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Undertaking Memoir
Written by
Patricia Reis
July 2014
Written by
Patricia Reis
July 2014

“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?

Unless 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 the unforeseeable future, but at the shimmering threshold in between.


In writing memoir, we are frequently bringing people who are dead back to life on the page. What do you think is involved in this undertaking?

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  • Patricia Reis

    Mary, your memoir about the 3 generations in your family sounds really great!  My ancestors bought prairie land in Iowa - outside of Odebolt - after the Civil War - they farmed it - and then, through a series of tragic events, lost the farm - My brother and I got the plat map and visited several years ago - and - nothing but cornfields to the horizon!  Although the people were easily located in the cemetery!!!  I know that the early farmers had to use a special prairie-busting ploww to break into virgin prairieland in those days.  And horses were the means.  Love doing the research! 

  • Patricia Reis

    Thanks, Mardi, I agree - that threshold is where aliveness is!  Good luck with your project!  Hope to hear more about it!

  • Mardi Link

    Thanks, Patricia, for this insightful post. It is daunting to write about those people who lived in our lives, sometimes larger than life, but did not outlive us. The "shimmering threshold in between" -- yes, that's it, isn't it? Timely for me in my latest project.

  • Patricia,

    My memoir (which I plan to be more than a memoir) is about my mother and aunt, my grandmother and her sister, and myself. My grandfather would not allow anything mechanized on his 125 acre grain farm (this was in 1944) and he farmed with a team of Clydesdales (Jack and Jim), as well as hired and indentured help. My memories are vivid of that time and the trip through the grand old Penn Station and the luxe train ride overnight to Canada. I found my recollections were correct when I researched the station and NYC and The Maple Leaf Express. The farm house is still there. It is landmarked and one acre remains around it but the wheat fields have given way to corn and the trees that lined the road went when they widened it some years ago. I think that farming was much the same in Iowa, but many farmers probably had gas-powered tractors then (as many did around Grandfather's land, to his dismay).

  • Patricia Reis

    Thanks, Mary for your comment.  I guess my point - at the end of the piece - is that a memoirist can encounter and engage with another even if they are dead - and make that person live and breathe on the page.  I guess that is what I am after - and like Carol points out - making it happen is the art - everything gets passed through the sieve of the writer's memory and imagination and is re-presentation.  

    Am eager to know about your second book.  I, too, have another piece I am working on - my pioneering farming ancestors in Iowa - I have a slew of documentation - not enough to make it a memoir though, i.e. I wasn't alive when they were  - so I am curious to know how you are doing  your piece?  Memoir, CNF, etc.

  • Carol Schlanger

    Hi!   Oh no! Not the memoir police!  I quiver in my shoes.  Everything it seems, is a bumpy ride.  Maybe I'll develop

    a new genre: fictomoir or memofict   Something like that. I believe everything is made up because there is no reality.  Facts do have to be true, as do times and dates.   All the rest.. for me, that's art.  Mea Culpa.  However, I understand and laud all work that is true and right and totally engaging.   Got your message, thank-you and so happy I made you laugh.  That's what I do. 

  • Comment by Mary Wallis Gutmann

    Thanks for talking about memoir. Even if the main characters are no more, it is possible to paint a true picture if they were well-known, or better yet, if the author knew them.

    Insight into the person is what I'm looking for in memoir. "Caleb's Crossing," by Geraldine Brooks is an example. It the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College—a book about life in 1600s America. Ms Brooks had slender information to go on about Caleb, but much about the times, and her work of fiction puts the reader right there with wonderfully sensitive detail and depth of feeling.

    I am working on two memoirs, one about the life of an English character dancer who had a career beginning in the 1930s until his death recently at 90. There is a great deal of information about him and his extremely unusual childhood and his long career and so this will be a work of non-fiction. I was lucky to know him well, so I can get inside his head and add to the memoir he was working on (with my help) to give an authentic picture. His friends are adding to the story with their own amusing, irreverent, and insightful stories.

    My second book, nearly finished, is a memory of an overnight train trip to Canada through the old Pennsylvania Station in NYC on the Maple Leaf Express to my grandparents' farm in Ontario. The lives of three generations of women are interwoven, as well as the depiction of their lives and times in 1944, both in New York and on the farm—Clydesdales, wood stove, cream separator, and all.  

  • Patricia Reis

    Hi, Carol, thanks for the comment.  I had to laugh when you said, "All of it is true except for the parts that I made up"!!!  Do you care to elaborate on that sentence which usually sends people over the edge?  How do we know what's true! Is she just making all this stuff up?  Should we call the "memoir police?" 

  • Carol Schlanger

    It seems I've been writing my memoir for most of my adult life.   Everyone in it is alive except for my parents who are dead.  I've changed the names of the living and hope they won't get mad at me or worse.   All of it is true except the parts that i made up.  FAR OUT  (Life and Love on a Wilderness Commune) among other things is hopefully a page turner.  That is what any writer wants, to engage the reader to the point where they can't stop reading.    As for raising the dead, well, if I were dead, I wouldn't mind being raised or remembered.  

  • Patricia Reis

    Thanks for your comments, Pamela and Paula.  At the AWP in Seattle this past March, I heard a panel chaired by Joy Castro called "Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family," based on Castro's collection by the same name.  I highly recommend this book for anyone engaged in the writing about family members.  The contributors shared their highs and lows, and some are pretty darn funny!  Like one woman's mother whose only complaint about a not-so- pretty portrayal was that NO, she did NOT color her hair!  Or another relative that was peeved that she had only a minor appearance - as opposed to what she thought was a starring role! Also the contributors discuss ethical challenges - especially when writing about children.

    Pamela, I think you statement "MY truth" is an important one.  After all, isn't that all we ever really have to our name?  And Paula, your need to portray your father in his human complexity is what will make your piece worthwhile.  Two other writers whose work was highly recommended by this panel were: Patricia Hampl's piece, "Other People's Secrets," and Sharon Olds, the poet, who wrote an essay on Loyalty and Betrayal. Both deeply honest, thoughtful and soulful.

  • Pamela Fender

    In my memoir, Beside Myself: Recovery From My Family Betrayal and Estrangement (the title tells it all), I wrote my truth as best as I remembered it. Telling my truth was retelling stories about the people I loved and wonderful memories and the people who I didn't have the best of relationships (my mother) and the not-so-happy memories.

    Tell your truth...that's my take.

  • Paula Marie Usrey

    I am on the cusp of writing my first memoir. One of the characters I will be including in my work is my deceased father.  I have struggled with how I will portray him. My hope is to see the world through his eyes, through a child's eyes, and through the eyes of an adult daughter. I think I have to be open, honest, and fair. Dad was neither a saint nor the devil incarnate. He was a man who struggled and had regrets, but he usually tried to do the right thing.