Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dazed in the Pre Memoir World

I had planned to have all my research annotated and in Word documents by 12/1. This clearly won't happen. 12/15 is the new target date. The next memoir is a freaking beast and I'm in no mood to have a foot race with it. As long as a first draft is done by the end of March I will be most pleased. Even after all my notes are typed up, I still have to go and organize them into viable topics and folders, then, perhaps, chapter outlines. At least I know what the first chapter will be. The rest will come as it comes, and that makes writing exciting.

I asked my wife at lunch today who in the world would care to read a book about some guy exploring his family history, lamenting the lost lessons of his grandmother who tried so hard to teach him about his family, but he never listened. Who would care to read a book that says Oklahoma is our apocalypse, a nexus of everything wrong and right with this country, a convergence of greed and hope that reshaped prairie ecology, Native American cultures, and Mennonite German settlers. We never listen. We don't change until we have to. Until it's too late and we have to start over, start the story over that we cut off and killed.

“How will our children know who they are if they don’t know where they come from?” – John Steinbeck

“For in OK all the experiences that went into the making of the nation have been speeded up. Here all the American traits have been intensified. The one who can interpret Oklahoma can grasp the meaning of America in the modern world.” -- Angie Debo

As I'm bringing together literally hundreds of sources I stop along the way to research some question I asked myself in the margin of a book or pdf document, so I spend an hour more researching. At some point, the research must end, because it could go on forever and ever. Just as I'll never know the lives of my family or the true prairie, so this memoir can never be fully researched--in the loss and the absence, the negative space, is the story of our species.

I ask myself--remembering the first draft debacle of my last memoir, Morning Glory, unpublished but much better than it was three years ago--what kind of narrative will drive and sustain this book? My search for myself, myself and America, or just America? I will have stories of my own, then there are stories of my family, of Cheyenne, of Mennonites, of prairie animals and grasses. Will those dozens of smaller stories coalesce into a larger narrative? Will they spiral together and collide, play off one another like metaphors, lead to one point naturally, or will I have to force it to a head?

Obviously a writer has to be careful at this stage--a memoir is a marathon, and the writing is the discovery, and the editing is the real writing. First thing first. Get me a brown paper bag. I'm on a slippery slope, about to slip into memoir writing hyperventilation and coma.

Turkey Red: A Memoir of Oklahoma


Nancy said...

Boy, do I understand this! I am engaged in the same process. I have a lot of stuff, am trying to figure out how to organize everything and also - for whom am I putting this together? Somehow it seems as if it might be valuable for more than just my family. My central point is about my Quaker ancestors - dating from the founding of Quakerism and before - and the way that all played out in the real world, with real people. Good luck! I'll be interested to follow your progress.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Nancy--Yeah, I went back to the founding of anabaptists in the Netherlands in the 1500s to gain perspective on the Mennonite part of the book. I was lucky and the only surviving pages of a church book from the 1700s had my family in it--the rest burned. Genealogy is very very difficult (as you know), but I've upped the ante also learning about Cheyenne culture and how prairie ecosystems work, trying to find cultural similiarities between all three (even picked up a "green" anabaptist theology book). If you're gonna do something, take the hard path and do it right the first time, no matter how long it takes. Right?

Corner Gardener Sue said...

Somehow you reminded me of the overwhelming feelings I get when I think I want to get my house organized.

I hope things fall into place for you, and that you find some satisfaction in the process along the way.

Donna@Gardens Eye View said...

Benjamin I do believe people would want to read your many of us have the same story just different players acting it out...we all have lost our heritage to some degree...those stories lost to the generations before because we missed our opportunities to hear them...and we all struggle with what is right and wrong in this country and the world...I love the premise and I do understand your slippery slope..just writing a blog post sends me there..sometimes I can nail it fast other times it is forced and nothing like I intended it to be..very excited to read this one!!

Diana Studer said...

My mother loves to read biographies and diaries, I prefer novels. But I recently read German boy. Around those years just after WWI. Just a few years in a teenaged boy's life, but a wonderful story. A different side of that history. A tribute to his mother, who did what she had to to keep her son alive. Taking him to a new life with an American father.

That the few pages that survived the fire were the ones you needed, with your family, is a good omen for the memoir.

Benjamin Vogt said...

S--Yup, cleaning my research is like cleaning house. Blah blah blah. :)
D--Yer right, just different players acting it out. The thing that gets me is that as my grandmother neared the end over 5 years ago, I knew that in the coming years I'd want to know and research all this--but I was not ready to ask or learn, I wasn't in any way prepared in my life to do so. It's a strange and terrible thing.
D--I think you nailed it on the head and didn't know it: how do you get a memoir to read like a novel / biography / diary--because really, the line is thin among them. Yet not so thin. In the end, we write for ourselves and hope it hits home with someone else. (and yes, good omen! I wouldn't know anything about my family going back to the 1600s)

Jeff said...

You have nice words. Me write pretty someday.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Well Jeff, hate to say it, buy you've got a ways to go. But you go girl, you go.