“A fiction writer starts with meaning, then manufactures events to represent it.
A memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.”
on DeLillo, award-winning American novelist, playwright, and essayist, supposedly said the above quote. Whether he actually did, I can’t prove; I’ve never had an opportunity to be in a room with him, never mind overhear him when he might have said it to someone.
Memoirist Mary Karr, in her book The Art of Memoir, as well as a circa-2015 Huffington Post article, both attribute the quote to Mr. DeLillo. That’s good enough for me. Let’s assume he did say it, at one time or another.
I like this quote. A lot. It sums up the struggle I’m knee-deep in as a creative nonfiction (CNF) writer who is drafting her first memoir while also writing CNF essays and submitting to literary journals.
“A memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.”
As mentally laborious as it is to go back in my mind and recall the inciting event I’m writing about—the pre-, during, and post-scenarios that shape its narrative—it’s the meaning I must squeeze from the event that is challenging, time-consuming, and most of all, humbling.
But, Wait! Before We Go There...
This pursuit of figuring out meaning after an event—what differentiates memoirists from fiction writers who, in Mr. DeLillo’s view, have their meaning mapped out before they world-build—unfolds as we’re also tackling the whole “did it really go down that way?” dilemma.
Ever since the scandal over the 2003 book A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, memoirists like me lose sleep at night, wondering if our work might one day also be exposed for containing more fiction than truth.
That’s the trick, the delicate dance we memoirists and essayists engage in each time we pick up our proverbial feathered pen or sit down to our keyboards. Is what I’m writing accurate? Fair? To whom? Me? That person I just wrote about for three pages?
I scan chapters from my memoir and consider: Was the argument I had with Mom the blowout I made it out to be, when I told her I was going ahead with my plans for a safari to Kenya and To Hell! with what she thought—even after being told I had a bleeding tumor in my brain? Furthermore, was I truly that clueless? (Sadly, yes. Yes, I was. I’d try to rationalize it to you now, but that’s kind of the point I’m striving to make in my manuscript. You’ll have to wait to learn why I was so clueless until my story lands on bookshelves one day—I hope!)
Did Mom really almost bang the phone down on me? She’s feisty, no doubt, but she’s never been rude; and truly, what’s more uncivilized than banging a phone down in someone’s ear? Am I being unfair, assigning those words, that tone of voice, to her? Could it be my inner drama queen muscling her way into my memoir and upping the stakes of our argument for a bigger cliffhanger?
Did my brother really crack that joke in the room, as a brain surgeon described how he was going to open the back of my head? Maybe I just wanted Sean to do that because, God knows, if there was ever a need for someone to inject levity into a situation, that would have been one of those times.
I trust in my memory of these scenarios. And what I cannot faithfully recall—that lost period in the ICU, those early days in the brain injury rehab hospital, some of those long-ago childhood incidents when I first started showing signs that something was physically amiss—it’s then that my family helps me fill in pieces. Thanks to Mom’s impressive memory, I captured on the page the details of my left eye that crossed overnight into my nose at age four, and when my limp showed up before kindergarten—both early indicators of my tumor’s presence since birth. It was Mom’s detailed notes, as I lay in a hospital bed, that helped me stitch together the early post-op days, for how could I recall everything (anything?) that came after almost twelve hours of open-head surgery?
“My muse, I’m coming to realize, prefers sad songs (as many writers do) over peppy dance tunes. She’s more country music, my-heart-just-got-smashed fan, than house party diva.”
Now, Where Was I?
That’s right, Mr. DeLillo’s quote.
“A memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.”
The pursuit of finding meaning in my narrative often overwhelms me. It brings on debilitating writer’s block.
I’ve discovered a strange pattern with my nonfiction writing. My block is strongest when I’m feeling great—when summer hits and I’m outside gardening, when barbeques and the beach beckon, when friends call up with invitations to outdoor concerts and waterfront dining. While I love the distraction—what writer doesn’t?—I feel terrible when I watch my productivity nosedive.
