As part of my MFA program, I have to study the craft of the other writers, seeing how their work might strengthen my own. Below is an excerpt of one such essay - perhaps it'll help you with your own memoir?
In the essay, “Return to Sender,” Mary Doty offers readers a powerful exploration of the landscape of memoir and memory, of family and self, and of how writing one’s truth may come with consequences the writer must be ready to face. The subject matter and Doty’s ambivalent relationship to his book, Firebird, as well as a keen sense of craft, deeply inform the piece. In the complicated business of trying to bring clarity and power to these subjects, Doty presents both a richness and an evolution of images that unites the piece. The work is nourished by an engaging tension between the memoirist and those whom he writes about; this tension is furthered by the refined use of images.
One of aspect of brilliance in this essay is the way Doty investigates perspective—how we see memoir and memory, how others see us, how we desire—and are terrified of—being seen. Early on, this writer shares a powerful image offered to him from a therapist friend on the dynamic nature of memory, as expressed in the spiral staircase in a lighthouse: As one moves up or down the stairs, perception changes. A bit later, we’re given another way to think about memoir and memory: “and in the realm of memory, time and location spin like an old-fashioned toy, the kind where pictures can be suddenly spun into motion” (155). This image takes what we’ve been offered before—the spiral staircase—and evolves it.
It is this movement that calls to me in Doty’s work. The memoirist doesn’t “arrive” at a single emotional location regarding the chosen subject matter; there’s a constant interplay of moving perspective. This movement—this ambivalence—is artfully, poignantly, articulated in the final lines of the piece: “I am proud of my book, and I wouldn’t change a word of it. I wished I’d never written it. No, I don’t. Yes, I do. No, I don’t” (164).
So much of this essay is exploring the betrayal that is built into memoir (157), a betrayal that is also an affirmation of self—a singing of the self—both necessary and painful. There’s a compelling humility in the piece, one that provides a road map for other memoirists who write in order to be seen, to be known. But, this being fully present and knowable on the page does not suggest that memoirists are in any way superior to those they write about: “experience teaches us we could have been these people” (161). And yet, this compassion is extended also to the writer as well as the father. Doty’s exploration of his childhood in Firebird allows himself to be an equal player, reclaiming, through craft and writing, the parts of himself he’d had to submerge in order to survive: “I’d protected my inner life from my parents’ scrutiny for fear of judgment” (158). In singing his song, Doty brings more of his fullest self to the surface of his life, but his father doesn’t want to share this view with him. In the essential act of allowing himself to be seen, he asserts that this is only his own view. “I have mis-sung their music; I have, with my words, wounded the powerless dead” (155).
Keeping the evolution of images moving, Doty underscores the fickle nature of memory as well as the power and importance of finding a clear note in the song of his life, one his father cannot see or hear or chooses not to.
Right now, as I draft, I will keep in mind the power of images, of humility, of the ways one must mis-sing the notes in order to know the self in memory. I will remember these words: “In order to work freely, I needed to behave as if, in the composing process, I was in the arena of pure freedom, of irresponsibility; here I could say anything without consequences” (159). Later, in revision, I will hone the song, but for now, I need to find the full range of my voice.