The Intersection of Poetry and Memoir

How many times have you heard someone say  When I write my memoir……  It seems that everyone has stories that are important to their identity and that have shaped who they are. It’s a natural, human desire to share stories with one another and probably one of the oldest rituals that we have as humans. We seems to instinctively shape our conversations in the form of a story. But shape our story in the form of a poem?  Now that’s where most people pause and back away.

Until you really consider how we remember things–in fragments and slivers, in glimpses of scenes. We remember some of an event but not all of the details. Maybe we need to reconstruct a conversation, maybe we’re not 100% sure of the year, but we know approximately how old we were.  It’s the emotion that we remember and the emotion that helps us to build the story. And nothing is better for conveying emotion than a poem.

My friend Barbara Morrison and I have given several presentations on the intersection of poetry and memoir. Barbara has a wonderful image that she borrows from a friend of hers who is also a writer. She talks about the “colander of memory” that works by holding little strands of memory, the ones that get caught when you tip the colander over. Those strands are the ones that you can immediately recall and offer you an easy entree into beginning your memoir.

And poetry acts in a similar fashion to a colander–capturing images, snippets of memory, and glimpses of feelings. The short lines of a poem may be the perfect vehicle to help you retell an important moment in your life. And once you capture the images in a poem, more memories will begin to flow, as if you have primed the pump. You may have a waterfall of memory and detail all triggered by a poem.

One of my favorite memoir poems is by Edward Hirsch. He tells the story of being a little boy and spending the night with his grandmother. Hirsch conveys the pure joy and surprise of a small child discovering the mystery of his grand mother’s apartment. I hope you enjoy the poem and will try your hand at one of your won.

My Grandmother’s Bed~from The Night Parade, 1989

How she pulled it out of the wall
To my amazement. How it rattled and
Creaked, how it sagged in the middle
And smelled like a used-clothing store.
I was ecstatic to be sleeping on wheels!

It rolled when I moved; it trembled
When she climbed under the covers
In her flannel nightgown, kissing me
Softly on the head, turning her back.
Soon I could hear her snoring next to me–

Her clogged breath roaring in my ears,
Filling her tiny apartment like the ocean
Until I, too, finally swayed and slept
While a radiator hissed in the corner
And traffic droned on Lawrence Avenue. . . .

I woke up to the color of light pouring
Through the windows, the odor of soup
Simmering in the kitchen, my grandmother’s
Face. It felt good to be ashore again
After sleeping on rocky, unfamiliar waves.
I loved to help her straighten the sheets
And lift the Murphy back into the wall.
It was like putting the night away
When we closed the wooden doors again
And her bed disappeared without a trace.

Sharing Stories by B. Morrison

I first met B. Morrison at the Maryland Writers Conference several years ago when she published her memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. She wrote her courageous account of being on welfare for a brief period in her life as a way of saying to the world, “Look, this awful situation can happen to anyone.  Even someone from a good home with an education.”  Last year we did a series of readings together where we both discussed the importance of looking back at our lives to move forward and to heal.

B. Morrison’s gentle approach to memoir writing is encapsulated in this quote from Othello:

“What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”
William Shakespeare

Why Memoir

I’ve been teaching memoir classes for quite a few years now. What I’ve found is that people want to share their stories for all kinds of reasons. They may want to leave a record for their families. They may have experienced a particular era, such as World War II or the 1960s counterculture, that people may later want to learn about. Or they may have gone through some other trial and believe that what they have learned may help others. Some simply want to discover the shape of their lives, to see their life as a sustained narrative rather than a collection of random events.

B. Morrison
B. Morrison

Often, people turn to memoir as a way to come to terms with a past trauma. Programs such as the Walter Reed Arts Program (www.ArtsAcrosstheMilitary.org) have shown that making art and music is often more effective for healing than medications or surgery, particularly for patients with brain injury or PTSD. Linda Joy Meyers explores this healing aspect of memoir in The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story (http://memoriesandmemoirs.com/2010/08/secrets-and-tips-write-a-powerful-memoir/).

While writing therapy is an established field, when I teach memoir writing I am not there to be a therapist or counselor. I am there to help them find their stories and to tell them. But inevitably I am also there as a recipient of their personal stories. As I read or listen to a participant’s story, I share their experience. I am a witness, but one with certain responsibilities.

Finding the story

I often work with people who want to write a memoir or have been asked by their families to create one, but they don’t know where to start. “My life is ordinary,” they might say, or “I don’t remember anything much.”

No matter how ordinary your life may seem, you have stories that will interest others. You may have to excavate them. You may have to shape them to make them more effective. You may have to get out the power tools.

To find the stories participants in my classes want to tell, need to tell, we do writing sprints. I offer a prompt, a suggested topic such as “Write about a time you fell down.” I leave it open-ended, so that the prompt could be interpreted as a physical fall or a metaphorical fall. Then we freewrite for a set period of time, five or ten minutes, just writing anything, whatever comes, without worrying about grammar or structure; just writing.

It’s surprising what comes out of these sessions. And such memories are like a magician’s rope of scarves: you start to pull and more comes out and more and then even more.

To shape stories we talk about story elements, such as characterization, setting, story structure. We work on including dramatic scenes. As one student put it, sometimes you need to take an axe and chop holes in your narrative that you can then fill with scenes.

A safe place

Memoir classes are different from other creative writing classes because people are sharing true and often painful experiences. It’s important for me as the teacher to create a safe space for such sharing.

One aspect of that safety is privacy. In the first session of every class I remind everyone that what is said in class stays there. It is fine to share what you’ve learned about writing, but nothing about the lives or experiences of others.

Another aspect is respect for each participant’s voice. We take turns critiquing work, going around the table, each person having their say. It is part of my role as the teacher to ensure that any criticism is constructive.

