Friday, August 14, 2015

Memoir Craft: Grappling With Memory in Warm Springs (Part 3)

In Part 1, I wrote about Susan Richards Shreve's craft technique of writing about her memory within the creative narrative of her memoir, Warm Springs. She begins immediately with the word "traces" and its double meaning: the small responses still evident in muscles atrophied by polio, and the flashes of memory she mines from her time living at the polio hospital.

In Part 2, we looked at the beautiful scene describing Shreve's first memory, one that could not have happened, but she insists she remembers.

For this final part, let's consider the way Shreve makes use of her first novel, Wooden and Wicker. It is, as she admits, not a great piece of writing. She wrote it when she was eighteen and found it forty years later at a friends house while she was doing research for her memoir. She is embarrassed at the the manuscript's sentimentality, how many facts she changed, and how she created herself as the virtuous, undeniable hero of the story.

Although it was not intended to be non-fiction, Shreve was surprised how much her “youthful invention” differed from her “present memory.” Even with this discrepancy, she finds the novel useful for exploring certain memories and recapturing details. It may have even shifted the intention behind her writing: “I initially wanted to write this book to make sense of what had happened in the years I lived at Warm Springs, but it’s difficult to connect the strings of truth.” The search for memory, she’s saying, can change you, can make you want something different from your story than what you thought you wanted.

The metaphor of this “youthful invention” stands for the function of memory within her larger story, with all of its potential pitfalls and power. It must all be laid bare and explored, no matter how clearly accurate or embarrassing wrong. The intention of the writing must be flexible enough to shape itself around the framework of what memory allows.

After all of this consideration, Shreve declares that “the truth of this story is in the way I see it now” (63). This is a strikingly transparent statement of process and intent. As Shreve continues her story, researching and re-reading and questioning her memory, she once again decides to trust herself over everything else. This is the only way for her to create a cohesive narrative, and she does so both by believing in the power of her own mind while still allowing for its fallibility.

Shreve holds herself to this standard until the very end. As she is leaving Warm Springs for the last time, shrouded in the tragedy of Joey Buckley’s broken legs, the girls who shared her room say goodbye: “’It’s been really, really fun,’ Sandy Newcombe called after me, and her voice was breaking. I think I heard that her voice was breaking” (211). In one sentence Shreve sums up her entire philosophy of handling memory: trust yourself. Tell the story. Admit your fallibility but don’t be afraid of it; just be honest about it. This is what happened. I think.

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