Could being in a happy or relaxed frame of mind hinder my writing? I’ve wondered about this. For it’s more often when my memory is triggered by something sad or tragic, something unjust, that the words flow.
On my patio, overlooking my garden, on an idyllic June evening? Not so much.
The other day I tallied up my word count. It came to 2,993 words—something I’d feel good about were it a weekly sum. Except, this was my total over almost four months.
I’d signed up for a WOW! essay class in the beginning of June, and that whopping word count was the result, after which I didn’t write another thing until this essay, penned in mid-September. The workshop’s theme was “What Our Bodies Have to Say.” It seemed the perfect complement to my memoir, as my brain, and what happened to it, plays the starring role.
I dove in, determined to draft essays I could fold into my memoir or submit to literary journals. Yet, I worried how productive I’d be. My head, by then, had moved into summertime mode. Finding meaning was the last thing on my mind. I was more interested in finding the next happy hour at a waterfront bar.
As the workshop’s first week was ending, though, I had an aha moment, sadly tied to news of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in early June.
It’s true, I thought, at least for me and how I write. My productivity rises when I dig in on something upsetting.
It’s neither a good nor bad thing, not right or wrong. It’s how I work, at least in this slice of my life when I’m drafting a memoir and CNF essays.
As online news outlets vied with each other over every awful detail that week, bombarding us with daily accounts—how Bourdain did it; who, if anyone, might have driven him to it; what it meant for his daughter, his girlfriend, his TV network—I sat down to write. Even summer’s siren call didn’t lure me away.
On a Sunday morning, in my favorite rocking chair that faces a sunny nook, a turret in my Victorian where a baby grand piano stands and three windows look out onto a backyard of trees, I tapped out a first draft of what would become a 1,300-word essay on my phone keypad. (This has become one of my favorite ways to write first drafts, especially on weekend mornings.)
Forty-five minutes later, I looked up. The sun had moved around the turret and was streaming onto a corner of the baby grand. I re-read my essay and knew it was something I could work with because it came from a place of hurt. For me, news of Bourdain opened a way to write, for the first time, about my sister-in-law’s suicide years earlier.
Mining for Meaning
My muse, I’m coming to realize, prefers sad songs (as many writers do) over peppy dance tunes. She’s more country music, my-heart-just-got-smashed fan, than house party diva.
My muse—for now, but maybe not forever—responds better to mining for meaning from life’s quiet moments, its uphill climbs, the takeaways from unforeseen challenges.
I hope, one day, to try writing fiction. I’d like to turn the tables, and as Mr. DeLillo noted, start with my meaning first and then world-build around it. It’s on my bucket list, and I’m going to make sure it has wizards and unicorns when the time comes.
For now, though, I have meaning to uncover from what’s already happened to me—to try my best to articulate a universal truth, something that binds us in humanity, for anyone who may read my essays or future memoir.
Meaning has become my muse, the two intertwined.
Ann Kathryn Kelly lives and writes in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. For 40 years, an undiagnosed tumor bled in her brain. She’s writing a memoir about how the tumor controlled who she’d been all her life, and how a dangerous daylong surgery freed her from its grasp. Ann volunteers with a nonprofit that serves community members living with brain injury, leading writing workshops. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, the tiny journal, WOW! Women On Writing, the Pink Pangea travel writing website, and elsewhere. Connect with Ann on Twitter and Instagram: @annkkelly
More Tales from the Trenches:
My Writing Coach in the Looking Glass: Overzealous Mentor or Moneymaker? By Lisa Mae DeMasi
Finger Gone Rogue, Writing Gone Mute by Rhonda Wiley-Jones
Millionaire Daydreams by Cortina Jackson
Just Say No, or Being a Bitch for My Art by Judith Sornberger
My Favorite Rejection Letter by Tatiana Claudy
Carving Out a Community by Chelsey Clammer