Class Notes: Mon, 7/19…

Class Notes: Mon, 7/19 - Memoir

Last night's class we opened with discussion of the homework reading, a few passages from Nicholson Baker's Vox. The students generally approved of his writing, though it would of course have been more satisfying if they could have read the entire novel. This was intended as an example of mainstream sexual writing (carryover from last class), and we had a brief discussion of the extent to which you can be explicit in literary fiction (answer: pretty damn explicit). We also touched on the blurry distinction between literary and commercial fiction, and the fact that sex does still sell.

Then we moved on to this class's topic of memoir writing. We started with discussion of the problems of memoir writing in general. Issues included:

  • unreliable memory (do you stick to provable facts? elaborate details? fictionalize massively? at what point does it become fiction rather than nonfiction?)
  • difficulty of admitting material about self (particularly the desire to make self look good, rather than be honest)
  • greater difficulty perhaps of telling other people's stories (whose stories do you have the right to tell?)
We discussed in detail various strategies for coping with latter problem: get permission for everything in detail; get loose permission; not worry about permission at all. Obviously, different writers take different approaches on this. We also discussed pseudonyms -- utility and difficulty of same. I gave them a copy of "Under the Skin", and we discussed how I handled approaching people for permission to use their quotes in the essay and poem version of this piece. Recommended The Business of Memory, edited by Charles Baxter, for memoirists discussing all of these topics.

Exercise: start scene describing embarrassing/difficult moment for somebody else

Exercise: start scene describing embarrassing/difficult moment for self -- Note: not just funny moment, but something you actually would be reluctant to share with the class (they found this exercise much harder, unsurprisingly)

Then we read Carol Queen's brief essay, "Dear Mom: A Letter About Whoring" (Real Live Nude Girl). They liked that essay quite a bit. We discussed what made it work -- honesty of her writing, unusual subject matter, fresh insights into subjects like sexual secrecy in relationships and non-monogamy as an alternative.

Exercise: start letter to parent telling them something they don't know about self, something that would be difficult to tell them

Our final discussion point was focused on how sometimes it's easier to write the negative aspects of sexuality than the positive. Possibly even harder for women? Gave them "Silence and the Word" to read at home as a reference point.

Exercise: start memoir, "I really like it when" Be explicit about sexual preferences. If haven't actually had such experiences, describe what you think you would ideally like.

Homework: choose one of the last three exercises and turn into actual memoir piece, ideally at least 1000 words. also read two short pieces from reader, "A True Story" (Cecilia Tan, Herotica 2, I think), "Her Body, Mine, and His" (Dorothy Allison, Skin)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *