Small World (Without End): From Me-More to Memoir

Once upon a girl’s life, an English teacher wrote on the blackboard:

Large minds discuss ideas.
Average minds discuss others.
Small minds discuss themselves.

This filled the girl’s heart with trepidation. She closed her spiral notebook, where she’d been scribbling something small. She decided then and there that she would never discuss herself, especially on the page. Except in her diary. Or maybe in the stories or poems that filled her notebook, since she could hide herself inside characters or within the intricate folds of rhythms and rhymes, and no one would guess she was discussing herself. But as for the essays (she had not yet heard the word memoir) where she’d met herself coming and going, and sometimes found herself—well, those days were over. From now on, she would discuss ideas, or, on more average days, others. But never, never herself. She did not want to be a small mind.

Flash-forward a few years. The girl is in college, reading writers assigned by professors, when suddenly, wait a minute, there’s one—and there’s another—all sorts of writers discussing themselves! A few poets, of course, celebrating and singing themselves, but mostly essayists. Montaigne is talking about his bowel movements, for godssake. Is Montaigne a small mind? Maybe the English teacher had been wrong. Maybe, the girl speculated—though she did not yet recognize this thought-bump as speculation—maybe it takes a large mind to discuss one’s smallness largely. Maybe if one paid close attention, one could learn how.

Looking back on the young girl/woman that I was, all those decades ago, is one way to expand the microcosm of the first-person, present-tense self writing these words. By acknowledging the girl’s third-person she-ness, I step back in time, through what feels like a glacial distance. As I step back, the girl steps forward, out of memory and onto the page, ready to mix it up with a cast of other characters. She looks a little dazed from the time travel: Did someone mention memoir? The girl will go look it up. Well of course, she thinks, running her finger across the page of the Oxford English Dictionary she found open on the writer’s desk. Just as I thought: the word doesn’t have anything to do with me. Derived from Latin: memoria. The girl had never taken Latin; she’d opted for Chorus I and Chorus II. She loved being in the middle of all that sound, her voice only one ripple in a river of voices making the music she floated on all day.

Recognizing that you are only one character in a cast of characters is another way to expand the microcosm of self, another way to move a draft from Me-More to memoir. The cast might be composed of your high school buddies, the strangers you met on your backpacking trip across Canada, or, like the cast in my newest book, The Tribal Knot, dozens of ancestors and relatives stirring from their graves to interrupt your life and start an argument, most often with themselves. For no real-life character, the memoirist included, is a single self. Break open any life—your first grade teacher’s, your ex-husband’s, your own—and multiple selves will spill out, each with its own story. Let them all onto the page and watch what happens. In Me-More, the mother is your mother and only your mother, plain and simple, always and forevermore. In memoir, she might also be the shivering child balancing on a three-legged milking stool beside her father, or the young wife burying the stillborn child who died a decade before you were born.

Before you were born. Imagine. In This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death, Harold Brodkey writes, “True stories, autobiographical stories, like some novels, begin long ago, before the acts in the account, before the birth of some of the people in the tale.” The memoir can expand the microcosm of self by including the forces that shaped that self (ancestors, culture, history, etc.) and even by imagining a future that will continue beyond that self. The timeline need not travel only in one direction, nor be parsed out in equal segments. One hundred years can pass in one sentence; one sixty-second event can require sixty pages to enact. The timeline, scope, and shape of memoir is expansive and elastic, capable of collapsing into the most microscopic element on one page, and then stretching backwards or forwards thousands of years on the next page.

This means, of course, that a memoir cannot include everything important that happened to us. A memoir is not an accounting. Thank goodness we do not have to account for our lives. As William Zinnser writes in Inventing the Truth, “Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line . . . omitting nothing significant, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it.” In memoir, what we choose to ignore is as important as what we choose to include. By being ruthless in what we ignore, by assuming the life and leaving out most of it, we can begin to see the shape of what is left and to imagine the design or texture lying beneath the surface events, places, people, and facts of our lives.

