While reading Eileen Garvin’s How to be a Sister over summer vacation, I found myself paying more attention to literary elements than the story itself. I’m far enough along in my memoir now to obsess on the minutiae. The details nourish my addiction of the last two years.
Her memoir, about her childhood spent as witness to the chaotic impoliteness of her sister’s autism, appropriately starts each chapter with a quote from Emily Posts’ etiquette books. I’ve thought about employing expert quotes or wise sayings at the start of each of my chapters, but haven’t yet discovered a device so “perfect” as Garvin’s.
As I read I also looked at verb tense. I’ve been writing my memoir in almost exclusively past tense, as Mishna Wolff did with her engaging memoir as a white girl growing up in an all African-American neighborhood in Seattle, I’m Down. But the memoir I recently read for book club, The Possibility of Everything by Hope Edelman was almost exclusively written in the present tense. I thought it helped bring the reader into the action, but it also took me until about the third chapter to accept that we were going to relive real events from the past as if it were happening now. Maybe I was just hung up on it because I’ve committed to past tense, but it felt like a warping of the fourth dimension.
I couldn’t even figure out where to look in my style guides for advice here: when you write about a real person who is still with us, is it important that the reader know they still exhibit their personality traits, or just that they did at the time of the event? For example, the events are written in past tense, but then character traits that they still exhibit are in present tense. “Wendy borrowed my favorite blouse without asking; she struggles with personal boundaries.” Does the reader care or appreciate the difference if I use “struggled” instead of “struggles?” Will my editor?
I also distracted myself with the use of an extra return to separate scenes within a chapter, versus using ***. We never covered that in any of my English or writing classes, or if we did I didn’t retain it. This one seems to be up to the editor and many disagree on which is best. Which one do you use?
While reading Sister I also thought about story arc and ending. When writing memoir, the arc has already happened, its’ not something a memoirist creates (unless you want to get chewed out by Oprah). To me, arc is like Michelangelo carving a statue—the story is already there buried within the amorphous slab of stone. The writer’s job is to free it by painstakingly chipping away and discarding the irrelevant details, clinging to the inherent vision and creativity, leaving the masterpiece that was there all along.
Garvin’s arc revolves around her changing feelings and experience with her sister as she grows from young sister to responsible adult. In my memoir, my story arc is my transition from a 25-year old career-driven, neurotic, divorced scientist unsure of what she wants from life to the 40-year old slightly less neurotic married writer and mother of twins and Egg Mama to another set of twins.
Each arc has an endpoint. Even the best of books must end. Those written about discrete events in the past have an obvious natural end point.
The Possibility of Everything covers only the length of a week or two: a family vacation to Belize where two parents desperately attempt to exorcise their toddler’s disruptive imaginary friend. In this case, coming home from vacation is a natural endpoint, but the author could have easily chosen to end at a different point in time.
But many memoirs are not event-based. The surviving characters often move on to new adventures that just don’t appear in the story, like Garvin’s and mine, where everyone involved is still plugging along on their individual trajectories. I won’t give away Garvin’s ending (you’ll have to buy the book), but like mine, the reader understand that just because the book ends at a specific point in time, every character is still building the story in real time. Margaret still lives in a group home in Spokane and Garvin still struggles with her role and relationship in Margaret’s future. In my memoir, Ruby and Raven are tweens turning into women and I’m uncertain of my role and relationship in their future.
Fifteen years of pioneering discovery and change make up the chapters of my manuscript, but where it ends is, so far, still up to me. Something really dramatic and interesting could happen next week that would necessitate another chapter or two. I can see why I’ve been feeling like a manuscript is never really “done.” But I guess that’s why several authors, like Augusten Burroughs and Anne Lamott, have written more than one memoir.
Is that why we Americans are so in love (and hate) with memoir and reality TV—because we as voyeurs get to participate temporarily in other people’s lives as if we were really there, but without all the tangible family baggage, responsibility, and court dates?
I wasn’t too distracted by writing mechanics to feel Garvin’s story. I think she does an impressive job of bravely and honestly portraying her feelings of shame, frustration, and bewilderment about her sister’s disorder and its impact on her life and the lives of her family. I sympathized with her loss of a carefree childhood and a closer relationship with her mother, growing up embarrassed and jaded by her sister’s unpredictable and exhausting behavior. I also admired that Garvin avoided a tone of self-pity or angst that a less mature writer might have fallen into.
I hope that by obsessing over the tiny details of each word and sentence, like Tom Robbins and Priscilla Long, I might bring quality and candor to my memoir, like those that have come before me.