I have in my mind an idea for a short memoir about my three-and-a- half years abroad. During that time, I taught everything from biology to the American Revolution in English schools, one in the Midlands and the other in Essex. Holidays brimmed with foreign adventure until I came to rest in Zimbabwe, known then as Southern Rhodesia. The time was the 1960s, a period of colonial upheaval, when the word “urhuro,” (freedom) blew across the dry land and set revolutionary fires along the eastern border of the continent. Even so, it was an era when a solitary teacher from San Francisco could walk a 100 yards into the Karoo and share a peanut butter sandwich with a wild giraffe. Somehow, these memories should be preserved, I think, because they are funny and sad, beautiful and grotesque.
I am no memoir writer by inclination. Truth, for me, lies in my imagination. My beasts are the ideas with which I grapple, hoping to pin them wild and wriggling upon a printed page. Truth is another matter. To expose it, however imperfectly — to ignite a small recognition in someone else about what that truth is — is a high bar. Besides, what sane person would hope to light a candle in a world obsessed with Pokéman?
Still, I toy with the idea and have begun to read a few books about memoir writing. My first was Inventing the Truth, an odd title for an anthology chock full of advice from the likes of Toni Morrison, Russell Baker and Ian Frazier — voices that ought to be trusted. Russell Baker explains the anomaly. A memoir is no scrupulous catalogue of events, but a selection. By its nature, a selection is a biased version of the truth tainted by what the author decides to leave in and leave out. (Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998 pg. 33)
In Baker’s case, not until he discovered his mother’s old letters lying in a trunk did he recognize what facts were essential to his memoir, Growing Up. In the secrets of her heart, he discovered emotions that would resonate across the human spectrum. Ian Frazier puts the truth of memoirs another way. The objective for writers of memoirs is to find something that corresponds with the reader – something he or she has an affinity for, or can understand. It’s a seduction. The reader thinks he knows what he wants, and if you can just tear him away from that he’ll often have a better time than he would have had going where he thought he wanted to go. (Ibid pg. 174.)
Frazier’s description of a memoir certainly sets a high bar. Only a writer driven by her passion would be foolish enough to attempt the leap.
(Originally published 8/29/2016)