The Art of the Moment Memoir

Image: exploding firecrackers
“Firecracker Freeze Frame” by rjsteih is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Today’s post is excerpted from We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class by Beth Kephart (@BethKephart).


There are many ways to think about memoir, many categories, classifications, taxonomies. Family dysfunction memoirs. Medical memoirs. Trauma memoirs. Food memoirs. Nature memoirs. Coming-of-age memoirs.

Here are a few others.

The Brand Memoir: the name precedes the story

Think of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Or Shoe Dog: A Memoir of the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight.

Or Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey by Carly Fiorina.

Each author was famous for something else before they entered the realm of bestsellerdom.

The Headline Memoir: the book can be summarized with a single sexy sentence

“A daughter’s tale of living in the thrall of her magnetic, complicated mother and the chilling consequences of her complicity,” pretty much sums up Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game.

And even though Tara Westover’s Educated is a very long book, it is a volume easily contained by this single sentence: “A coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.”

Likewise, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance was promoted with these words: “A probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class through the author’s own story of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town.”

Headline stuff. Movie plot stuff. All right there at a glance.

The Journey Memoir: the author sets out on an actual adventure

Along the way, the author might also take a journey into herself. My favorite of these is Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, which sends the author back to his childhood home of Ceylon so that he might learn of the family that shaped him.

Mary Morris’s Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone also fits neatly into this bucket—a book that takes Morris through Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala so that she might begin “to overcome the struggles that have held her back. By crossing new boundaries, she learns to set frontiers for herself as a woman.”

The Reflection Memoir: to deepen one’s understanding of the greater world and the private self

I think of Anna Badkhen living near the Senegalese port of Joal to navigate “a time of unprecedented environmental, economic, and cultural upheaval with resilience, ingenuity, and wonder.”

Also There Will Be No Miracles Here, where Casey Gerald offers the “testament of a boy and a generation who came of age as the world came apart—a generation searching for a new way to live.”

And of course, Between the World and Me, which finds Ta-Nehisi Coates engaged in work that pivots “from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for a son.”

The Art of the Moment Memoir

And then there is what I’ve come to think of as the Art of the Moment memoir—work in which the moments themselves (and the way they are arranged) are of primary importance and intrigue.

I think of the quilt of memories, thoughts, and moments set down by Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

I think of Bough Down, by Karen Green, whose small texts and images capture the immediacy of grief in the aftermath of a husband’s suicide.

I think of The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, which chronicles, in non-chronological fashion, her daily life and thoughts.

I think of writers who understand that our lives are lived moment by moment, and that our art is what we make of the moments going by.

Holding onto the moment

All writers of memoir must ultimately possess the ability to artfully render the moment. To apply wonder, mystery, or deep seeing to an instant in time. To explore the familiar or ponder the unfamiliar. To ask a question and suggest an answer. To liberate curiosity, to mark a memory, to keep one. The range of subject-matter possibilities is endless, as Brian Dillon, in his book Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction, reminds us:

On the death of a moth, humiliation, the Hoover Dam and how to write; an inventory of objects on the author’s desk, and an account of wearing spectacles, which he does not; what another learned about himself the day he fell unconscious from his horse; of noses, of cannibals, of method; diverse meanings of the word lumber; many vignettes, published over decades, in which the writer, or her elegant stand-in, described her condition of dislocation in the city, and did so blithely that no one guessed it was all true; a dissertation on roast pig; a heap of language …

How do we keep those moments? How do we hold them in place until we are ready for them? How do we keep our senses on alert?

Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, knowing is not just a talent or a predilection; it is a discipline. The tool of the trade can be a diary or journal or notebook.

You might think of the notebook, as Lydia Davis does, as a kind of externalized mind. “My journal as my other mind, what I sometimes know, what I once knew,” she writes, in Essays: One. “I consult my other mind and I see that although I do not know a certain thing at present, I once knew it; there it is in my other mind.”

Or you might share Patti Smith’s experience, as a notebook being the home to endless variations of the same paragraphs. From M Train: “Then there are the scores of notebooks, their contents calling—confession, revelation, endless variations of the same paragraphs—and piles of napkins scrawled with incomprehensible rants.”

Or maybe the notebook you keep is home to an implacable I, in true Joan Didion fashion. From “On Keeping a Notebook”:

But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

When I was a child I kept a diary of sorts—blank books the pages of which I waterlogged with watercolor, then wrote into the ripples the starts of lavender poems.

When I was a young woman I began diary-ing the words collected from the writers who had used them—Ben Fountain’s draggled and furze and logy; Patricia Hampl’s hieratic and vatic; Alan Bennett’s equerries and chivvied and glabrous; Annie Dillard’s apostatized and thigmotropic.

When I wasn’t well for a long time, I kept a diary thickened with quotations from architects, designers, builders, as if they could speak for me, my mood, my quest, and for that period of time, they did:

“When we build, let us think that we build forever.” (John Ruskin)

“We could speak of every project as if were an unfinished love affair: it is most beautiful before it ends.” (Aldo Rossi)

“Should we not try to find our own style?” (Karl Friedrich Schinkel)

I have diaries that record the making of my stories, and diaries that started with the hope of making a story, with admonitions to myself, which were not heeded: “Not style, voice. Not voice, story. Not story, but an existential blast. What alive is. What losing is. Why the word that keeps bleeding is desperate.”

What happened to that story? How did I lose the tail of my own desperation?

And I have photographs, I should say, because I think this is important, thousands of photographs, that keep my seeing intact until I find my pen and my journal and layer in, practice, write again, improve the words. A few videos that help me track the movements of a moment. A few audio clips of necessary sound.

There are no diary rules, but there is, here, a suggestion: That our seeing, our hearing, our smelling, our tasting, our feeling, our knowing, our arts of our moments will be sharper, truer, more alive when we have a journal of some kind nearby, a place that marks the spot, the mood, the moment.

I’m looking or listening so that I might somehow record this, you might say to yourself, and because you have entrusted yourself with that responsibility, because a pen or paper or iPhone Notes or the iPad or a typewriter await you, you are naturally going to work harder at seeing and hearing. You are going to extend your pause. You are going to ask yourself questions. You are going to watch those rooks and wonder, indeed, what the word is for that dark symphony of wings. You are going to enter into a moment so that you might raise it up to language and to story when the time is finally right.


Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class by Beth Kephart.

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