Podcast on The Craft of Writing Memoir: Derek Owens’ Memory’s Wake

The craft of writing memoir and the subject of recovered memories and post traumatic stress syndrome were among the topics as I visited with St. John’s University English Professor and Vice Provost Dr. Derek Owens. His latest book is entitled Memory’s Wake and tells the story of an abusive relationship between his grandmother and mother. The book is part memoir, part biography, and part research project. Owens is also the author of a book about the teaching of writing I really enjoyed called Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation.

You can listen to the podcast below or via iTunes by searching for Prof. Torg’s Read, Write, and Teach Digital Book Club. Also, you can help the podcast attract listeners if you’ll take the time to “rate it.”  Link to iTunes and the podcast page here.

Derek Owens Memory's Wake William Torgerson St. John's University writing memoir

So that you can get a sense of our discussion, I’m including my questions below:

  1. Memory’s Wake is your telling of the abuse relationship between your grandmother and your mother. You also include a lot of the history of upstate New York and research about memory and abuse. So it’s part memoir, part biography, and part research project. Is that a fair description? As to the question, what’s Memory’s Wake about, would you have anything to add?
  2. I’ve latched onto the phrase, “Every Story Has a Story.” By that, I mean for every story we hear or read, that story has it’s own history of how it was written.  This book tells a story that began before you were born. When did you start messing with it in a way that you thought you might write about it?
  3. I want to talk about the rules that govern the conventions of this text. I don’t mean rules I’d find in a grammar handbook. I mean that this book has it’s own rules for how it was written.  To mention a few examples, the sentences don’t start with capital letters, you don’t seem concerned about complete sentences, sometimes you attribute sources and sometimes you don’t, and there’s a lot of play with margins.  I’m guessing you tinkered with that a lot.  The book doesn’t have chapters. Some pages just have one little black and white picture.  There’s heavy use of italics in places. Can you tell me about how you arrived at the published form?
  4. At what points in writing this story did you think it wouldn’t get finished or published? How did you push through those points? What was driving you to get it done and out into publication?
  5. Can you talk to me about how research works in this book?  I’ll tell you what I think I’ve inferred and you can correct me and add to what I’ve said. I think I see excerpts from your mother’s journals, stories told to you by family members, books or articles you’ve read, and visits to places in upstate New York.  I’ll dig in on a couple of these after I hear your answer.
  6. What was the result of writing this book? To you? What do you know/understand that you didn’t understand before? Is your take on memoir different than it was before?  Did the writing of this cause you to remember anything new or see your own childhood in a different way?

The podcast was recorded with a Blue Snowball mic via Garage Band and a MacBook. You can read more about the book and its publisher, Spuyten Duyvil, here.  You can also listen to the podcast below or via iTunes by searching for Prof. Torg’s Read, Write, and Teach Digital Book Club. Please take time to “rate it.”  Link to iTunes and the podcast page here.

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Autobiography and Fiction in Love on the Big Screen

With the first readers finishing up Love on the Big Screen, questions like this one have begun to roll in via Facebook, email, and text:  Did the Sunday meetings in underwear/helmets really happen?  Am I right that Moon is actually_________?  Isn’t The Dini based on______?   In other words, these readers want to know from me How much of your actual life is in Love on the Big Screen?

Let me start to answer this with something I wrote at the request of the publisher, Cherokee McGhee:   While many people I know would be able to claim they see parts of themselves in the characters I have written, they would also have to admit that I’ve told a lot of lies about them.  In this case, for me, if my book is some sort of fruit smoothie, then my life and all the shades of personalities I came across in college are all a bunch of different berries.  I’ve taken them all up as a part of a creative recipe, added a bunch of additional ingredients I either made up or collected in the years since my undergraduate graduation, and I threw all of that possibility into a giant writing blender and created my book.

 

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Bon Jovi

Me back in my "Billy" days rocking my Bon Jovi Concert t-shirt

My main problem with my own Smoothie Metaphor is that it is too violent; otherwise, I think it does the job.  Take for example my protagonist Zuke, whose last name is Zaucha.  The last name of one of my good college friends is Zaucha and we used to call him Zuke.  In choosing that sort of nickname, I am going for something I’ve experienced in my own life:  people who know me tend to call me Torg.  This happens even when I move, and I move often:  it’s like secret DNA social code that people call me “Torg.”  Unless my dad is around and then I’m Little Torg or Billy.

