For me, the mark of a good memoir is how much of it I can remember once I’ve set it aside for any amount of time. Last night as I watched Barack Obama address congress, I found myself thinking about a poignant scene from his debut memoir, Dreams From My Father.
Here is the setup: Barack’s father, a native Kenyan, who has been separated from the family and living in Kenya since Barack was two, is coming to visit. The elder Obama is an official for the Kenyan government. His visit home includes a celebrity visit to his ten-year-old son’s school. Barack feels torn: he is reluctant to have an African show up at his school, but he is excited to finally meet his absentee father. The image used to illustrate this ambivalence is young Barack looking up a picture of a Kenyan in a reference book, only to find a man in a loin cloth holding a spear. How perfectly this scene illustrates those first tentative steps a child takes from private to public life. He looks forward to meeting his father but also values the esteem of his classmates.
This scene works because it’s both universal and specific. It captures the specifics of young Barack’s coming of age—a broken home, the quiet longing, an African father. But it also shows the universals—a ten-year-old sensibility, an elementary school milieu, the child’s growing awareness of his own public identity.
If you asked me to characterize a universal trait of growing up, I am not sure the threat of mortification would ride high on my list. Yet two years after first reading this scene, I can remember a good bit of the detail. Why is that? Maybe it’s because the image of a boy so horrified by his own imagination easily reminds me of my own childhood anxiety around being embarrassed.
Here is what I know: If you try to write a universal scene, you can easily end up with something that sounds stiff and self conscious, completely missing the mark. Instead I think we have to learn to trust our instincts to select the right scenes, the ones with the most emotional impact.
And then just let go and let the muse do the rest.