This explains so much!

[T]rauma-based accounts are often private salvage operations. Rather than assuming continuity, they must, at the deepest level, reflect and somehow compensate for its destruction. For a trauma is a rupture, a break … whether brought on by a single experience or, more commonly, the infliction of a repeated injury that cannot be integrated; the normal continuum of growth is violated. The impulse for expression is different at the very core. (p. 145)

It’s no stretch … to see the work of these memoirists as a purposefully undertaken repetition, the goal being comprehension and exorcism: psychological control… [T]he impulse to represent the overcoming of the wound. (p. 146)

The pain that leads to breakage is n ot only intense, it is very often situation based. Something happened–something explosive. The narrator’s assumptions about the world were shattered, bringing about collapse or some other severe reaction. Eventually–and the memoir itself, the writing of it, is a testament to this–some understanding or acceptance was achieved. (p. 146)

This is not a naive narrator. Her suffering has made her a philosopher, a student of fate, chance, and the complex us/them psychology of the outsider. (p. 171 about Lucy Grealey’s The Autobiography of a Face.)

On truth in memoir:

No one who reads memoir believes – how could they? – that exchanges happened exactly as set down,  or that key events have not been inflected to achieve the necessary effect. The question is only how much departure is tolerable and at what point does the modified recollection turn into fiction?

My own answer has always been that the memoirist writes from a subjective provocation, following an imperative to express the true dynamics of some part of the past. The distilled experience then exists as a specifically contoured shape, the stored sensation of “how it was.” This is what the memoirist seeks to reproduce. As the poet Stephane Mallarme insisted, “Paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces. Exactly right. And in capturing the effect the need for accuracy is absolute. The writer must represent as faithfully as possible what memory has shaped inside–memory and feeling…

Distortion is inevitable, permissible, so long as it is in service of the truth that overrides the literal sequence of events… This is not to say that some memorists might not steer in the directino of effect, to up the intensity or to confer a more pleasing outline. They ask: Who will ever know the difference? Here I would only say that honesty of tone is a hard-won quality and that good readers are highly sensitive to its nuances. A memoirist takes an enormous risk when she invents or distorts for effect. False emotions have a hollow sound, and while trust is easily shaken, it is very hard to regain. (pp. 142-143)

– From The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, by Sven Birkets. Greywolf Press, 2008.


Originally published on WordPress on Aug. 31, 2009