By Marsha Sultz
For NanoWrimo this year, I decided to write a memoir of my mother, my aunt and me. These two women were instrumental in forming my opinion of womanhood and of how a woman should behave. Were they extraordinary examples in the canon of female wisdom? No. Well, perhaps only to me.
They were normal women of their period and place in society. Lower middle-class roots, rising marginally to respectable middle class. They grew up during the Depression of the nineteen-thirties and experienced World War II from their homes in Nashville, Tennessee.
I decided to include family history – facts uncluttered by flowery prose. I thought I’d add that in revision. But midway through the month, it came as a thunderbolt that the reality of my entire family was unutterably dull. At least from the perspective of a shareable memoir.
How do memoirists charm us into their intimate world? How do they take a mundane life (sorry, but most of our lives include the mundane) and turn it into a fascinating look at a unique human being?
I realize any first attempt at a new genre is a long uphill slog but, like any saggy middle, I was struck by the fact that reality – even my reality – is often quite dull. Did I have the stamina and the imagination to pursue my initial vision of these women? Was I a good enough writer to turn their lives into a meaningful treatise on how our mothers and other elders can influence a young life?
So many questions.
At one point in my life, I was interested in family genealogy and shared with my brother my attempts to find the hidden mysteries of our heritage. He scoffed, he sneered, he thought I was searching for royal connections.
“All our relatives were poor dirt farmers in rural Tennessee,” he said. “You won’t find anything interesting.”
As in many conversations with my brother, I came away angry but determined to continue. He didn’t understand that I wasn’t searching for notable connections, I was trying to understand how my forebears lived their daily lives. How they got to market or raised their children. Where they lived and why they chose to settle in a backwoods county in the rural South.
Maybe the germ of my memoir started there. Trying to understand the meaning of a life, no matter how humble. I’ll try to hold that in my thoughts as I turn my memories of two women I loved into a testimonial of their generosity toward a young, impressionable girl.
At the end of November, I think I’ll return to my novel revisions with a lighter heart and a renewed sense of purpose. And with gratitude that I can breathe a sigh of relief and create a new reality not dependent on pesky facts.
I loved reading your encounter with the memoir task and how you kept at what was drawing you, the lives of these two special women, despite any encouragement! I look forward to reading it! Yay, you!
Whoops! … despite any discouragement!