Undertaking Memoir

“It helps if they are dead,” say many memoirists when asked about including family members in their work. Clearly, memoir is an undertaker’s profession: how to present the person so they look as natural as they did in life? Consider, for example, preparing the late Mickey Easterling, the infamous Grande Dame of New Orleans, for her big finale. “My goal,” said her wardrobe consultant and cosmetician, “was to make her look even prettier than she was in real life.” So there she sits, a well-cosseted Mickey, presiding over her own memorial party perched on a raised wrought iron bench wearing a bright rose-flowered dress, outrageous hat, fuchsia pink feather boa, a cigarette holder and champagne flute clutched in the bejeweled claws of her red fingernail painted hands, a diamond-studded “Bitch” pin prominently displayed on her chest. True to life.


But there is more to writing memoir than embalmer’s magic. There is the godlike miracle of bringing the dead back to life so they can live and breathe on the page. Although I tried mightily (as noted in my previous post, Putting on the Fiction Dress), I could not perform the life-giving miracle by fictionalizing the story I had to tell. I could not raise my protagonist from the dead. The editor who delivered his querulous comment, “I do not know what makes this woman tick,” was right. She wasn’t ticking. How to get a heart to start beating?

In her wonderfully titled book of essays, Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood says “. . . . perhaps all writing is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality, by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.”As Atwood acknowledges, a journey to the Underworld is risky business. Rules must be obeyed. Hades allowed a grieving Orpheus, the great poet and musician, to descend to the Underworld to retrieve his beloved Eurydice, with the strict proviso that he not look back. He does, and she is lost to him forever. No looking back? Memoir is nothing if not looking back. How else to perform the feat of resurrection?Orpheus and Euridice

Orpheus and EuridiceUnless you are Jesus or Sylvia Plath, (“the girl who wanted to be god,”) raising the dead is a high act of hubris. In switching from fiction to writing a memoir of my relationship with my aunt, I had to get two hearts beating. Ruth, a Franciscan nun, had been dead for ten years. I have 200 pages of her handwritten letters, enough to get her ticking. My copious journals from our letter-writing years (1978-1990) provided the gasp factor, the shock, that gets my own heart going. Still, these treasured texts are only remnants, imprints and evidence of a love exchanged.

Like Mickey Easterling, the body may be brought back with skill and artistry, but it is the soul that is of interest. The memoirist differs from the embalmer because she can, if granted the gift, breathe a soul back to life. As Margaret Atwood says, “The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back to the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more. . . . ” Undertaking memoir, like the trip to the Underworld, is a tricky business. Hades’ admonition is right. “Do not look Back.” Writing memoir is not the immortalizing mission of Orpheus, it is an on-going negotiation that occurs neither in the past of looking back nor forward toward the unforeseeable future, but at the shimmering threshold in between.

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