sitting room? The bathroom? I don’t remember…I can’t recall. How much have I lost? How accurate is what I retain? I tell the story about the fireplace. I know the fireplace. There was an elaborate and brilliantly successful Santa Claus hoax when I was four, involving hooves on the roof, leather gloves, soot, and mostly eaten cookies. I get its location right, but I wonder…how much has the story changed with each retelling? They say that memories solidify with rumination and visitation. Each look back etches the image deeper, enhancing and strengthening synaptic pathways. Each look back recreates the memory of who we were and our understanding of who we are.
As a child, I didn’t stop. There was too much. Too much everything. Energy. Time. World. I had to keep going. I couldn’t stop and look back at the footprints when the path pulled me forward. So I left them to the wind, allowing my past to be swept away unexamined. It grieves me. I feel like every footstep, every moment is a lost self, a child abandoned to the wilderness of time. Yet it wasn’t until recently that I’d even noticed. Only during the last few years have I reflected and contemplated on events as they came and after they’d gone. Maybe if I journaled more it would help, or would have. I never really managed to maintain a diary, as the concept turned out to be more enticing than the act. I’ll record everything! That’s what people do, right? I’ll be so deep…memorable. I’ll save me forever…what should I write? Maybe…um…I wonder what’s on TV… I bought at least a dozen diaries from age eight to fourteen, and not a one has more than ten scattered, forced, and meager entries. Not only was I not yet a writer or even intrigued by the profession, I was too explosively extroverted in youth to manage the thoughtful, or at the very least patient, dedication requisite for self-chronicling. I’ve always wondered how others managed it, and whether or not it really is the key to keeping ahold of the past. For many memoirists, that seems to be the case.
The memoir is a tricky subgenre of nonfiction, made mischievous by its flexibility. How honest an author is, how creatively they stretch their literary license is up to them (though some experts disagree). Tug too hard, or take it too far, turning verifiable facts into falsehoods, and you might be at risk of relocation to the fiction section. Quote too much direct dialogue and some literati will eye you with suspicion for no memory is that perfect, while others will argue for the necessary evil. Every memoir comes with a choice, a question of how to balance what happened with what makes for a compelling story. Even the decisions on what to leave out of a book critically impact its form and honesty, adding contrast like the negative space in a painting, drawing attention to what is presented, or even deliberating highlighting what is not.
I’m guessing you’ve started to wonder what the hell this tumbling turn down Memory Mountain has to do with literary analysis at large. My point, as it so often and unsurprisingly is the case, is buried in a question: How do we translate the characters of real life into writing and what becomes of them when we do? The obvious answer is through the aforementioned memoir. But now we’re back to the issue of veracity: How do we know a memoir is accurate? They’re inherently subjective, and even good memories are biased by perspective, the passage of time, the number of recitations of any given memory, and the locations of magically meandering hallways and sitting rooms. So let’s say we accept the natural stain of subjectivity. What about the shoddy, shifty ways of the mind, which misplace and lose crucial details of everyday life? How do we combat that? Documentation is a good start, bringing us to, hopefully, more than half-complete Dear Diary entries. We can also look to art, photos, journals, letters, recordings, and phone calls to others to consult with and/or argue about what happened. These are solid starts, though how to compile the wealth of a life into something sensical and readable is another challenge entirely.
What lens will you tell the story through? What will the focus be? Full autobiography? Semi-biographical autobiography? An attempt to commemorate a career or occasion? A way to work out unresolved issues? A way to say what you never could? The options are overwhelming, which may be part of the reason why the authors who not only write them, but draw them, are so impressive. Over the course of the next week or so, I’ll be examining parts of the works of three such writer-artists (to pick at even one of them as a whole would be to either inaccurately quantify it as something it’s not, or to drive myself batty). To begin, I’ll look at Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, its rendering of the self, the father, and its attempt to understand both.