How do you create a “living” person in a memoir or family history?
We’ve talked about several approaches here. Today we’re going to look at some ideas from Phillip Lopate, essayist, writer and poet and author of The Art of the Personal Essay. These thoughts originally appeared in an interview with Lania Knight for the online edition of Poets and Writers Magazine. (Thanks to Richard Gilbert of the Narrative Blog for pointing me towards it.)
Lopate is concerned with the limits of creative nonfiction. He says, “Creative nonfiction is somewhat distortedly being characterized as nonfiction that reads like fiction. Why can’t nonfiction be nonfiction? Why does it have to tart itself up and be something else?”
Lopate argues for the personal essay form because it allows for the writer to include personal reflections on the events in the text. “I am more interested,” says Lopate, “in the display of consciousness on the page. The reason I read nonfiction is to follow an interesting mind…I’m arguing more for reflective nonfiction where thinking and the play of consciousness is the main actor.”
That reflective element is particularly important for memoirists and family historians who are trying to convey a real life on a printed page. Says Lopate, “Anybody who works intensively with autobiographical nonfiction realizes fairly early on that they’re going to have to make a construct, you might say a dummy. The mind produces thought after thought, and it’s incredibly random and vagrant. We need focus, and we need to pretend that we’re more coherent than we really are.”
Lopate suggests that for a writer to create an effective portrait of a character he must impose coherence on the actions of the character he chooses to include. Those choices often involve what to leave out. Lopate advises, “Writing a piece of nonfiction is a conscious act, it’s an artifice, however naked or transparent you want to be. You may as well accept that guilt and go at it. Roll up your sleeves and say, “Okay, I’m constructing a persona here. I want to create the appearance of total frankness, but I know that I’m being highly selective.”
Selectivity is sometimes difficult for memoirists and family historians who want to put everything they’ve experienced or have discovered in their research into their books. Lopate suggests that, “The selection has to do with what events or parts you choose to highlight. However, you don’t have to put everything in there. People are under the mistaken impression when they first start that if they can’t tell one secret, then they have to be reserved. You can be very unbuttoned about some things and still keep secret about many others.”
So in planning your memoir or family history some reflection on what to leave out can sometimes be as valuable as the consideration of what you should put in.