In 2008 (that sounds so long ago), I interviewed Lisa Dale Norton about her book Shimmering Images. I think she has some really important ideas about memoir’s potential as a genre, so I asked Lisa if I could re-post the interview. I use the shimmering images exercise she describes below and in the book sometimes in my memoir class at UW, and students have told me that the exercise yielded up a number of new story ideas. If you’re new to memoir or even if you’ve been writing for a while, I recommend you take a look at Shimmering Images.
Here’s what Lisa had to say about memoir writing:
Theo: In your book Shimmering Images you say that you believe memoir writing is a tool for world transformation. Can you explain how memoir creates change?
Lisa Dale Norton: When we write memoir we craft a story of our past from disparate pieces. One could argue that all experience is random. To make a story from this random experience we must apply structure. By applying structure we create form and meaning. As we create meaning about our past, we have the opportunity to re-envision what we believe those past events meant. In so doing we open up the possibility of living a new way in the future. (If you see the past differently, the future that rises from it will consequently have to be different, too.) When we claim new meaning around our past and offer that story as a written narrative for others to read, they are given an opportunity to rethink and rewrite their lives. This process of transforming oneself and then passing on the transformation is a radical act of change. The more people who do it, the more apt change on a large scale will take place. This is an organic, subtle and powerful way to influence the world.
Theo: Which memoirs have created a change in your life?
LDN: THE LIARS CLUB by Mary Karr; all the small pieces of memoir in TEACHING A STONE TO TALK by Annie Dillard; THIS BOY’S LIFE by Tobias Wolff. Oh heck, once I start this list it’s hard to stop. A deluge of other titles crowd in. Just about every book I read changes my life in some way, but those three books came into my life when I was ripe. They taught me about craft and voice (Karr), honesty (Wolff), and a stunning kind of luminescence (Dillard).
Theo: Memoir students are often concerned about how their writing will impact the family members and friends they’ve written about–and yet they realize they can’t tell their own stories without including them. Have you had this experience yourself? Have you been able to resolve it?
LDN: My experience with HAWK FLIES ABOVE: JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE SANDHILLS (Picador/St. Martin’s Press) struck at the heart of this dilemma. My choice in that book was to write my truth. I knew instinctively that it would not be anyone else’s truth and so I did not burden myself with the fantasy that I could either speak for them or protect them. I assumed that no matter what I did someone among my friends and family would not be happy. There was no way to please everyone, so, I simply forged forward and told my story as honestly and gently as I could. And, just as I suspected, there were those who did not agree with or appreciate my version of reality. Such is the work of the memoirist.
If given another chance to write that book, I would not change my story. What I would change would be the degree of compassion I included in the telling of that story. I would sculpt characters with even more compassion for what I perceived to be their faults and have even more compassion for the narrator for my inability to get my heart more fully around those characters’ gifts and strengths. But I would not change my story.
The key to this dilemma lies in craft, in evoking a sea of vulnerable compassion for self and others. If I could recommend anything around this issue, I would say: Go to a place of jaw-dropping gentleness and forgiveness inside yourself as you tell your truth. That will help balance whatever your spin on the story may be with the fact that we are all frail and flawed beings.
Theo: Your memoir Hawk Flies Above was published about ten years ago. Publishing a memoir sometimes transforms the author’s life in unexpected ways or opens doors one didn’t know exist. Was that true for you?
LDN: Yes, and that change roared in. First, the publication of HAWK FLIES ABOVE changed my literary life; it catapulted it to a whole new level.
But there was another change I could not have anticipated, and which became part of the energy behind SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR, and that was the slowly dawning realization that once you write a memoir you codify a version of the past. As a first-time memoirist, I did not realize this was going to happen.
This phenomenon has to do with the nature of story itself. Story has form. You can’t get around it. In memoir either you are going to write a long grocery-item-like list of events that happened in your life, or you are going to select some of those events and draft them into a narrative. And narratives need dramatic tension, some compelling aspect that pulls the reader forward. The very definition of story demands that we select certain events and leave out others, and when we do this we impose interpretation. We edit; we shape meaning. That is what story does.
But the key with memoir is that when you edit out some events and include others you are crafting a specific meaning from a random list of life experiences. What this does is create a version of your past, and that version once published gains momentum and rolls out into the world before you. And the events that are discarded in the name of art, fade. Quickly you forget them. The one version rises and becomes the truth. When this happens you have named meaning; you have named what matters; you have shaped your past, and you have set up a springboard from which your future will issue.
Theo: What advice do you have for writing students who want to write memoir but are having trouble getting started?
LDN: Apprentice yourself to story. Read like a writer. Analyze texts. Write. Consider the first 15 years practice, and accept the fact that choosing writing as your first love means giving up many other things.
Learn more about Lisa at www.lisadalenorton.com