Focus on: Patricia Hampl, I Could Tell You Stories
Or, I should say, the focus is on the early parts of this book; the first two essays, to be precise. Or, perhaps I should say, the focus is on establishing a certain foundational layer for the conversations that will emerge over the next three and a half months. Hampl works wonderfully here (so, so much better than the text I had originally intended as the first for the course…which I won’t name here…which focused far too much on the sexual prowess of the (male, of course) author…and took itself way too seriously…and counts itself as innovative when it just really might not be), because in I Could Tell You Stories, she probes the impulses of memoir while simultaneously engaging external literature. It is a book that goes straight into the mind of the author, and that mind is not one stuck in its own orbit. Instead, she uses personal story, experience, and literature as a way to essai toward a rich understanding of self, memory, and story.
These first two essays end with these lines: “Moving though it all faithfully, not so much a survivor with a harrowing tale to tell as that older sort of traveler, the pilgrim, seeking, wondering.” Such a perfect line, really, to offer clearest answer to a question I asked my class on day 1 — what’s the difference between autobiography and creative nonfiction, between memoirs and memoir? Hampl nails that answer, referencing the classic essayistic journey, the quest always to seek and the refusal to succumb to the false hope of concrete endings. After all, a pilgrimage doesn’t end a faith journey, instead ignites a passion for a renewed stage of seeking, which is precisely the impulse of life itself.
Much in these first two chapters, then, strikes at the important definitional level of meta. Hampl establishes a cleavage between the too-easy notion of factual reportage as the bedrock of memoir. Indeed, in relaying the mismemories of her “first draft” memory of a childhood piano lesson, she illuminates how recollection presents us with the opportunity for reflection. We will get the facts wrong, always. And if we’re ethical nonfictioneers, we’ll seek to “fix” mistakes moving forward, even as the “fixing” may in fact take form as rumination on why we remember things differently, or more detailed, or at all.
The act of memoir, then, is the act of recovering the self. Or, I might say, the act of memoir is an act of revealing one sort of self…to author and to reader. We are built of multiple selves, versions of ourself that emerge in different occasions: I can be the lively teller of goat stories at a party, or the moody contemplative wandering in a forest, or the energetic raconteur of the classroom, or the self-conscious writer stumbling over his own words. My totality is, of course, a combination of these things, a Venn diagram of the selves that congeals into something I can call “Me.” In my own act of memoir, I look for the self that wants to tell a particular story…or, perhaps, I seek to recognize a self not fully known. In this sense, I refer both to the revelation of a heretofore unrecognizable MicroSelf and the lifelong assemblage of the FullSelf.
In a sense, Hampl is writing about the fracture of our identities, some scattering that occurs, I’d wager, at the moment of adolescence. As children, we know ourselves fully, driven by the impulse of life and unaffected by self-consciousness and subterfuge. Each subsequent year, we learn how to conceal, and rupture, and try on the masks of the world offered to us. In recalling stories, in thinking about what stays with us — “We store in memory only images of value,” Hampl writes — we begin to recognize the parts of us that we have become immune to.