Container of Memoir: Brief Thoughts

This question came from a dearest spirit sister, Katey Schultz, writing instructor extraordinaire, author of the award-winning Flashes of War and Still Come Home.
We’re both capable teachers but we often turn to each other when we aren’t sure about theoretical responses that rise from specific student questions. I’ve turned to her more times than I can count. But in this case, here’s her writerly question to me.

Hi sister, One of my students is asking me about how to decide on a “container” (in terms of time frame, years included/spanned) for her memoir. She is a gifted writer and has attention from several agents right now. Several have told her she needs to be clear about the “container” and she can’t seem to decide how to do that, or what the container is. (She writes short/lyrical flash nonfictions, so I’ll steer her toward your earlier works first.) I know that’s rather vague sounding, but you’re more “boots on the ground” in this field than I am, so if any of this is sounding familiar, I’d be happy to hear even your briefest of thoughts on the matter.

Such a thoughtful question. So like Katey. My response here, adjusted for this blog.

Katey’s question doesn’t seem vague at all, but I did have to think about it for a while. I’m no expert on this, and nothing in creative nonfiction, and memoir in particular, is perfectly categorical. (So much in memoir is held in the style of memory—more on that in another blog.)

About container: On a lark, I looked up the most recent definition. Strictly speaking a container is a “standard unit of software that packages up code and all its dependencies so the application runs quickly and reliably from one computing environment to another.” Ha. Not what I expected, though perhaps that language is more insightful than the more traditional definition.

The code: For me, memoir by its very nature wanders, associative and accumulative, free-ranging among our thoughts as we write. We may have a time period or a subject (not the same as a container) but what we memoirists really attempt is a deciphering of memory’s randomness. Despite the delight of this for the writer, memoir isn’t likely to succeed for the reader without some focus, or until it is gathered into a unit, under an umbrella—even if the subject ranges in time or place. The challenge is finding a center that unifies and activates. To find it, I watch for puzzling relationships, related incidents, repeated objects or emotions that I cannot forget—formative pieces of data that are dependent on each other in some as yet unspoken way—chunks that keep rising in the wild swirl of thought. It’s a process unto itself and demands we pay attention to how we are thinking, often sitting with the material and watching it as from a distance. Metacognition.

I can speak of it most easily in my own work. The deep subject, my life “application” (for lack of a better term) is almost always about identity-shaping. Pulling Down the Barn holds all the family stories that occurred before I was 13 and shaped my place as a misfit on a beloved farm, as one who would forever love and always leave the place of my heart. House of Fields contains stories of education from my childhood and how attending many schools shaped my identity as an independent (and often quirky) thinker. Further, “school rooms” advanced the complexity of my understanding of the world, from a one-room school house to a convent. Love, Sex and 4-H spans a decade when I was in 4-H clubs, but the real container is sewing, learning to sew, and how sewing, pattern, fabric, making a piece of clothing was also about shaping my creative/artistic identity in a time of upheaval, the sixties. And now, As Long As I Know You, the surprise winner of AWP’s Sue William Silverman Award chosen by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, a memoir about my mother, is focused more esoterically on learning to be a better daughter. The container is less defined but still there: what does it mean to know someone, particularly to know a mother? It’s not a biography: I offer only the aspects of her life that people need to know in order to understand her personality. Thus, the focus is not on her history but on what happens between us as she enters dementia and we become friends. The container is what it means to know someone.

Here’s a more concrete analogy: imagine those decorative canisters on your counter. Usually they all match in some nice visually appealing way–mine are all green striped, inherited from a great aunt. But each one contains a single thing: flour, sugar, rice, cookies, etc. Or, as in the case with my respective memoirs: belonging, education, sewing. The canister/container/application can range over years, but all the chapters are united inside the green-striped ceramics. This container concept might also include collections of interlocking essays, but in those cases, the container is more like carry-on luggage, as in my collection An American Map. The essays were originally written as stand-alones, but the idea of the map (place and travel) became the container—a larger, more loosely shaped metaphor—but still very much doing its work.

I have read recent memoirs that “run reliably” with tight survivor containers: Dawn Newton’s Winded (her rare lung cancer), Nan Pokerwinski’s Mango Rash (her critical and cut-short year in Somoa). At a recent National Writers Series interview, Pam Houston explained her container for her memoir Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country as the old farmer’s almanac—the old style weather-predicting annual anchors the history of her relationship with her ranch in Colorado. And then of course, some incredibly good memoirs are not contained conventionally—there’s the lyric memoir in which the container may never be clear but rests in voice. Look at Robert Vivien’s powerful short essays in All I Feel is Rivers: Dervish Essays in which the wild dervish dance creates, paradoxically, an uncontained container, perfect for his passionate voice.

I’ve wandered deep into Katey’s question, stabbing at an answer, but here’s a final note. Knowing exactly what the container is—that is often a slow process. It may not at first be obvious to the writer; it may have to be discovered over time. Sometimes, it doesn’t reveal itself until near the end—as with As Long as I Know You, and then only thanks to Katey’s asking a critical question, What’s driving these? That helped. In my new manuscript of essays—evolving slowly, I’m still watching as a container, maybemaybe… is coming into view. The essays are all oddly structured: a code perhaps, maybe…numbers? Counting? Being of account—those inter-dependencies are still surfacing. It takes time and patience to discover the container, but once it’s there, it holds, and then the pleasure comes. You realize what fits in and what doesn’t—and that process is the subject for another blog. But trust this much: you are making a singular unit out of what feels like chaos; you are metaphorically coding the material in order to find the center that will ultimately contain your reader.