Years ago when I first thought I might write about my sister’s suicide in prose, but had no idea how to approach it, I asked the essayist and poet Thomas Lynch, who wrote The Undertaking, a wonderful book about dying and grief from the perspective of being an undertaker in a small Midwestern town, how he moved from poems to prose. Lynch responded that writing an essay was no different from writing a poem. At that time, I had written and published two collections of poetry and was working on a first novel. Even writing fiction I approached like a poem. Lynch’s response gave me hope. Poems often began for me with an image or a memory. My first novel, House Under Snow, began with the image of a house half-buried under snow. Could a memoir also begin like a poem? Do they share a similar interior architecture? Not necessarily the structure, scaffolding, and formal issues of craft, though there can be similarities there as well, but thematic issues relating to intimacy of subject matter, tone, and intimate connection with the reader.
Integral to the poetic process is reliance on its intuitive nature, how unlocking one truth or memory in a poem leads to unlocking another. Through the intuitive process the interplay of the unconscious and conscious mind creates an inner argument. In writing memoir, the same poetic principles are employed. Memoir and poetry (and fiction) are reliant on voice, language, craft—the use of image, metaphor, music, internal rhyme and meter—and memory to build a compelling narrative. It is interesting to note that the word “memoir” comes from Middle French, memoire, which means memory. According to Webster’s memoir is defined as “an official note or report, an account of something noteworthy.”
The purpose of memoir is to render a “noteworthy” experience for the reader and in doing so to capture the heartbeat of reality through language. Like writing a poem, memoir is reliant upon the persistence of memory, the obsessive, churning whirl of consciousness, the way in which the demands of the past contrive upon the present, to unlock certain truths. The writer must delve into the past and resurrect it and in doing so dig past what one knows to be true to find meaning.
As I wrote History of a Suicide I was venturing on a personal journey. Every memoir and poem, if it is to retain a sense of discovery, begins with a question. Mine was simple. Why did my sister end her life and how had I not recognized the depth of her despair that led to this outcome? I thought of myself like the sinister and obsessed Ahab, at the helm of a ship, on the lookout for the elusive white whale, a metaphor for the elusive nature of suicide. Understanding suicide is indeed elusive. Once you think you’ve come to grips with it, it slips away again, and in that sense the experience is akin to Ahab’s quest to capture the whale. Perhaps because when a suicide occurs there is never one easy, simple answer for what happened. Suicide raises a tangle of questions. For instance, why on some days does the world seem bearable and why on another is it a struggle? If family members—sisters—share a collective karma, then why had I survived the tumult and not she? How much of our actions are driven by psychological, environmental and biological elements? Shaping experience into a meaningful work of art, whether through the form of a poem or a memoir (and one might argue fiction as well), is ultimately about attempting to organize the unwieldy chaos of personal truth and render it palpable to a reader.
In orchestrating my book, I thought of it like stitching together sections in a long poem. Like the initial trigger for a poem, my memoir began with a memory, of visiting my sister’s grave years after she died. The gravesite, the plot of land designated to us after we die, seemed an appropriate way to begin. I described the immediate response after learning my twenty-one-year-old sister had died and recounted those early months of living in the tide of shock, disbelief and grief. Then I went back and began to write the important scenes or events that I remembered from my sister’s childhood and adolescence that would further my story. As in a poem, once I unlocked one memory, another unfolded. A seam, if you will, was beginning to take shape. My intent was to investigate what happened, and I wrote sections in the present tense where I began my search into police records and autopsy reports, reading literary and psychological texts on the subject, and the investigative sections became the through-line or narrative for my story. Eventually, and at times almost against my own will, I created a book-length hybrid, part essay, meditation, memoir, and investigation—a psychological autopsy—about the forces that undercut a life shaped by a sister’s loss and grief.
Melville calls the region of the unconscious, where the mysteries of experience manifest, “the little lower layer.” Writing is about peeling back the layers. Listen to Melville: “Hark ye yet again,—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough.”
Both poetry and memoir attempt to uncover what lies behind the unreasoning mask and rescue it into consciousness. The creation of both arts is reliant upon Keat’s ideas of negative capability, of being capable “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Sven Birkerts in his book The Art of Time in Memoir notes that the memoirist writes from a perspective of distance to understand an earlier version of herself. In other words, the writer relies on the “vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.”
If indeed, in shaping the narrative of memoir, one relies on belief in the intuitive nature to uncover the hidden narrative of the past, what gives memoir (and poetry) its intimacy and tension? I will argue that it is the persistence of memory; the way in which an experience persists itself on the writer and wills it into consciousness. It is this persistence that wills the narrative to life.
If the persistence of memory keeps the memoirist and poet in its stronghold to create an authentic work of art, great personal risk must also be at stake to give the work its sense of urgency. Personal risk involves employing dangerous subject matter—what you dare say! The best poems and memoir are born out of risk.
But how does a work born out of memory and experience achieve artfulness? The issue of artfulness raises an interesting question about memoir and poetry and their distinction from autobiography and confession. Autobiography by its nature is linear: this is what happened, and then this, and then that, following the linear arc of a life. I will argue that a memoir (and a poem) ultimately cannot be linear, the form must to a certain degree be circular, and I will posit that its circular nature makes it artful. A memoir or a poem may be informed by autobiography but if it is to become transformative (a thing of itself and not a direct reflection of actuality) its nature cannot merely be confessional. In shaping memoir (and verse) the writer chooses which details to disclose, dramatize, and organize to create the dramatic tension necessary to advance the argument and enhance the work’s style and artfulness. And it is this circular nature that makes the work transformative and fluid.
One might argue that poetry is not necessarily autobiography; not necessarily “true” or confessional in the way that memoir is. Poetry often sounds like autobiography, but it isn’t necessarily. For instance, a poem can adopt a fictional voice to tell a truth slant. But what the two art forms share are a tone of intimate connection with a reader as well as a closeness of subject and subject matter. These two genres, poetry and memoir, are closer to each other by far than fiction, particularly due to the intimacy of subject matter and the personal risks involved in their creation.
This returns us to the central thesis of this essay, the relationship between the craft of poetry and memoir and their reliance upon its intuitive nature. Perhaps this ethereal concept can be better understood in Melvillian terms. In Moby Dick Melville describes the inner life as fluid rather than linear. “There is no steady unretracing progress in this life: we do not advance through fixed gradations. . . . But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.” A successful work of art retains this sense of fluidity. It contains the hills and valleys of experience. The reader enters the narrative or lyric, shaped by the author’s hand, and is witness to not only what is said, but the mystery and miracle of what exists in the white space or as Wallace Stevens wrote: “The nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
At the author’s request, the paragraph referring to Sven Birkerts has been revised. November 13, 2017.
An additional correction was made to this paragraph on November 14, 2017.
Editor’s Note: In an article for The Walrus on November 10, 2017, KR contributor William Logan called attention to three sentences from this essay. The lines were from a review of Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir by Richard Gilbert, and should have been cited as such. At Jill Bialosky’s request, this paragraph has been revised, and the date of the correction has been noted here. We at the Kenyon Review apologize to Richard Gilbert and to our readers.