When I was young, I seized the rare times when my dad jested with me. During playful moments, he’d utter “Put up your dukes,” taking a boxer’s sideways stance when confronting me. I didn’t consider this original, reasoning he stole the line from an old John Wayne movie. I didn’t need any movie to show me how to put up my dukes; I was smart enough to figure out “dukes” was your fists and “putting up” was to bend my elbows.
Putting up my dukes to my dad was fun back then. Even though my elbow-bending-fist-making was to defend myself, I saw the bantering as a way to connect with him. Today, while on the road to publication of my memoir, “Under the Birch Tree,” I think of “putting up my dukes.” Instead of defending myself and connecting with my dad, I’m defending my book and connecting with my reader.
I wouldn’t ordinarily think I need to defend or justify my book; it stands on its own merit, but after the many years of self-studying memoir, I find myself protecting and justifying it for reasons that negate its definition.
As written by countless memoirists in their essays and instructed by many teachers and writing coaches, memoir, by definition, is not about one’s entire life. The memoir should focus on a particular time or experience. I had violated the premise of memoir because my story is about most of my life. When I wrote my story years ago, I had an autobiography, a chronology of events and experiences with few observations and learned lessons. From my first day of kindergarten to the day I said, “Yes” to my now husband, the writing was void of crucial pieces necessary to turn it around to memoir.
Writing an autobiography raises the “who cares” question. There is no connection here between writer and reader. Omitting the crucial pieces of what makes memoir–reflections, takeaways and learned lessons–guarantees no connection.
“The author weaves in verifiable facts with subjective impressions to create a story that’s both compelling and truthful,” says writer, editor, Marcia Trahan, (www.marciatrahan.com) in her essay, “How to Write a Memoir.” After many rewrites, edits and professional critiques as guides, my autobiography takes second place to reflections and takeaways and all things learned. Each narrated experience (the autobiography) has a purpose and a place to flush out my theme (the memoir.) I needed to illustrate a pattern that happened over the years in order for my reader to understand how I created a place for myself no matter where a challenge sent me (the learned.)
Throughout my story, I ask, “But was my place my home?” I learn a birch tree, standing tall and arabesque in my front yard is synonymous with home. A structure of succinctly weaving this equation through an autobiographical chronology works for my memoir. “Chapters in my life were like doors blown open with opportunity and closed with setbacks by gusts of wind where outside forces changed their direction,” I write.
Though I may have violated the strict definition of memoir, I wrote my story to show my reader that you, too, can be at a home place no matter where you are in your life. In defending my memoir, I connect with my reader.