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.
Hey, nice post. I need to read Mr. Obama’s memoir. Did you find it before he was running for President?
Thanks, Deanna! This was one of my favorite memoirs from the year before last (2007), but even then it had been out for quite some time. I read it just as President Obama’s star began rising.
Sekecting scenes that make the most emotional impact. Good advice as I continue work on my memoir-in-progress. A friend sent me a link to an old piece in Writer’s Chronicle this morning about memoirs that is amazing. You probably saw it back in the day, but in case you didn’t, check out Mark Dotys article, here: http://www.awpwriter.org/magazine/writers/mdoty01.htm. Great site, Tim.
[…] his greatness, but that doesn’t stop us. Writing — like all forms of communicating — is a universal urge. We write because we must, even if it […]
I really like this post. I think, “Write honestly and the rest will come,” is good advice. For some reason, this post reminds me quite a bit of Bird by Bird, by Anne Lemmott. Have you read it? Based on this post, I think you might enjoy it. Personally, it’s one of my favorite books on writing.
This makes me want to read that memoir. Thanks for the great advice and the wonderful book suggestion!
Hey B! Thanks for the kind words.
Anne will be in Seattle this Thursday and I hope to go see her. I loved Bird By Bird, probably one of my favorite books on how to approach the writing life. So, big praise for me to hear from you that this post reminds you of that book.