I don’t have kids, but I do have students. Considering that every semester I teach between 150 and 200 students, and I’ve been teaching for (YIKES!) 35 years, that’s, uh, a lot. 6000 students, roughly? (I try not to teach roughly.) This past semester in my upper division writing class, one of the required projects was a memoir. I wasn’t sure of the value of this, to be honest, but my students got behind it 100%. I started off the project by telling stories from my life (which, they say, has been interesting so far). Along with the stories I told them, there were three examples in their workbook. One was mine, there was Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” and Langston Hughes’ “Salvation.” They liked all of them. This set the bar for them; nothing mysterious; just tell your tale.
Somehow, probably for catharsis and because they think sad experiences are more meaningful than happy ones, people feel that the sorrow of their life MUST be told. I read some harrowing stories. My students and their memoirs dwelled on the hard stuff from their lives. The stories ranged from being with their grandmother when she died of cancer to losing faith in the military after two stints of active duty in Iraq…
There really were very few happy stories. I thought of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the woman about whom I wrote my masters thesis. At one point she was adamant and straight with her contributors, basically saying, “No more elegies, for the love of God!” Her language was more flowery than mine. She said, “Feelings of grief are universal and a well-established theme for poetry, but we could not publish all of them lest we make our magazine a repository of sorrow, only.” One story, however was, for me, very happy in the experience of watching one student writer learn what it really means to write.
This student wrote about his friend’s suicide, but his first draft was about as powerful as the prose on the back of a toothpaste tube. I chided the student, “Really? That’s it? That’s how it was? Dude, this is a C.”
“How can I get an A?”
“SAY something. What was it LIKE for you! I’m sorry, but this is just boring.”
“Yeah. I wasn’t there. I’m sure it was awful for you, but you haven’t told me anything about that. How would you like to be me and have to read a hundred boring sad stories?” I grinned. He cracked up.
“I guess that’s kind of what your life’s like, huh, Professor?”
That weekend he sat down and tried to remember how he felt when he learned his friend had jumped off a bridge. He wrote it. He couldn’t even wait for class for me to read it; he emailed it to me he was so excited.”It was amazing. I just sat down and thought about it. I tried to remember everything I could about that night and then, bam! It was incredible! I felt all of it again. I could see everything.” He wrote WELL. I was a very happy writing teacher because that’s what it means to write. Not some academic formula that gets a grade, REAL writing is the expression of the human soul across time. He went from looking at writing as an obnoxious but necessary task to looking at writing as an experience and a process through which he could better understand life.
It’s not easy to write a good memoir, but my grandfather succeeded. He was born on a farm in 1870 near Keokuk, Iowa, and “only” finished the third grade. That’s not to be mistaken with his being poorly educated, because he wasn’t. He was — for any time — extraordinarily literate. Around the end of WW I, he took his then little family to settle in Montana. I was lucky to inherit two of his books; Les Miserables and a history book, Queen of Republics. I believe he was also either somewhat sadistic or had a dark sense of humor. His custom was to open the cold, dark month of December (the family was very large and very poor, living on the high plains of Montana in the 1930’s) with Whittier’s “Snowbound” and then take the family through their frugal Christmas with Les Miserables. I can imagine them saying, “You think you have it bad? What about Jean Val Jean?” and having disputes about the ethics of stealing to feed your family.
Along with two books I have two things he wrote; one a memoir. It’s one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.
“Between my place and town there is a hole in the ground. A long time ago I noticed some boys digging. I stopped and looked. A small hole. They built a fire and I furnished the marshmallows. We roasted them and then they forgot the hole in the ground. Some played marbles and some flew their kites, but the next spring a new bunch of boys enlarged the hole, built a fire, I furnished the marshmallows and by then it was time to play marbles and fly their kites so year after year a new bunch of boys would enlarge the hole and finally we organized a club. We named it the hole in the ground. I was too old to dig so they elected me an honorary member with the title “Dad.” Every spring a new bunch of boys dig until the hole is big enough for a basement and then came Pearl Harbor. I would go to the depot to see the boys leave. Just boys they shout, ‘Bye Dad’.”
S. A. Beall, Hardin, Montana, 1941