Building On Memories for Authentic Emotion in Creative Nonfiction
At 5am on Christmas morning, my grandmother stood in the kitchen, a bit of dried oatmeal crusted to her lip. My mom was the one who walked in on her, surrounded by pots and pans and curly orange and brown peels of sweet potato skins. She nonchalantly pushed the newly-assembled casserole behind the toaster while also pawing at her mouth, before finally just snapping her tongue over that incriminating smear of leftover topping– evidence of the great oatmeal debate which brought us here.
The beginning of this piece is the actually the climax of a story that has taken years to write– simply because of the sheer amount of nuance, history and sentiment that is involved in telling true, complete stories (one of the beautiful things about creative nonfiction).
Building and weaving together memories in nonfiction writing is sort of like getting into a fight or falling in love: both are often the result of a bunch of little moments. By themselves, these moments seem trite or inconsequential, but when put together, they add up to something bigger than the sum of its parts.
This kind of writing is a tenuous process. You are working these small, independent bits that have occurred over months or years into a narrative that builds to the summative emotion or knowledge that inspired you to write the essay in the first place, while trying to stay grounded in the emotion you experienced when these events first transpired. Without hearing both perspectives of the writer– how they felt and what they knew both then and now– the piece can lack a certain level of authenticity. I think that the key to maintaining this balance is simply stated, though harder to implement: Remember what you were thinking then; contrast it with what you know now.
For example, for the story about my grandmother and the sweet potato casserole to be an effective narrative, the reader would need a certain level of backstory that spans years.
The reader would need to know that years before– even before I was born– my grandmother established herself as the kitchen martyr. It’s a position where she thrives. She begins fretting about “The Meal,” as she calls it, months before Thanksgiving. Every year, on a humid night in mid-August or September, she will moan to my mother over the phone: “I just hate that greasy mess. Maybe this year we’ll just go to Cracker Barrel or something.” However, when anyone, including my mom, offers to help– she’ll demur.
Months later, The Meal inevitably goes off just fine. My grandfather will always murmur from the head of the table, “You’ve really outdone yourself this year” while my uncle will declare that “the cherry sauce is the bomb, the bomb, the bomb.”
The reader would need to know, however, that last year due to some health complications, my grandmother finally allowed my mother (who is nearly 50 and daily cooks for our family of six) to step foot in the holiday kitchen. “I’ll make the turkey,” my grandmother said to her. “I’ll let you take care of the sides.”
Like years past, The Meal turned out delicious. Turkey, broccoli and rice casserole, mashed potatoes, rolls– and sweet potato casserole. The way my mom made it, it came out fluffy and buttery with a spiced nut-crumble topping. The dish it was prepared in was almost scraped clean, and instead of dessert, some people opted for a second scoop of what small pod of leftover casserole there was, but here’s the deal– Mom prepared it differently than her mother by leaving out toasted oatmeal (an ingredient which causes the topping to resemble a kind of sandpapery paste, rather than a crumble).
That’s when readers would need to know that my grandmother, who had initially teared up over the display of love and family, turned passive-aggressive. “You know, I’ve never seen a sweet potato casserole made without an oatmeal topping, who would make it like that?” she asked my mom over the phone. A few days later: “Well, yours was fine if you don’t want to do the topping right.”
The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was kind of confusing and awkward– all culminating in my grandmother waking up extra early so she could make a sweet potato casserole at 5am Christmas morning. While I kept a journal of the events during those weeks, if I had written an essay in the midst of the emotion, I’m not sure it would have painted a full picture, or if I would even be able to disseminate the emotion in a cogent way. Looking back a year later, there’s a lot to parse out, and perhaps it’s the journalist in me, but I wanted all the facts before I started piecing together a full narrative. I can now see the dark humor, the potential discomfort my grandmother felt watching my mom assume a matriarchal position in the family, the similarity it bears to others’ holiday narratives.
