Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Someone Else's Life--On (My) Memoir

I've spent the last two days frantically looking for a photo I set aside months ago (note to self, when you find something, put it back where you found it--especially since I have a photographic memory). After 2-3 hrs of searching I found the photo that will start the book. Of course, along the way I rediscovered other photos and letters to / from my grandmother, notes, news clippings, gifts, a record in low german. Things I would have yawned over like some giant yak not even a decade ago. Now I hold on to each speck as if they were bits of my soul, smatterings of unlived memory (someone else's life) like a fog I reach for but that dissipates in my eager embrace. I need to live my own life now--and I wonder if writing a memoir about another time and place really counts. 
Me (tube socks), Grandma, Sister on Corn, OK Homestead

I'd like to think the above image was taken before we moved from Oklahoma to Minnesota in 1986, but I suspect it may be a year or two later. In any case, it's an act of desperation and love--there's such earnestness behind it. "Please," it seems to say, "please remember what I remember, even though we both know it's impossible. Story is all we have, even if that story is a fragile ghost itself that's more fiction than truth."

Homestead Around 1930
And the above is a clipping from Corn, OK's paper in 2003 celebrating the centennial (click to read). My great aunt contributed the facts, though my research has shown some are wrong--for example, Elizabeth's first husband, Peter, and her daughter died in Kansas in the early 1880s. I wonder how much is true, how much is false, and if it matters any more. It's my job to accept the mix of the two, to then mix them up even more with my own memory and research, and make some sort of greater truth that supersedes it all. That's what we call memoir, folks. 
If you want to know more about Turkey Red, my 6th book in progress, link here why don't you.  You can read about Custer and oil wells and windmills.


Kathryn/plantwhateverbringsyoujoy.com said...

As someone who has written a (sort of) memoir AND researched my family for two decades, I think they are different processes. I think it's OK to take license, but one must say so. So, I guess I'm saying it DOES "matter anymore." You are the voice of your family. You may find ultimately you want to honor both processes, or not. But the memoir needs to make clear (IMHO) that it is a "mix" if, in fact, it is. Otherwise, those who follow will simply be confused. You can see www.hallsofbristolcounty.com for the left-brained part of my story...Congrats on finding the pic.

Dawn said...

Love the photo! So glad you found it!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Kathryn--oh no, geeze, I will always tell the reader when it's certain truth and personal truth. I believe in the nonfiction writer's code of conduct, and the contract with the reader we inherently make. Poets take license, fiction writers take license, and essayists take risk to their person.
Dawn--Me too! I was in agony yesterday!

Gaia Gardener: said...

I haven't written a memoir, but I'm the official "family historian" for both my family and my husband's family. As such, I am the recipient of all sorts of flotsam and jetsam...which is beginning to feel like a heavy burden, as I try to organize it, preserve it, and make sense of it.

Recently I've been questioning myself as to WHY this has been so important to me...and if it still is as important as it used to be. As you so simply put it, shouldn't I be living MY life, instead of trying to ferret out and record other people's lives?

I don't have any answers. But if it helps, I love your writing and I'm sure that you will do a phenomenal job on the memoir, if you choose to go ahead with it.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Gaia--I suppose living other lives can help you live your own better. And we leave so little of us behind that might matter, and you never know how one thing might matter generations down the road--I'm so thankful for the small artifacts I have now, so I can try to peace together my family, a state, a region, a country. I will be writing this--I was to start today, but life intervened. Soon, though. If I can't make a good book out of this, I'll go work at an insurance company or just be a bum. This is it. All in. Book #6 will be the end or the beginning. Etc. :)

Gaia Gardener: said...

I think I've been looking to try to figure out why I'm who I am, why my family acts the way it does, and (to some extent) why I've made the choices I have over the years. Truthfully, 3 years of counseling has helped tremendously - and given me a framework to understand myself and my family better. But the family history research has helped, as well, forming a synergy to deepen my understanding.

Les said...

The house is seriously similar to many on the Eastern Shore of Va. Most were built around the turn of the last century for farm families with lots of children. Quite a few are still being lived in and are well cared for, but many look to be about in the same state of repair as the one you have pictured.

(BTW, love the tube socks)

Rohrerbot said...

I think it's okay to be the "voice" of your family. I had something similiar happen back in January.(I also did the same you did....put pics and newspaper clippings somewhere and forgot where I put them!!). Somehow you to merge your thoughts, their thoughts, the known facts and tie them together in a cohesive narrative. As long as you site your sources, you are just fine. I worked on a post about my Great relative of mine who owned a Bee House. Fascinating finds. It does matter....all of it. And you putting it all together makes it personal and meaningful. And we get to read about it! Thanks for sharing.

laveta'splace said...

I've been doing genealogy and family history for 20 years. In the process, I've found a lot of family lore that wasn't true and had to do hours of research to prove it wrong. So I guess all the little things do matter. I enjoy finding the roots of myself and my children. Sad to say, I'm totally not a writer, but I still enjoy finding all the little details hoping some day my children will enjoy it. Little things do matter.

Mary said...

Benjamin....i haven't read this post yet but I believe last time you talked about like quiet surroundings etc. Have seen the latest TIME..here is a link..http://www.brianrlittle.com/whats-new/brian-little-in-time-magazine/

Benjamin Vogt said...

Les--trying to bring back the socks. I wonder if these homes are like Sears homes, since there seem to be so many? Everywhere.
RB--See, isn't that neat? I want some great grandkid to discover something neat about me, hopefully in the library! :)
LP--I think folklore is, by it's very nature, both true and false. It's like myth--based in fact, but made moral by fiction.
Mary--I love silence! Oh it's like the best thing since sliced bread! Thanks for the link, going over now.