Remembered Reality

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.

One comment

  1. First! And with that adolescent bit done, I can make a serious contribution to this conversation. I’m just curious, what is the other side of the divide that Caroline Hampl cleaves a space between? Because I assume that space of self-discovery, the wanderer is the middle space and not the other side.

    My own thoughts on it are a discomfort with the phrase “the false hope of concrete endings”. I think that false hope is a descriptor that arises when you accept an asymptotic-rational or a postmodern relationship to truth, i.e. either way there is no capital-T truth. Writing projects being bounded by various constraints, I wonder why we’re so allergic to the idea that the end of this project is the end, THE END. After all, the project only arrives in our hands as a book, digital or otherwise, when the contents stop shifting. It is the book which is privileged, not unfairly so, but because it took the difficult moral and artistic decision to finish creating the thing you’ve put love and life and skill into. Much as I am a chronic unfinisher, I hold to the conviction that a finished thing is what will allow me the right to call myself a writer, in the sense of a vocation. Artistically then, I think beginnings, middles, and ends are very important.

    In which case, for me, both types of memoirists, fact-based reportage and essai-ing alike are doing shallower work on memory than I’d like. The fact-based relies on the enlarged self-importance of the individual, and the second relies on the writer’s virtuosity in making their personal mental maps seem interesting. The arc of the narrative, the storytelling itself gets de-emphasized in a really important way for me.

    Sorry for going on so long, but I’ll be excited to follow along with the rest of it.


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