The Craft of Narrative
If memory valorizes one’s life, it humbles us as well. As the saying goes, “Life is what happens while we are making other plans.” In retrospect, those choices and consequent events may cause delight as well as remorse or delay in realizing dreams that are replaced by unexpected events but also give us the time necessary to achieve some ambitions and perhaps allow insight into life’s patterns. Writing a memoir combines fictional monologue and essay. Both genres are intimate first-person addresses to a reader, preferable to use Roland Barthes’s terminology from his book S/Z, a “writerly reader.”
The selection of the title for these three disparate memoirs is taken from a term used in painting: the showing through of a past image overlain by a more recent one. Lillian Hellman used this term for her memoir and the subsequent film, Pentimento. I am a writer and a teacher of literary fiction, including Homer’s Odyssey, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s various novels, in particular Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, in which written memory, the superimposition of current feelings and observations onto past events results in an ordering of what may otherwise be forgotten or fragmented or considered as irrelevant and disconnected events. Virginia Woolf reminded her teenage nephew and later biographer Clive Bell to remember that “nothing has happened until it has been recounted.”
Recollection—the ordering of remembered events, feelings, and their consequences, external and internal—gives us order through crafted narrative. Homer set the stage for this recognition when he begins the journey of his long epic with an address to the Muse, saying, “Begin where’er thou wilt” to retell the tale “for our time too.” And so we begin a crafted set of memories, beginning in medias res, the middle of things, rather than accounting for every event in an uncrafted chronological order. Retelling produces awareness of patterns of cause and effect. Flashbacks can reveal apparent prophecies too.
This awareness, thanks to years of teaching and discussing literary works of art, has prompted me to present these brief memoirs from three apparently distinct stages of my life. “Only connect!” as E. M. Forster advised is worthy of remembering, if difficult to apply.