Deepest thanks to my dear readers for attending the launch of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography at the Boulder Bookstore on August 20. I’ll be reading again September 12 at Wolverine Farm Books in Ft Collins and September 27 at the Tattered Cover in LoDo, with a signing at MacDonald’s Book Shop in Estes Park this Saturday. I appreciate my readers’ support as my book goes out into the world. For those who have asked how they can help, please remember your local library and suggest that they purchase A Bushel’s Worth for its stories of small-scale and community supported agriculture, fresh food, family genealogy, rural history, ecology of the West, farmland preservation, and women’s farming lives.
I’m looking forward to returning to Pearlmoonplenty before long, but until then, here’s a guest blog on memoir that I wrote for SheWrites, the on-line women’s writing community.
What Readers Need to Know
“But you never say whether you found your brother’s bear. Readers will want to know,” my mother emailed me after reading “Silos,” a chapter from my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. “Mom,” I wrote back, “that would be a different narrative arc, the ‘Did she find the bear?’ narrative arc.”
But what I might have answered was, “Mom, this story isn’t about my brother and his missing bear. This story is about my childhood discovery of independence based on an early memory of walking outside alone in the dark. The story is about something bigger than finding the bear or not. The missing bear provided the situation but was marginal to the discovery I made about myself. It’s that discovery that I want readers to understand by showing them a pivotal moment for me in forming a relationship with the natural world.”
All writers have to decide what goes in a piece of writing and what stays out. With memoir, the temptation can be to put too much in because, we figure, it happened in real life. However, memoir, unlike autobiography, is not an attempt to catalog the events of an entire life. Instead, memoir selects a moment or series of moments in order to explore the writer’s realization or perception of their significance.
This meaning is not drawn from the events as they occurred per se, but from the writer’s memory of them. As Judith Barrington suggests in Writing the Memoir, memoir both “tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in light of [one’s] current knowledge.” What memoir writers must show is not only what happened, but what new understanding—at the time or in recollection—emerged because of it. To take the reader along on this journey, the writer must ask which ideas and details shape the narrative toward that end.
When I taught writing at the university, the first piece my students wrote was a first-person essay about a significant life event. When they brought their first drafts to class, I asked them to cross out the opening paragraph to see whether they liked starting at the second one better. Almost every student preferred the new version to the original because they had started their essay with extraneous information or by telling the reader what the essay would be about with sentences like “Little did I know . . . .” The second paragraph, on the other hand, was usually where the narrative really began, often by providing a scene rather than a lecture. Students learned to not tell readers what the story was about but rather, to let the story unfold so that readers might discover its meaning for themselves.
Crossing out the first paragraph is an easy trick, but on a deeper level, we can think about what belongs in or out of a memoir if we remember how memoirs are shaped by the interplay between recollection and reflection. Following memory down the corridor of time yields many details, not all of which are important to the story we want to tell. Which details—of setting, background, character, time, intention—should be included will depend on what perception, meaning, or message the writer is pursuing.
When I write, I begin with a kernel of the story, often a scene, and build out from there by adding and subtracting ideas and information that lead the reader in the direction I want them to go. When I started A Bushel’s Worth, I drew scenes of my farming life from a journal I’d kept for years. I used these to create chapters based on broad themes like thrift, community, generosity, and grace.
But as I wrote, childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms kept coming to mind and I realized that to create what I call “ecobiography,” or ecology based memoir, I needed to go back further in my life. Those earlier experiences expanded the scope of the book by shaping it as a reunion with my family’s farming past rather than another memoir of escaping city ways. At the same time, some of the nuts and bolts of farming from earlier drafts had to come out, making the book more reflective of lessons learned from nurturing land, crops, and the community they feed.
And what of the bear? Perceptive readers will find him connecting my farming past and future with three little words: “another bear awaits.”