Faye Rapoport DesPres

Guest Blogger Michael Steinberg: The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir

Note from Faye: In the actual Creative Nonfiction Course I’m teaching this semester, we have a guest reader/writer visiting the class this week. After all, it’s no fun if students (or blog readers) get only my perspective, right? So in that spirit, the blog post for week 4, which focuses on the role of memory and imagination in creative nonfiction, is written by well-known writer/teacher Michael Steinberg, who is also the founding editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre. Steinberg’s award-winning memoir is titled Still Pitching, and you can read his illuminating blog here.

You can also read an expanded version of the blog post below at Solstice Literary Magazine, here.

And now, here’s Michael Steinberg.

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 7.08.19 PMThe Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir
What distinguishes {literary writing}. …from journalism, is that inherent {in a literary text} is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.
–Eudora Welty

Contrary to what we’ve been taught, imagination is not exclusively about making things up. That’s “invention.” And to my mind, there’s an important distinction to be made between the two. Fiction writer David Malouf makes that case when he says, “Imagination doesn’t simply mean making things up; it means being able to understand things from the inside—emotions, events, and experiences that you haven’t actually been through but that you will have experienced by the time you’ve got them onto the page.”

Malouf is describing the difference between telling or recreating a story the way it happened–if that’s even possible–and transforming that story into (for us nonfiction writers) a fully rendered, fully imagined, memoir. And that transformation is an important part of what writing a literary memoir is all about.

I won’t tell you the story the way it happened. I’ll tell it the way I remember it.
–Pam Houstton

In effect, Pam Houston is implying that memory is an unreliable narrator. Hard for any of us to disagree on that one. We also know that imagination alters, even rearranges, the way we remember things. Yet, while being unreliable, I believe that memory is not necessarily untruthful.

Let me explain.

In “Trading Off,” a personal essay/memoir I wrote some years ago, I began a pivotal scene by describing the first encounter, at age fifteen, that I had with Jack Kerchman, a perverse high school baseball coach.

Note: In describing the encounter, I’ll be switching back-and-fourth between two personae; myself, the adult writer and the young boy (a version of the adult writer at age fifteen). One thing you need to know in advance is that, at fifteen, the young boy wanted more than anything to pitch for his high school baseball team.

Here’s a brief overview of that scene.

On the first day of the young boy’s freshman year of high school, Coach Kerchman sent a message to the boy’s homeroom teacher, requesting (demanding, really) that she send him down to his office immediately. From the stories he’d heard, the boy already knew that if he wanted to make the team the coach would be the gatekeeper, the most formidable obstacle standing between him and his goal. That morning, the now frightened, anxious kid went to the coach’s office wondering why he’d been summoned and not knowing quite what to expect.

Here’s what’s true. The young boy did indeed meet with that coach. The coach stood in the middle of that cubbyhole size basement room wearing only a jock strap, socks, and a baseball hat. Who could forget that image? It’s also true that the young boy noticed a jumble of football equipment–helmets, shoulder pads, jerseys, and cleats–randomly piled up on a dusty wooden shelf. And it’s true that the young boy was apprehensive, while at the same time, hoping that the coach had summoned him there to invite him to spring baseball tryouts.
Instead, the coach informed the boy that he’d chosen him to be an assistant football manager, a demeaning job, the bitterly disappointed kid knew, one that essentially boiled down to him being a glorified water boy and stretcher-bearer. To this, I will add that it was the beginning of a tumultuous four-year relationship between the hard-nosed coach and the single-mindedyoung boy.

Well, it’s been almost five decades since that encounter. How accurate is my (the adult writer) memory? I do recall what Kerchman’s office looked like, and I vaguely remember what it smelled like. And of course, I had to reconstruct the dialogue. But who knows if the hodgepodge objects the younger “I” saw were stacked up on the shelves in the exact state of chaos that he described?

Among the many other things I don’t recall are the following; did the coach call the boy out of class on the first day of school? Or, did this encounter happen sometime during the first or second week? Or, maybe the boy initiated the visit on his own. But would it have made a difference if any of these speculations were true? Yet, given all those unknowns, I maintain that I did not “invent” the scene. What’s authentic here is the numbing humiliation and despair that kid was feeling at that moment.

And for as long as I write (and tell) the story of that encounter, I’ll continue to claim that this is the way I remember it.

Whether a piece of creative nonfiction succeeds or fails has a great deal to do with the writer’s skill and ability to shape his or her experience into a satisfying artistic whole.”
–Annie Dillard

Some personal narratives, we know, are about the writer’s search for identity. And in “Trading Off,” that was my original intent. Though the narrative was based on real people, events, and situations, I quickly discovered that writing about those real people, events, and situations–was my biggest obstacle.

I say this because I originally wrote the piece not to retell the literal story, but (hopefully) to gain a better understanding of a larger matter, something that had been nagging away at me for years. In what ways, I wondered, did the younger narrator’s relationship with that coach influence the adult writer (and writing teacher) he subsequently became?

But this is as much a matter of craft as it is a personal inquiry. Annie Dillard describes this process as “fashioning a text.” Because, in order to transform that query into a convincing narrative, I had to fully imagine what the young boy might have been thinking and feeling; things like his confusions, his determination, and his disappointments; and, especially his willingness to put up with the humiliations this hard-ass coach routinely inflicted on him. And since I‘m not that fifteen year-old kid anymore, the only way I could articulate and express what it felt like to be him was to get inside his head (and heart).

Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story puts it another way. “What’s important is not what happened to the writer?” she writes.” What matters is the larger sense that the writer makes of what happened. And for this an imagination is required.”

What Gornick and Dillard are getting at, I think, is that in writing a literary memoir, the materials and circumstances of one’s life are not the central story; they’re the raw materials that writers (selectively) must use in order to transform, to shape, the narrative into a fully formed literary work.

And I agree with both. Because the truth, as V. S. Pritchard says, is that ” {it’s} all in the art. You get no credit for the living.”