Introducing Memoir: Image and Word/Word and Image. This workshop begins on February 8 and meets on Saturday mornings from 9am to 11:30am until March 29. It promises self-exploration culminating in the creation of a personal memoir. Last semester, it was very exciting, resulting in succinctly beautiful projects conceived, created, and compiled by the students. We asked the faculty, Franco Salmoiraghi and Craig Howes, a little bit about their class and the subject matter; memoir.
What is a memoir?
Franco: There is a good discussion of the meaning of memoir on the Wikipedia website:
“A memoir (from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence), is a literary genre, forming a subclass of autobiography – although the terms ‘memoir’ and ‘autobiography’ are almost interchangeable. In his own memoir Palimpsest, the author Gore Vidal gave a personal definition: “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”
I think that because memoir is connected to our memory, not all memoir writing is –– or needs to be –– totally factual. A memoir is a story telling device that helps us make sense of our life and pass on our feelings to others.
Craig: It’s a story that people write about themselves that they claim is true in its factual details. Traditionally, memoirs have tended to be more about relationships with other people—often famous ones, or family members—as opposed to autobiography, where the writer takes center stage. But these distinctions have recently been blurring. For our purposes, a memoir is a narrative you create about yourself and those you have known.
How can everyday people engage memoir in both image and word?
Franco: There are stories from our lives that we tell over and over. When we make a new acquaintance, these stories are often a way of telling who we are, where we have been, how we connect to family, community, work, and about our attitude toward the world in general. In some ways, it is like reciting our genealogy.
There are other stories that are latent in our memory, waiting to be released and told.
Many of our memories and their stories are connected to something visual: a place, a person, a particular experience. This visual aspect may be represented by a photograph, drawing, or any image that connects us to memory. It may be from the distant past: family, school, home, church, the movies, television, the illustration on a box of cereal. And sometimes these images release memories.
Craig: Almost everybody already is, whether in a scrapbook, or on Facebook, or in photo albums with captions, or in family genealogies. It’s all about showing (image) and telling (word). Choosing the best personal strategy for doing this is our concern for the course.
What is the importance of memoir?
Franco: Memoir is a way of writing and seeing that creates meaning from our memories and experiences. The combining of word and image helps us to know more about the past. This is our history.
Of course memories can be aroused by any number of things. For me the smell of onions cooking in butter evokes intense feelings and memories about my mother’s kitchen and the pleasure of food. This happens every time I cook.
Photographs do this too. They can trigger cascades of thoughts that we then speak as oral history or write as memoir.
Craig: What we call “experience” often follows the pattern of memoir. We look back at what we have done to decide what we will do, how we will do it, and why. We also supply memoirs of a kind to people in many everyday situations. A resume is a memoir, and the most effective job application letters often provide a retrospective personal narrative as well. Memoirs also provide other people with valuable, if vicarious, experience. Reading how one person dealt with challenges can often provide a template for facing our own.
Why would someone want a memoir?
Franco: To tell our story. We have the opportunity to play around with the latent memories of our lives to find a context for the personal experiences that make us who we are. I cannot know why I –– or my family –– did many of the things we did or said the things we said –– or why life turned out to be the way it is. Even if we cannot unravel the mysteries, we can preserve them and tell our story.
Finding photographs from the past helps us connect memories and experiences. Pictures help us understand that some things we remember did not even happen to us. Memories are so strong in our mind and yet, what we are really remembering are photographs we have seen and creating a memory from those images. Even though we may not have actually had those experience in real time, the fact that we think we remember events or people makes them a very real part of our own personal memory bank.
Craig: If you have by desire or default become your family’s genealogist or archivist, you might find that other people feel you must produce a memoir, which can be another term for family history. There are thousands of possible forms of memoir, incorporating word, image, moving image, material culture, sound, and many other components.
What would a presentation of our memoir look like?
Franco: Visually, a memoir can take many forms. Traditional presentations would be books, scrapbooks or hand-made artists books and albums. And newer forms include films and videos on dvd’s or hard drives. Social media and blogs now offer innumerable ways of presenting, sharing and preserving a memoir by combining various forms.
For me, the most relevant, tactile and intimate way of preserving the past is in the form of a self-made book. These become family albums with notations –– beautiful and nostalgic objects that actually exists in our life to share with others. They can also exist as multiples and be replicated.
In the class, we print and make objects to pass around, look at and share. This is a way of drawing people closer together. By sitting in a circle and telling stories about their objects and artifacts, we communicate more directly. It helps us to learn from each other.
Whatever form a presentation takes, it can be preserved digitally by scanning and PDF files. This is a way to send our stories to others and preserve family data that might otherwise be lost. Everyone can have a copy.
What can people learn from the class?
Franco: People will learn to connect fragmented parts of their personal or family history through words and pictures in ways they may not have thought of before.
Memory is often latent, and that latency can be revealed to us through meditation –– a way of allowing our awareness of something we never knew to be made known. Through access to our memory, we may see everything more clearly. I think of this as similar to developing the invisible latent image on film and making it visible to our eye.
This is the power of observation.
Working with family photographs, the light from the past brings memories forward into our consciousness. Our ancestors appear as historical figures. Their lives are uncovered, recreated and emerge once again into this present moment to speak with us face to face. Our imaginations and sentient knowing of how things may have been in the past gives them life. This history is often from family stories lost to time. Spirits appear to us from unknown, unrecognized and forgotten states of mind, images and experiences and give us back our stories from the past. We then remember and write our own history. This is our memoir.
Craig: We’re hoping to provide many options for recording and organizing memories and souvenirs (photos, letters, etc. etc.), and also a supportive and interested group of people to share their own challenges in recording the past, and the solutions they may have found.