Even more important is that I make certain we critique the work and not the experience, not the person. For example, if a person’s memoir piece is about a past conflict with their mother, we would not say, “You should have felt this way or done that.” Instead we look at the writing and offer suggestions for making the piece stronger, perhaps by adding more sensory details or varying sentence structure.

I and the others in the class bear witness to the writer’s experience, without criticising the experience itself. However, though I work with adults rather than children, if I thought one of the participants were in danger, I would act. That is part of my responsibility as the teacher.

Healing

In a story the protagonist (who in a memoir would be yourself) goes a journey that starts in one place and ends up in another. In the best stories, it is actually two related journeys: one external and one internal. For example, in her wonderful memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells the external story of growing up with imaginative but irresponsible parents. Her internal journey is to learn to appreciate them for who they are and, as her mother says in the first chapter, to tell the truth about them.

Writing a memoir means digging into the emotions of a past event. Like the protagonist of any story, as we write about our experience we expose the inner wound that drives that particular story. It may or may not be healed, but at least it is heard.

Biography: B. Morrison is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara provides editing services and conducts writing workshops, including courses this fall through the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program and the Baltimore County Arts Guild. More information: http://www.bmorrison.com.

Links

Website: www.bmorrison.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/InnocentMemoir Blog: www.bmorrison.com/blog
Amazon Author Page: 
amazon.com/author/bmorrison
Goodreads Author Page: 
www.goodreads.com/author/show/1453712.B_Morrison
LinkedIn:
www.linkedin.com/in/barbaramorrison Twitter: bmorrison9
Pinterest:
http://pinterest.com/bmorrison9/

Practice: Holding On and Letting Go of Friends with Barbara Morrison

I first met Barbara Morrison at The Maryland Writers Conference in 2011 when her book, Confessions of a Welfare Mother, was published. Barbara’s memoir is full of heart and wisdom, and I was hooked from the moment  I started reading it.  For the past year, Barbara and I have read together all over Baltimore in a series we designed and call “Looking Back to Move Forward.” Welcome, Barbara!

Barbara Morrison
Barbara Morrison

Everything changed this year. The two volunteer activities that had taken up much of my time since I retired faded away. Even after retiring I had continued to do occasional jobs for the small company where I’d worked for 26 years, but it was time to make the final break.

By far the biggest change, though, came when a couple in my apartment complex moved away. More than friends, we had become family.

It started in a grocery store, where I ran into Eva and her 21-month-old son in front of the spinach. We’d seen each other around, so stopped to exchange greetings. Before we could say much, though, Alec started reaching for me, wanting me to pick him up.

“He never does that,” Eva said. “He’s terrified of strangers.”

I didn’t know it then, but she was pregnant and worried about finding someone to care for Alec while she and her husband were at the hospital. She and Noel came from overseas and had no family in this country, much less in our city. She needed someone to be a local grandmother.

I enthusiastically volunteered, and Alec started coming to spend one day a week with me. We built block towers and knocked them down, read books together, and went for walks. We danced to music; he was fascinated by my records and turntable, insisting on helping to remove records from their sleeves. He developed a deep attachment to Blue, my cat, and spent a lot of time communing with her.

Sometimes he came more often, when Eva needed to go to various appointments or desperately needed to sleep. A carseat made its way into my car and I sometimes drove him to and from the preschool he attended a couple of times a week. Then when the new baby came, Alec stayed with me for a few delightful days.

A-Blue-puzzle
Alec with puzzle and cat

During this time, a group of us in the small apartment complex—including Eva—became close. We began our own book club, went for walks, and did Qigong together. After the baby was born, Eva had a difficult recovery, and we took it in turns to provide meals and help out in other ways. Alec spent a lot of time with me, to give his mother a break.

For another year, Alec’s visits with me remained a regular thing. When Eva became ill, he came and stayed with me again. During her recovery, I ferried him about and took him on excursions. He loves trains, so I would sometimes take him on the light rail, up to the end of the line and back. Lulled by the movement, he would crawl onto my lap and fall asleep.

Then, this year, Noel’s residency ended, and he accepted a job out of state. Alec stayed with me during the move, and then I delivered him to his new home. I left the carseat with them that day.

As though that were the signal, our tight group of friends began to break up. Several people moved away, reluctantly, sadly.

My days now stretch in front of me. Oh, I have plenty to fill them, but sometimes I think about what has been lost, not just Alec and my adopted family, but the friends from my volunteer activities and my job whom I’m not likely to see much of anymore.

It’s not the first time that the things that filled my day suddenly disappeared. In August of the year I turned fifty, my last child left home; I sold the house; and my elderly dog died. None of these events were unexpected or even unwelcome, but I was surprised by the space that opened up in my days with no children to greet, no dog to walk, no grass to cut or rooms to paint.

Yet I have been happy in this apartment, and I found my lovely group of friends here. If this time is passing, as it seems to be, I have no doubt that the next phase will be equally fortunate.

David Hinton, who has studied and translated ancient Chinese poetry, talks of the Taoist concept of tzu-jan, the constant unfolding of things. Instead of seeing time as a linear narrative, the ancient Chinese thought of time as a constantly changing present, with things appearing and disappearing.

It is this way of seeing existence as waves washing over a persistent present that I am practicing now.

Note: Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.

Bio: Barbara Morrison, who writes under the name B. Morrison, is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara’s award-winning work has been published in anthologies and magazines. She conducts writing workshops, provides editing services, and (as the owner of a small press) speaks about publishing and marketing. She has maintained her Monday Morning Books blog since 2006 and tweets regularly about poetry @bmorrison9. For more information, visit her website and blog at http://www.bmorrison.com.