on memoirs and vigilance

with painful slowness, a viable research proposal is being chipped out of the shapeless, obdurate rockface of the past. Much must be planned, budgeted and organized before this September, when I leave England for a year and pick up my source trails in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. I’m beginning to see that a ridiculous percentage of PhD time is unmitigated Monkey Work: photocopying, printing, hunting articles down and lugging books around; also, hours spent machinating and planning just to place oneself in the position of being able to research. All my wild dreams of a PhD being three years of solid, uninterrupted, blissful reading, bolstered from the real world and all logistical tribulations — dashed. Prospective graduates be warned.

with the coalescing of the PhD idea comes a growing clarity about sources. For me, a large part of this will be memoirs; so this is a time when I’m being reminded how fascinating and peculiar a type of source they are. Reading several memoirs that thread through a particular event or time period, for example, is almost like an exercise in omnipotence: it makes very clear, for me, the privilege of the historian’s vantage point, being everywhere and everywhen at once. But memoirs are complex documents: they hover on that already-fraught boundary between memories and self. They make narratives out of vindication. Their very existence testifies, before anything else, to a sense of history, and so the sense that history can be written, and rewritten, by them. They are beset upon by time and temptation — time that erodes memory, and temptation to tamper with it. (Not for nothing is it said that memory crouches in the dark past, clad in sackcloth and ashes, mumbling penitential prayer!) All of these threaten, constantly, to corrupt. And so memoirs seem to demand a particularly vigilant mode of reading: one that is fine-tuned to motives, coupled with an almost kneejerk skepticism of any claim, and a constant urge to corroborate.

(It also requires another sort of vigilance, I think. I read a graduate paper the other day on a particular politician/thinker. How intensely myopic it was: like the student had drunk in so much of the politician’s papers, memoirs and biographies that s/he was anxious to lay out every meticulous detail, at the sad expense of relevance. One needs vigilance against detail, in spite of it).

Curious, then, that such an anxious source can be so rewarding. A single memoir fleshes out a particular past, animates it with an experience of living not so removed from our own. Taken plurally, they make history real. The memoirs I’ve been reading recently have served as my historical vigilantes. They remind me (and sometimes it’s kind of easy to forget — or perhaps this is just me) that the people I am writing about are real people, and not just their policy line or their ideas: people who have sons and daughters, friends, impulses, strange habits. Through them, the past becomes a real place, and not just a place in which cold categories of people — the Elites and Subalterns, the Proletariat, the Patriarchy, the Other — stand like marble chesspieces about the historical landscape, moved by the great condescension of retrospect.

It’s also kind of prurient. I am half-jokingly accused by a certain boy of attempting to fill my thesis with gossip. ah well. more thesis thoughts soon.


One response to “on memoirs and vigilance

  • Gene Bodzin

    Just ran across your entry about memoirs. After writing a 150,000-word record of some of the things that shaped me, I am preparing a blog on memoir writing. To prepare, I am reading everything I can about the practice. I hope to put it on line when I have 50 entries ready to post. Here is one of the early ones:

    There may be no more intimate form of writing than memoir. But it can be effective only if it feels intimate to the reader as well as to you.

    The first principle of communication is to know your audience. In memoir writing, this is especially important because your audience is a big reason that you are writing at all.

    Do you want your parents to understand your excuses for some terrible life choices? Do you want your children to see why you always refused to move to a warm climate? Do you want to show your classmates that you have finally succeeded at something? Are you interested in showing your friends how you followed a convoluted path through six careers?

    Each of these is a different goal, and each has a different primary audience. The facts you decide to present, the details you include, all depend on how you see this audience. They also determine how you present yourself—in technical terms, what your persona will be.

    When Benjamin Franklin began his autobiography with the words “Dear son,” he assumed a persona that would have been very different if he had begun with an introduction addressed to James Madison.

    It was not until I was well into the process of writing that I thought of tailoring my memoir for a wider audience than my children. Perhaps my experiences could be interesting, my struggles instructive, and my life lessons useful.

    A number of people became a secret audience. As I worked, I often thought I might be remembered by and re-introduced to somebody who saw my name on a book cover or on the acknowledgements page of a publication I had helped put together. Or I sometimes had fantasies of being recognized at a highway stop by a woman who had walked out of my past. It never happened.

    Your audience can never be far from your mind as you write. You must be aware of their interests, anticipate their questions, and fashion your words in such a way that they will feel as if you are talking directly to them.

    Maybe we can pursue this. My own dissertation was on the creation of image through autobiography.


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