Learning To See: Advice For New Memoirists

Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Mark Matousek is the author of two acclaimed memoirs, the international bestseller Sex Death Enlightenment and The Boy He Left Behind, as well as When You’re Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living; Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life; and Writing to Awaken. Here, he shares some writing advice for new memoirists.

A memoir is a universe unto itself, an imagined world of real-life characters, events, and locations brought together to tell a story that exists in memory alone. Constructed from unassailable facts, every memoir is a work of fiction, in fact, a rough simulacrum of the past, more a dreamscape than a photograph.

This is the life-giving freedom of memoir: to reimagine what has happened to us; to foment meaning from meaningless things; to give form, physicality, to what is formless. Every memoir must happen somewhere; a narrative must have a stage to be effective, a setting the reader can recognize that grounds the action in time and space. Without a stage, there is no story. There are just fragments, phantoms, and half-baked characters in search of a coherent author. Nobody wants to read that book.

There are two levels to setting in memoir: the external and the internal, the physical and the emotional. Physical setting is only a start. For a story truly to come to life, external location must be animated through the lens of the writer’s imagination. A memoir must have its own atmosphere, which is formed where geography and emotion meet. Without atmosphere, memoir is a dry husk, a story with no palpable there there.  Thinking back on the memoirs I’ve loved, it’s their atmosphere that has remained with me decades later, long after plots and characters have been forgotten.  Atmosphere is the soul of memoir, the afterglow that lingers when form is long gone. Forty years after reading The Snow Leopard, I can still smell the blistering cold and the pine sap, combined with Peter Matthiessen’s loneliness, as he grieved his dead wife in Himalayas (though the story’s structure has long since disappeared). Twenty years after reading The Cloister Walk, its atmosphere is still close to me – candles flickering in the gloom of a monastery, silence made vivid by spiritual hunger – though I can’t recall a single passage of Kathleen Norris’s wonderful book.

Atmosphere is conjured through impeccable detail, the selection of physical signs and symbols that best reflect the memoir’s emotional journey. This requires precision, practice, and craft; also, an archaeologist’s patience for sifting through enormous piles of rubble in search of the fragment that captures the whole. While writing Mother of the Unseen World, for instance, I spent time in the little South Indian town where Mother Meera has her ashram school for underprivileged children. I’d been in India many times before and was filled again with a storm of discordant feelings that strikes me whenever I visit, seeing beauty and horror crammed so close together, gorgeous homages to spiritual glory planted in dung heaps of suffering and filth.

I’d struggled with the atmosphere in Mother of the Unseen World. How to avoid the clichés and stereotypes that this country invites with her extremity? I’d written about India before, but a subtler atmosphere was needed here, since Mother Meera herself is so subtle, working in silence, under the radar. But the telling details had eluded me, keeping me stuck with manuscript. Then, one evening, the inertia gave way. Walking toward town in search of dinner, I turned off the busy avenue and found what I’d been looking for. There, underneath a mimosa tree, I found a Brahma bull tethered to an ancient washing machine, its nose buried deep in pile of garbage. The bull was nearly skeletal, his coat the same beaten-up color as the dirt that he was standing in.  The animal raised its head to greet me, a mess of old vegetables smushed in its mouth.  It seemed to be saying, Here I am. What took you so bloody long to find me?

This was the image I’d been waiting for, this “holy” beast strapped to a rusty appliance. It symbolized what I was feeling exactly, the poignant collision of ancient and modern, the contradiction of sacred and profane. This sad-funny picture of the Brahma bull helped me conjure the hybrid atmosphere required to write this difficult book. Our job as memoirists is to recognize such telling details where we find them, training our eyes to the shining thing poking up from the rubble of meaningless things: to isolate the things that matter. The art of memoir is learning to see.