I’ve been struck by how much of what my daughters do and say will be forgotten. I saw this documentary two nights ago called Stories We Tell. Director Sarah Polley interviews as many people as she can about her mother, and eventually Sarah finds out who her father is for sure and the story is partially about her interactions with that story. It’s also about how the stories we tell differ, about how we all have our own take on something that happened. I write this morning, as the sun rises on an early fall Connecticut Sunday morning, in part because Sarah had a lot of pictures and video footage of herself growing up. I hope to do better creating a small trail of words and pictures that tell the story of my kids.
As a father, I think, I will never forget that. And then I do. The film Stories We Tell reinforced something I already know. When a story is told about an event in the past, it gets remembered differently depending on who you ask to remember. I can’t even reliably remember what has happened to me. Part of what has put me in the chair to write this morning is that I want to do more writing about my daughters. I want to get myself into a rhythm of setting down some of what they do and say. I also want us (yes, I hope they will some day be interested,) to have a record of some of their life.
I haven’t even got to the second documentary I saw that set me in the writing chair this morning, but I’ve thought of a book that also contributed to the topic I want to undertake (my girls!) and the book is Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat. The title comes from something one of Gaffigan’s five! kids wrote about him. Gaffigan is one of my favorite comics, especially the bit he does on bacon. His book is episodic, and it goes hard for the silly laugh. And he does get me to laugh, but what I want to do that he’s done, is to do more writing about being a father, a son, and a husband.
The final shove into the writing chair (and I do sit here a lot writing what I don’t want to write) was the film Woody Allen: A Documentary. I saw it on Amazon Prime, and I think you can watch it on Netflix. From the movie, it seems like Allen has been writing almost everyday since he was sixteen. I wrote almost everyday for ten years. Then there started to be publications. Schedules changed. There was more editing and promotion and travel and requests from work. And the regular morning writing has become less regular. Which is fine for some people, but I think I need be an almost everyday writer. Even if it’s just my old standby number of 800 words. I get that number from author of Write to Learn, Donald Murray. The number doesn’t matter. It’s the starting off writing that does.
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.
So that you can get a sense of our discussion, I’m including my questions below:
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.