A few months ago, I showed the book jacket of my forthcoming memoir to a friend. This was a woman about my age, maybe a bit younger, a person and writer I admire but only know slightly. “You were pretty,” she said, with an air of perplexity. What did this mean, exactly, I wondered? That she found it hard to believe that the woman sitting across from her at a café table had ever looked good? If that was really me, my face had undergone a long decline. She must think I look awful, I decided. “Oh well,” I said, “it was a long time ago,” joining her disbelief in a gesture of wounded politesse.

Maybe putting one’s ingénue face on a memoir cover is a dangerous activity, dangerous to one’s vanity, it seems. But who would want to look at my face now, as I look back over my twenty-something life? Certainly not me. Better to run the risk of retrospective narcissism.

There are three photographs of me from my early days in Paris in the book: the cover, that was a street photo of me walking along the quais of the Seine; my passport picture; and another street photo, of me walking on the Boulevard St-Michel with my roommate. To me the pictures are there in order to document my narrative: yes, I lived there, and to me the girl I looked like then is important to the story. I was an American girl—in some ways generic—but I was also that American girl. A French major, a nice Jewish girl from New York, a girl who wanted above all to be happy, although she did not seem to have much of a talent for happiness, but was ready for any adventure.

The photographs document a moment, a moment past that certainly was, but if I only had had my snapshot album, I would not have been able to write the memoir. True, the images dated the change of boyfriend, the change of hairdo and hemline, but something crucial was lacking—but, as it turned out, miraculously available to me, something written: a cache of letters that I had sent home from my first day in Paris to my last. In the beginning, the weekly report was my parents’ particular pound of flesh—write a letter or we won’t send you any money (I was always broke). But after a while, the letter production became a habit. It was easier for me to write than to have them send me telegrams asking what was wrong. It was another era, when parents were unwilling to let girls be free and on their own.

Many, many years later, after my parents died, when I emptied the apartment I found the letters in my mother’s underwear drawer. They were bundled in chronological order, and occasionally, my father had included drafts of his letters (mainly of threats and condemnation). The letters were a gold mine of information—and misinformation. I could still remember what I had lied about. But even the letters were not enough. Yes, they gave me names and dates, but was I really in love with my husband to be, little dreaming I was about to marry a con man? “I’m really, really in love,” I wrote.

It’s hard to measure feelings fifty years later, not to mention recapture them.

And yet that is truly the challenge of memoir: to sort and sift through photographs and whatever documents remain, and try somehow to get back there in memory. It’s not only memory, of course. There’s the task of finding the story line that makes sense of each point of remembrance and holds them together in a coherent pattern, a narrative that feels like the truth. Have I found that?

I’m not sure, but I know that I never stopped asking: Was that me?

I wonder whether other memoirists have this sense of strangeness in writing about a self that both is and isn't past. Do photographs and letters, not to mention the memories of others, make the challenge of "resuscitation" harder or easier? What are other ways to find the bridge between past and present, of filling the inevitable gap between tenses? 

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Comment by Jill Jepson on November 9, 2013 at 4:21pm

I am only in the note-taking stage of writing a memoir (I have books published, but not a memoir yet), but what you said about your photo struck me. Once I showed some friends a picture of my 20-something else, and they all said things like, "This is YOU?" and "I can't believe you were so beautiful!" Then a few hastily added, "Not that you're unattractive now." By the time they were through, I felt like a withered old crone. Yet, perhaps it was good for me. Maybe letting go of my youth and reveling in the benefits of being older are beneficial to the soul--especially for someone embarking on a memoir. Just some thoughts . . .

Comment by Carol Hogan on November 9, 2013 at 10:30am

Yesterday I finished the first draft of a travel-adventure memoir I've been working on for eight years. It's the story of a two-year sailing trip I made with my husband and children that also took place fifty years ago. The most important piece of history was the logbook my husband kept. A lot of it was pretty dry reading, but it served as a timeline. It contained minute details of what repairs he made, dates we sailed to different ports and a little of what happened while there. He also made clever observations, and I used those quotes a lot because they were immediate and reminded me of what I felt at the time. Often I would write a scene just to get it started, and then review our pictures and find I hadn't remembered it correctly at all. They jarred my memory and helped me set the scenes. My parents saved the letters all of us wrote home, and my husband and I also published a travel column for a newspaper. After our trip I wrote features for magazines about the trip. All of these pieces helped me write the story,but sometimes even that wasn't enough to bring out memories of the strong feelings I knew I felt. I began reading other memoirs on any number of subjects, and that helped me more than anything. Often I would stumble on something another author had written and think "That's exactly how I felt." And then I could dig deeper in my memory, and write my own feelings. Does that make sense? I think you hit the nail on the head when you said:

"It’s hard to measure feelings fifty years later, not to mention recapture them.

"And yet that is truly the challenge of memoir: to sort and sift through photographs and whatever documents remain, and try somehow to get back there in memory."

Comment by Susan Holck on November 8, 2013 at 5:31am

I have photographs but few letters from the time I'm writing about in my memoir. The photos help trigger memories and feelings, but I still find myself wondering "Was that really how I felt?" Or is it how I think I felt, or even would like to think I felt, now that I look back on that time with some twenty years of hindsight. But when I find myself shaking my proverbial head in dismay at the choices I made at the time, I know I'm on to something. I do my best to search for what I recall being my motivation at the time, how I viewed the world then, and reflect on what I have learned since. And sometimes I ask myself would I really act differently now if I didn't know how that particular story ended? All of this is rich food for thought for me in my writing.

Comment by Jenna Sauber on November 7, 2013 at 1:35pm

Really interesting food for thought here. I, too, have gone back to read old journal entries, letters, and blog posts, and thought about major turning points in my life, and wondered at the emotions I felt at the time. But just had a great talk about it with my dad, and he reminded me that often when we question ourselves ("Did I feel that?") in that way, we're judging ourselves. Instead of judging the feelings we had in that moment, we can instead reflect on it, and ask if we would respond or feel the same way today if the situation arose again. That was YOU, but you are different now, because we all grow and evolve. So maybe today, you wouldn't be as in love with your husband to be, but it doesn't mean that you weren't in that moment, as a young woman. I do it all the time, too, though, and in telling our stories, we need to remember that our memories of how we felt in the moment might not be as strong, but they were true, and they did happen. We just feel them differently now!


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