Writing the Quiet Memoir
July 20, 2018 § 15 Comments
By Ann V. Klotz
On the Upper West Side, over brunch, Marcia and I talk about Educated, Tara Westover’s recent memoir. We are awed by the narrator’s resilience. We marvel at how family norms define us and ponder how much we can’t know is “normal” if we have nothing else to compare it with. We wonder what other horrors and atrocities brilliant Westover may have omitted, what she may have blocked. I mourn Westover’s mother’s inability to attend to her daughter, even as I acknowledge the fact that the mother couldn’t keep herself safe.
Over sausage, we talk about the coming summer—my plan to organize my memoir, by tacking the titles of scenes up under headings on the walls of a purchased, but not yet renovated, small house at the foot of the driveway of the house I still call my mother’s house, though she has been gone for eight years. It may be years before we renovate the new, small house—other projects take precedence, so I decide I might as well use it—when else will I have an empty house to play in? I imagine carrying my coffee cup and my resolve down the driveway from our house to the new house’s empty rooms. I’m hoping a new space will help me make sense of the jumble I’ve assembled. More than 300 pages of disconnected bits, a mish-mash. I’m determined to finish a draft this summer.
“My book is called a quiet memoir—nothing really dramatic. It’s a bunch of scenes organized around the summer months in Eagles Mere. About my family. Sort of a collage,” I explain. No hurling a hiking boot down a mountain, no cruel and abusive family to flee. The energy of my story is smaller.
Do I feel inadequate that I am not Cheryl Strayed or Tara Westover? Some days. Still, I have been working on this collection of fragments and essays for three years now. “It’s not a memoir at all,” a writing teacher counseled. “It’s a collection.” First, that discouraged me, but it’s true. More than a century is a lot to tackle in a narrative arc, especially since I missed the first forty-five years, having not yet been born.
Eagles Mere’s architecture is also a mish-mash. Over many decades, architects fashioned houses full of whimsy. Gothic and Queen Anne homes pose, elegant, next to spacious shingle cottages. Mansard roofs, arched windows, clapboard, board and batten, steeply pitched eaves cohabit. Decorative trim serves no function but to delight and evokes another era. New houses bloom on lots, made to look old. Many original 19th century cottages expand over time. Eclectic turrets and tiny paned windows and wrap around porches make each home distinct. These are houses devoted largely to leisure, to relaxation, but houses, too, in which families expand and contract. My computer often shares a table with a kerosene lamp, artifacts from different eras–a hodge-podge. Right now, my memoir reminds me of this unruly architectural mélange, this mingling of old and new, lots of unrelated bits to shape into an appealing structure.
Marcia, my brunch pal, is a Broadway producer; she tells me about a theatre project in development—a story within a story that has moved her. She notes that, for her, good stories always center on the conflict the main character must negotiate.
I smile, grim: “Loss, grief. That old stuff. It’s not lost on me that I started writing this piece after my mom died—and that I need to finish it before I can write any other big pieces of my life.” Marcia nods. Everyone has a family, knows the pull and the tensions, loss, fear tinged grief—what else may be lost? I’ve built this memoir bit by bit in classes, during the spaces in between, snatching time from obligations, putting off my family with, “Just one more minute; I’m working on a piece.” I explain the generous comment Molly, an online classmate, offered about doing. She said my prose was livelier when I described all we did in Eagles Mere, one summer to the next, generation after generation.
Marcia smiles. “For me,” she says, “Eagles Mere isn’t about doing at all—it’s the opposite. Eagles Mere means all these people who come together because we love you; we stumble into the kitchen, waking up over coffee. Some go to the porch and some to the beach, and I walk around the lake—no agenda. And we meet up again the late afternoon, and we have to make dinner all together because there isn’t any place to go. So, we cook together and we eat a great meal at the dining room table, twenty of us—it’s about community and the ways our lives cross each other’s, with you at the center.”
Her words comfort me. The summer stretches out, weeks ahead to sift and sort through the jumble, to arrange ingredients—houses, meals, stories. My stories center on Eagles Mere—our home the center of the web, whose filaments draw us each summer. Blue and white china is arranged on a long table. Not everything matches. The lake stretches out beyond the front windows. An assortment of people gather around the table to eat and laugh—a summer meal in progress, a memoir to fashion.
Ann V. Klotz is a writer and teacher who lives in Shaker Heights, OH during the school year and in an obscure mountain top resort called Eagles Mere, PA during July, where she works — with varying degrees of ferocity — on a memoir-ish collection. Her work has appeared on the Brevity Blog, in Literary Mama, Mutha, Thread, The Feminine Collective, Grief Diaries and The Manifest Station. She’s proud that her chapter on becoming a teacher was included in one of the In Fact anthologies published by Creative Nonfiction. You can follow her on Twitter at @AnnKlotz or read her blog: www.annvklotz.com