For others juggling stories like this, that’s where the concept of remembering what you were thinking then and contrasting it with what you know now is incredibly useful. With that, here are some tips to think about when implementing this craft technique:
Let’s start with David Sedaris’ essay “Memory Laps.” It is one of my favorite essays by Sedaris for a number of reasons, but namely because of the concrete dialogue that has been inserted. It makes the reader feel like they are standing poolside with nine-year-old David, eavesdropping on a conversation that he is carrying on with his father. Here is an example:
That Labor Day, at the season’s final intra-team meet, I beat Greg in the butterfly. “Were you watching? Did you see that? I won!”
“Maybe you did, but it was only by a hair,” my father said on our way home that evening. “Besides, that was, what—one time out of fifty? I don’t really see that you’ve got anything to brag about.”
That’s when I thought, O.K., so that’s how it is. My dad was like the Marine Corps, only instead of tearing you to pieces and then putting you back together, he just did the first part and called it a day. Now it seems cruel, abusive even, but this all happened before the invention of self-esteem, which, frankly, I think is a little overrated.
This section of text is extremely poignant for two reasons. The first being its authenticity. It is written in the voice of how Sedaris and his father would have talked at the time. It’s not stilted, it’s not particularly elegant– but it captures the emotion that he felt in that moment.
Then, in the accompanying description of what he thought of the exchange, we see a flash of how Sedaris interprets the experience, and his relationship with his father, now. This grounds the reader in the present, so that the essay doesn’t simply read as a transcription from a diary page.
Similarly, in my own essay about The Meal, it became apparent quickly that I had to refer to the notes that I took during that time period in order to provide accurate dialogue, untainted by reflection, while in turn also bringing the reader up to speed with how I feel today. It’s this juxtaposition that makes for a complex, textured essay.
Give a Sense of Time
Something else that Sedaris does well in his work that is applicable to stories that cover a span of years, is giving readers a sense of time. This is also from “Memory Laps.”
When fall arrived, he got behind a boy in my Scout troop. But my father didn’t really understand what went on in Scouts. The most difficult thing we did that year was wrap potatoes in tinfoil, and I could wrap a potato just as well as the next guy. Then one night while watching “The Andy Williams Show” he came upon Donny Osmond.
Simple notes like these connect memories to tangible objects or people in time. These are cues as a writer to which we should be attuned. I looked back over my journaling leading up to the sweet potato casserole incident for details such as this: “My grandmother was watching a Hallmark movie– from October 31st to January 5th she always was– starring Danica McKellar; I did a double-take at the screen. It was weird seeing her character look matronly– preaching the inherent good of Christmas spirit and all that, rather than wearing a neon hair scrunchies on The Wonder Years.” Again, while additions like these may seem basic, it allows your reader to more fully experience that moment in time.
Make a Then/Now Chart
Something that I find particularly helpful in working on stories that span time, and on which my emotion has changed with time, is making a then/now chart. Map out a sequence of events, and simply note in a few words how you felt while the event was happening, and how you feel now. This can lead you to discovering turning points in the story where you have grown or developed as a narrator– and in nonfiction growth is always compelling.
There are variety of ways to weave memories into a narrative, but by keeping the idea of remembering what you were thinking then, and comparing it with what you know now, writers can ensure that they compile a complete, authentic essay that speaks to to how we as individuals do grow.
I’ve grown immensely in my understanding of my family since embarking on writing the essay about that holiday season; there is a level of nuance in a the story that I was able to explore once mapping out the events. Instead of simply recognizing those events as a sequence– my grandmother’s deteriorating health, Mom taking over the cooking, passive aggressive comments, 5am baking– I was able to apply the benefit of distance by recognizing the larger themes associated with the seemingly small actions. For example, my grandmother was feeling a little helpless both because of her health and the idea that she is no longer the ultimate matriarch in the family. It was a process to come to terms with the fact that her daughter is very much an adult, with a family of her own, and that there is something bittersweet in that realization. Her biting comments weren’t necessarily coming from a place of malice, but of insecurity– a place that, in retrospect, is both relatable and heartbreaking. However, it is a recognition that could not have been made if I hadn’t written what I was feeling then, with the perspective of what I know now.
Ashlie Stevens is a journalist based in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, The Guardian and is upcoming online at National Geographic. She is currently pursuing her MFA in nonfiction writing at the University of Kentucky.
Photo by Hiltrud Möller-Eberth