Anyone who’s ever tried to write a memoir knows the feeling: you sit down to describe a cherished memory—your wedding day, the birth of your first grandchild—and nothing comes out. Or, worse, in trying to describe the full, vivid force of the memory, it loses its color and texture, as though translating it into written language drains it. We think our whole life story will be at our fingertips whenever we wish to summon it. But, faced with the task of remembering, we quickly realize how elusive the past can be. Why does that happen? And how do good writers work through that problem, finding the language to make their memories palpable and real to the readers? To answer those questions, bioGraph sat down with Rachel Walerstein.
Rachel Walerstein is not only an accomplished scholar of life writing with a PhD in English from the University of Iowa, but also a memoirist herself. Her writing can be found in Entropy, GLQ, Mosaic, Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, and Writing from Below, as well as other creative and scholarly journals. On a gloomy spring day in Iowa City, we discussed how difficult it can be to access the past—and how Rachel recovers her own memories.
What’s the most challenging part of telling a story about your life?
There’s a difference between stimulating memory and forcing yourself to remember. Sometimes I’ll be on a walk and the smell of a certain flower will bring up a memory—I’ll just be there, in the past, transported—whereas other times I’ll be staring at a blank page, fighting with my own mind to cull a memory. Storytelling is a process which involves making associations across (sometimes disparate) ideas, and so the chain of thought set off by a stimulated memory allows the story to flow. What makes telling a story about your own life so difficult is trying to do so without some sort of stimulus to spark that initial memory.
Why can parts of our lives be so hard to remember?
There are some things we just unconsciously forget because we don’t think they’re an integral part of who we are. I’ve heard so many stories about myself and thought, “I did that? That’s not me.” One of the brilliant things about memoir is that it requires us to confront the fact that it may indeed have been “me” all along. It’s through this confrontation that storytelling becomes possible: it provides the opportunity to show character development, a journey, growth.
What methods do you use to retrieve your memories?
Memory is linked to emotions, but memory is also bound up with the body’s natural rhythms. One of the most effective things I do to shake loose memories is take a walk and listen to music, usually the same few songs on repeat. It’s sort of like creating an affective feedback loop, where the bilateral motion of the body as it walks then syncs to the rhythm of the music, making it possible to follow new lines of thought that were previously unavailable. I think every memoirist has their own memory-fishing process, and why it works is mysterious even to them.
How do you peel back “the story” and get to the real memory underneath?
I like this question because in some ways it’s wrong. As a genre, memoir is not necessarily about getting to the “real memory” underneath. Rather, it’s about leading with the emotion tied to the “real” event, so that the reader knows why it is important. Some of the best memoirs are actually about the line between the real and unreal, fact and fiction. So to answer the question you asked, I don’t “peel back the story” so much as pay attention to what the layers are made of, and why it is that each layer allows me to continue orbiting around that emotional core.
So the core is “true” but what you say to convey the core may not be entirely?
To some extent, yes. I think it is in some ways less about whether or not the peel around the core is true, so much as that it has the right texture. In other words, the feelings associated with the event are what give it significance, are what make it an event worth recounting.
Do you have any last advice for aspiring life writers?
Because our subject is ourselves, an often overlooked facet of the genre is that a good memoir is a well-researched memoir. Be prepared to talk with people about their memories of you, to look at the artifacts of your life from multiple perspectives, and perhaps most importantly, to take a lot of walks.