 

The personality of my friend Zaucha does not additionally seep into my protagonist.  As I recall, my friend did have a new car and he wouldn’t let us eat in it and he wouldn’t let us roll down the windows.  I also remember him keeping to the sidewalks to keep his sneakers clean.  Sure, I’d make fun of him for that, but his car and sneakers stayed immaculate long after mine had been “trashed.”  I gave that aspect of the real Zaucha’s personality to my character Moon.  Another friend of mine has emailed me and noted that he thinks Moon is a combination of himself and the guy with the last name Zaucha.  Writing this, I recall that I’ve often heard the writer Sedaris talking about this aspect of his writing.  That he is always thinking about what he will use and that his friends and family seem to try and watch themselves because they know they are likely to show up in the next book.  Recently, some people have started to point out to me when they say something clever and they suggest that maybe that should go in a future story.

Here are some similarities I have to my protagonist Zuke:  we were both English majors for non English-y reasons (me because my parents were English teachers and Zuke because he wants to be around “Glory,” we were both bench-warming college basketball players, and we both went to plays in Chicago where we were surprised by nude witches. Certainly we share exactly the same taste in movies.

What is very different about us is that Zuke learns his lessons much more quickly than me.  I think I’m still learning but it probably took me until around the age of 32 to pretty much get what Zuke gets at the close of Love on the Big Screen.  I certainly did not experience any “love storms” of the sort Zuke experiences in the book.  There were no balcony collapses in my ONU life but I’ve come to learn (I think) that there was one of those in ONU’s history.  Not sure if I repressed that or if it’s just coincidence.  I read once that Stephen King made up a pornographic cartoon magazine for The Green Mile and that later in his life someone sent him a copy of the publication that he made up.  I think if you can dream it up, it’s probably out there.  (and much more!)

A bit about the names and the nicknames.  Some names I’ve made up but most are from my life.  It was a common criticism of my work in just about every writing workshop I’ve been in that the nicknames were confusing.  Readers, what did you think?  However, I find that in my life, nicknames are everywhere and I list a lot of those in the book.  i.e. Charles Barkley was the Round Mound of Rebound or most of us have heard of the NY Yankee, A-Rod.  When people pick at your work, instead of editing it out, that might be something that can become MY STYLE.  Part of my style could be an affinity for nicknames.  I notice that Chekhov uses a  lot of them.

While revising Love on the Big Screen, I knew I had a novel-in-stories called Horseshoe (Zuke’s fictional hometown) and I had in mind that someday I wanted to write a modern-day tragedy that I was thinking about calling Knucklehead.  I knew this guy with the last name Nuckles, and obviously if a character is going to have a tragic fault, Knucklehead has some nice play in it to work with.  So I made up this guy Knucklehead in the revision thinking down the line of books I might write, and now I’ve got people identifying who they think Knucklehead is.  For example, I have him being the son of a school superintendent, and so now for every place I’ve ever attended or worked (this list is kind of long: at least nine schools) there are suggestions from each geographical area that they think they know who I’m writing about.  I guess writers of fiction always answer these sorts of questions? In Love on the Big Screen, I have Zuke hitting a last-second shot and the homecoming queen is waiting for him after the game.  Later, there’s another surprise in the form of a young lady.  None of this happened to me.  It represents what I’ve experienced about being a basketball player but as with the lessons of the novel for Zuke, my experience took much more time to unravel.

I’m glad to have the questions about the book, and it’s been fun to try and think where the ideas come from.  To understand, I think you have to work with language daily and experience the surprise of what occurs to you to write.  I lived a life and everything I’ve experienced is certainly fair game for any situation or character that I’m trying to create.  I’m sure some things creep from my mind to the page without me realizing their origins.  Maybe most of what I write is like that?  But to answer the question about the helmets and the underwear:  yes we did have matching boxer shorts with our nicknames embroidered on them. Yes they shrank and were obscenely tight.  Yep, you had to play naked if you missed but unlike the novel, I don’t remember there being any legitimate excuses.  If you missed, you were naked the next time.  We had Toys R Us-bought medieval helmets too small for our fat twenty-something heads, and something not in the book, we even borrowed hymnals from the dorm’s prayer chapel and sang ourselves an opening song.  That, I don’t think, was my idea.