By Elaine Neil Orr, 2012 Fall Conference Faculty Member, Master Class (Creative Nonfiction)
Look at yourself in the mirror. Even after years of knowing it, you’ve forgotten that the image is you but reversed. In a photograph, you see yourself as the photographer framed you. Even in an age in which everyone is taking her own picture with an iPhone, an age in which you can frame yourself, the image cannot capture you. There’s the pose, for example. Even in the “candid” shot, the photograph cuts out the world. What lies beyond the frame or in the interior self? There are “views” of yourself and your place in the world that you have not gotten yet and you will never get from the mirror or the photograph. You can get them on the page, in memoir. Through the alchemy of writing about the self, you emerge. I might say, by writing memoir you become yourself.
Memoir is akin to almost any art: there is more of life than you need to create it. The sculptor in wood cuts away to get at the shape he is looking for. The writer of fiction knows more about the character than she can put in the novel. The “more” of the life must be made into “less,” sculpted into a shape: to make an impression, to tell a story, to reveal. In memoir what is being revealed is a particular self in a particular world. Oddly enough, you have not yet really seen her even though she is you.
You may say: But I have no interesting stories. Nothing has happened to me. I don’t have enough “material” to carve away at.
Have you seen a bird fly? Have you dipped your foot into a cool river? Have you learned your parents are fallible? Did you see for yourself how children, in groups, will torture the weakest child? Have you fallen in love? Everything has happened. If you still feel you don’t have “enough”, try the method of another art: pottery making. Add more clay, work it into a shape, then begin trimming. Put paint on a canvas, enough to make it three dimensional; cut across the surface with a palette knife, leading the eye.
Here: the beginnings of a memoir.
Summer comes. I am exhausted after the teaching year, after the completion of a novel that was six years in the writing. I let myself rest and enter a lull. I spend cool June mornings on my back porch. I observe myself. What is that feeling in my throat that dips into my chest and tells me I am weary? What is that sensation going to my bones? I observe the world. Here arrive two male cardinals for their morning sport. I write them down in my journal, along with my bones, my tea, my pajamas. A chipmunk runs down the walk, sees me, halts its small self, leaps into air and bounds to the fence. I drink tea. I get the chipmunk onto the page. I rest my pen. My eyes rest so the colors of the world bleed one into the other. How long? I don’t know. I sense something. I look. At first I think it’s a huge cat, circling the base of the pine. But no. The tail, the nose. A fox on the hunt. In a moment, I am after it, waving my arms. But I am too late. Off he trots, the downward turned comma of a chipmunk clenched in his mouth. I have the beginning of a memoir. Who am I in that morning, between chipmunk and fox? What has happened? Life and death and everything between. Now what will I make of it?
Oddly enough, I may find myself better reflected in this drama of fox and chipmunk, observing myself observing them, than I do pouring over my childhood photographs. This is the route to memoir: a more circuitous route than mirror-gazing. Yes. The material still has to be shaped. That’s the fierce work of memoir: discovery and creation until you are there, on the page, new, regardless of your age.
ELAINE NEIL ORR will lead the Master Class in Creative Nonfiction at the NCWN 2012 Fall Conference. She writes memoir and fiction. She is an award-winning professor of world literature and creative non-fiction at N.C. State University. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Spalding University in Louisville. Her memoir, Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life, was a Book Sense Top-20 selection and nominee for the Old North State Award. Elaine has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the North Carolina Arts Council and is honored by Image as Artist-of-the-Month for her story, “Day Lilies.” Her memoir and short fiction have appeared in The Missouri Review, Shenandoah, Blackbird, and Prime Number, among other places, and she has three times been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her historical novel, A Different Sun, will be released by Penguin/Berkley Books in spring 2013. A daughter of missionary parents who was born and grew up in Nigeria, Elaine Orr writes out of the inheritance of two worlds.
Registration for the NCWN 2012 Fall Conference opens soon at www.ncwriters.org.