Wait. I see a hand in the audience. “Yes, young lady. Do you have a question? Go ahead. Yes, I’ve read Montaigne. Yes, I know what you mean. Really? I had a teacher like that, too. Let me repeat the question so the audience can hear: The young lady wants to know if it’s small-minded to write about yourself.”

(At this point, the seasoned memoirist pauses. Considers. Reconsiders. She starts to sweat. Small mind? Quotations flood her mind. Simone Weil: “The sin in me says I.” Sin? Isn’t that a little harsh? Besides, didn’t Muhammad say, “Whoever knows himself knows God”? I want to know God, but isn’t there an easier way? I’m with Goethe on that score: “If I knew myself, I’d run away.”)

The memoirist now addresses the young woman: That’s an excellent question, one that each writer must answer for herself. All memoir is, to some degree, an examination of self, but this doesn’t mean that the self must be the figure on the examining table. As Annie Dillard suggests in “To Fashion a Text,” “The personal pronoun can be the subject of the verb: ‘I see this, I did that.’ But not the object of the verb: ‘I analyze me, I discuss me, I describe me, I quote me.’” On the other hand, many memoirs fail because the I is missing altogether—not necessarily as a character on the page, but as a voice, a presence guiding the text. The I in a memoir can reveal itself as “eye.” Eye, as in lens. The lens through which the private self is reflected, refracted, and enlarged. Though a memoir may be personal, it is never private. Though it may begin in a small space, it enlarges to include room for the reader to enter.

I see by your expression that I haven’t answered your question, so let me just say this: If you encourage memoir’s elastic, expansive nature, surprising things will happen–some welcome, some not. Sometimes (for me, the sometimes usually occurs in the heat of writing, that moment of discovery) the memoir suddenly breaks, like a brittle rubber band. Exactly at the place where you‘d expected it to hold. You know, that important part: the significant scene you planned down to the last detail; the plot that twisted so elegantly in your mind; the big idea you were sure held the whole story together. Snap! Hey, you think, what gives?

At that moment, what gives—or must give, if the memoir is to survive—is me. The small mind of intention, direction, coercion, the me that imagines it can wrestle lived experience to the ground, pummel it until it gives up its secrets. Or the small mind that believes memoir is just a net that captures the breathing animal—of a person, place, time or event. Memoir has nothing to do with capturing. Capturing is impossible. Life is made up of blood, skin, nails, lemons, turquoise beads, sweat. Writing is made out of words. Seen this way, all writing, especially memoir, is a failure when held up against the real thing, the life. That’s fine with me. If it’s true, as Montaigne says, that “[E]ach man bears the entire form of man’s estate,” I don’t want the job. “The entire form of man’s estate” sounds like an awful lot to bear. But small world, without end? Sure. Sign me up. I’ll give it my best shot.

Rebecca McClanahan’s tenth book, The Tribal Knot, a multi-generational memoir, has just been released by Indiana University Press. She has also published five books of poetry and a suite of essays, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, winner of the Glasgow prize in nonfiction. She has been twice awarded the Carter Prize from Shenandoah, received the Raab Award in Nonfiction from Santa Barbara Community College, and was an AWP Award finalist for her unpublished manuscript, Coming of (a Certain) Age in New York City. In addition, she was the recipient of a Nonfiction Literature Fellowship from New York Foundation for the Arts, literature fellowships in nonfiction and poetry from North Carolina Arts Council, the Wood Prize from Poetry magazine, and a P.E.N. Syndicated Fiction Award. Her work was selected for the Pushcart Prize anthology, The Best American Poetry series, The Best American Essays and The Best American Essays College Edition (five of her essays are listed as “Notable” in the Best American Essay series). She has been a MacDowell Colony Resident and a Bread Loaf Scholarship recipient. McClanahan received the North Carolina Governor’s Award for Excellence in Education. Her three books of writing instruction include Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, which is used as a text in numerous writing programs. McClanahan currently teaches in the MFA program of Queens University and graces the Rainier Writing Workshop with her joyful presence.