Experience: Memoir Monday on Tuesday

Last week I wrote about who memoirs are about – the ‘I’ characters that are found within the narrative. This week I ask what is memoir about?  You may say it is about a personal experience. Something that happened to you. It is about an experience that the ‘I’ character has had. However, the experience is far from being a personal event and if you and I were to have the same experience, my experience is going to be different to your experience because each experience is a constructed reconstruct, altered by memory and the language used to relate it. How then do we have an experience?

There are five ways that the experience is created for the ‘I’ character in memoir.

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The first is determined socially and historically.  Our place in society will have a huge effect on how we view an experience and are part of an experience, both culturally and within the class systems which give us differing tastes and subjective viewpoints. Society will also determine the identity that is given to the ‘I’ character. For example, they will recognise themselves as male or female, Australian aborigine or Jewish, rich or poor, heterosexual or homosexual and, their individual experience will be attached to these social identities. 

Secondly language will create an experience as the ‘I’ becomes attached to labels created by institutions and within the course of a day the ‘I’ may have known experience in multiple ways. For example as a scholar, dancer, wife and patient. As language changes over time and is historically specific, these meanings will alter. Language is also necessary in order to retrospectively turn the internal feelings, spirituality, bodily needs and emotions into narrative, so that meaning can be derived from it.

Experience is also self-reflexive. This means that we add our interpretations to it, with the ability to change these interpretations over time as cultural or historical change occurs.

The ‘I’ must also be able to claim ownership of the experience, that is, it must be a truthful account of the memory of the self. There have been examples where experience has been found to be fraudulent such as in the James Frey case where he claimed time in prison that he didn’t have. The ‘I’ must also be culturally authorised to tell the experience  so if the memoir is about, for example, an aboriginal woman, the narrating ‘I’ must be an aboriginal woman. An example of this was the memoir written by Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance who wrote as the son of an Cherokee Chief but was eventually exposed, as not being a full blood cherokee but rather an African American. Another fraud by Misha Defonseca tells the unbelievable yet inspiring tale of a Jewish girl searching for her parents, her life with a wolf pack, the long trek from Belgium to the Ukraine and back again. It turned out to be totally untrue and the author was actually of Belgian catholic heritage.

Finally there is the experience and the reader. There is a pact between the reader and the author, coined in 1975 the “autobiographical pact” by Philippe Lejeune. Here the reader on seeing the author and the protagonist having the same name consume the narrative believing that the narrative is the cultural and historical truth of the author and that the author is authorised to relate the experience. The reader has expectations and although they are accepting of the kinds of inconsistencies that we all have without our own memories, intentional fraud is not acceptable. Additionally, readers will bring their own culture, social standing and  language to give their own interpretation of the narrated experience.

For more on the creation of experience see Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson explanation in their book “Reading Autobiography”.

Essential to the relating of the self and the experience being told is memory. But is memory  infallible? The subject for a later Memoir on Monday, memoir discussion started by Lisa

About Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

I began my working career as a reluctant potato peeler whilst waiting to commence my training as a student nurse. On completion I worked mainly in intensive care/coronary care; finishing my hospital career as clinical nurse educator in intensive care. A life changing period as a resort owner/manager on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu was followed by recovery time as a farmer at Bucca Wauka. Having discovered I was no farmer and vowing never again to own an animal bigger than myself I took on the Barrington General Store. Here we also ran a five star restaurant. Working the shop of a day 7am - 6pm followed by the restaurant until late was surprisingly more stressful than Tanna. On the sale we decided to retire and renovate our house with the help of a builder friend. Now believing we knew everything about building we set to constructing our own house. Just finished a coal mine decided to set up in our backyard. Definitely time to retire we moved to Queensland. I had been writing a manuscript for some time. In the desire to complete this I enrolled in a post grad certificate in creative Industries which I completed 2013. Commenced a masters by research in 2014.
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27 Responses to Experience: Memoir Monday on Tuesday

  1. This is a fascinating discourse on the distinction between memoir styles, something I’ve never before considered. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I’m looking forward to learning more and to being able to read memoir with a more objective eye.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad it is giving you something to consider Sharon. It is not something that is normally considered whilst writing or reading memoir but it is fascinating and the more you consider the constituent parts of memoir the more you realise just how complex it is. For example knowing this stuff on experience has to make you consider necessary character development for the protagonist, the narrated ‘I’ which the narrating ‘I’ often forgets as she knows her subject so well but for the reader knowing the social construct can give so much more information to the reader.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. so if the memoir is of eg an aboriginal woman the narrating ‘I’ must be an aboriginal woman.

    Good article. I didn’t quite get this part though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes that is right. There was a case where a memoir called My Own Sweet Time which told the story of an aboriginal woman’s journey from her outback home to a life in the city. It was sold as written by Wanda Koolmantrie and won the Dobbie award for first book for a female author. It was discovered later that it was written by a man with no indigenous heritage and he was therefore violating the rights of authority as not only did he not own that story but he was also neither indigenous nor female. If it was sold as fiction this would not be a problem but as a memoir relates the memories of the narrating ‘I’ it is crucial. Readers consume memoir for the truth of the experiences related and how the ‘narrated I’ dealt with that experience.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Irene,
    I am excited to see these post for memoir writers. I am definitely saving this one and reading it more carefully later. Will another one follow?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for elaborating. I’m guessing the phrase means “if a memoir is about an aboriginal woman…”

    Good stuff. I’ve been writing a memoir (off and on) for years. I’ve been afraid of doing the work.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. TanGental says:

    this is so interesting; intriguing the cases you cite where people made up memoires.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes there are oodles of novels written in the style of memoir and yet somehow writing it as non-fiction gives the author greater purchase with readers. This is a real life person. This actually happened. This is how a real life person dealt with this. In the case of James Frey he couldn’t get a publisher when he tried to market his book as fiction but as a memoir it was snapped up.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Sherri says:

    This is fascinating Irene. I’ve bookmarked this post to return to next week to absorb and study properly as I’m running out of time this Saturday late afternoon. Will be in touch!! Lots of love ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Weekend Coffee Share: 22nd May 2016 | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)

  8. Lisa Reiter says:

    Oh, I am so late getting here. I am sorry because this is really helpful in my search through the fog to clarify what I am writing about, who for and from what perspective. I have plenty to keep me occupied here just clarifying in my own mind which “I” is writing certain parts. This exercise alone really helps sharpen the message. Combining this exploration with Jeanne’s tips for a rewrite and I am going to be busy! Thank you so much for sharing what you know. I love this level of intellectual exploration because it is the way I reach sufficient understanding to make a leap. I’ve got A3 paper all over the place and of course, now looking at software 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Memoir Monday: The Big Picture – Lisa Reiter – Sharing the Story

  10. Pingback: Infallible memories?: Memoir Monday on Tuesday | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)

  11. Sherri says:

    At last I’ve had a chance to read your excellent post Irene and I am lapping up your memoir series as it is so helpful and packed full of information. I remember reading in Mary Karr’s ‘The Art of Memoir’ and how adament she is about memoir truth, nothing but the truth. I find it fascinating that Frey’s book was snapped up as a memoir but not as fiction. Ultimately, what you share here impresses upon me even more so the highest importance of ‘owning’ our story, of being able to write freely about those things we know we experienced at the time, even though our experience is very different to that of someone else even if standing right next to us at the time. Even with the infallibility of memory, we can write with truth because we know that is just what happened and so we can then reflect upon it. As for those who out and out lie, well, I have no sympathy. But it shows just how tough writing memoir really is ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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