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What's More Meaningful? Biography or Memoir?

As my memory drives me deeper into the past, my mind circles around and into it, making discoveries and bringing insights and ideas back to the pages of my manuscript, and I experience little epiphanies. My memory seems like a bottomless well, as I again and again pull up fragments of feelings, and then the events that evoked them. Memory seems like a muscle that strengths with practice.

"The past is inside us in flickering and mysterious ways that can never be fully acknowledged nor easily represented," editors Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow have written in the introduction to The Feminist Memoir Project. Reading the fascinating anthology aroused many of my own memories from living in New York during the early years of the Women's Liberation Movement.

It was then when I began to write Portrait of an Artist, my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe. I was in my thirties and had more questions than answers about how to live, and I learned a lot from examining her life.

Despite the demands of almost daily writing, I find in my seventies that my efforts to write an evocative memoir are more meaningful than writing another biography. As I go through my journals, the writing forces me to face the meaning of events that eluded me earlier. And if it's unsettling at times, I believe that writing a late life memoir is more rewarding.  Read More 
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Biography or Memoir? To Live or Not Live Your Own Life

In last week's Jottings post I wrote about the important of memory when writing memoir. Another way writing a biography differs from writing a memoir is vicariously living another life or vividly living his or her own.

The demand of researching and writing a biography--which goes on for years at a time--has made me feel I had abandoned by own. When working on my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, I sometimes felt envious of her adventures in the Southwest, while I sat at my desk day after day in Manhattan.

In contrast, writing a memoir is a way to live your own life again. "I suppose I write memoir because of the radiance of the past," Patricia Hampl has written in I Could Tell You Stories. "To write one's life is to live it twice, and the second living is both spiritual and historical, for a memoir reaches deep within the personality as it seeks its narrative form."

As I read my old journals and work on my memoir, I initially experience events in the past the way I did at the time. Then on reflection I often begin to understand them as little differently, enlarging what I felt or thought then with the insights of maturity and the perspective of time. Memoir writing enlivens the present and gives it depth.

Do other memoirists experience this?  Read More 
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How to Use Memory to Enliven Memoir

People sometimes ask me about the difference between writing and memoir. The difference is the existence of memory, the possession of memory.

Remembering the emotion around an event enlivens it, illuminates it, and gives the memory its significance. The memory may be vague or even wrong, but it nevertheless possesses important power because of the way it is remembered.

"I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start," wrote Virginia Woolf, in "A Sketch of the Past."

I have never forgotten my childhood art classes given by an Italian-American artist because the bohemian atmosphere of his studio was the antithesis of my bourgeois home in Providence. In his cave-like basement, Gino Conti urged us to create anything we wished with vivid blue, green, and red watercolors, even with our fingers instead of a brush if we wanted. During those hours I expressed my desires and dreams for sunshine and flowers while sitting on a little chair in a smock while watching from the corner of my eye the rabbits, turtles, and other wild creatures roaming around the shadowy space.


Even then I was drawn to a kind of freedom, one I have searched for all my life. Read More 
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"memoir's invaluable shadow side"

The Hidden Writer: Diaries and the Creative Life by Alexandra Johnson is a fascinating study about how writers try to make the transition from a private to a public written voice, making the transition from keeping a journal to publishing a memoir.

The author quotes May Sarton about the memoirist having "the temptation to romanticize, round off the corners, present a socially acceptable face of oneself and others."

Meanwhile, she says that the journal is "memoir's invaluable shadow side, exposing the darker, truer textures of a life." The challenge for a writer of memoir is to have the courage to reveal the truth, while crafting the raw language of the journal into polished literary form.  Read More 
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