In this second installment of Writing The Ellipsis, writer Cesar Diaz explores how the process of building and rebuilding his own family narrative led him to discover and understand his voice. You can read part one of this piece here.
Early on in Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, Karr imparts some words of wisdom, a simple proclamation: “Truth is not the enemy.” The real enemy of memoir, she asserts is “blinking back at you from the shaving glass when you floss at night.” This serves as a warning to would-be memoirists who grapple with the ethical obligation to truth and artistic clarity while fearing the psychological consequences the form has on a nonfiction writer. In order to follow through with a memoir, the writer should have a particular disposition that matches the intention to capture a lived experience. They must feel summoned towards the past, that calling gnawing at the writer, haunting them everyday. The challenge lies in whether a writer is compelled to take on for themselves what it all means. Therefore, truth alone is not enough when writing a powerful memoir. In order to navigate between the ethical and moral obstacles that line the genre, one has to arrive at a “true” voice, one that establishes an emotional connection with a reader.
According to Karr, the master memoirist creates a “personal interior space” out of “clear” pieced together memories so that a reader never loses sight of the writer’s intentions. To do this, a writer must first jettison the vague (dubious) memories and foster the crystal clear ones that hold truth. The task then is to develop a voice that “lodges [itself along with] your own memories inside someone else’s head.” But how does one write one’s way into someone’s head? How does one create a gateway that transmutes that gnawing of one’s past to connect readers? In my case, you just stumble into it.
I failed at those early attempts at memoir because although I had a story to tell, I hadn’t quite arrived at my own authentic voice. Like many of us who endured an MFA program, I tried on many voices, succeeding at some that articulated and highlighted aspects of my family’s narrative, but overall these voices weren’t strong enough to sustain a book-length work. If I wanted to write honestly and openly about my past life as a child of migrant farmworkers, detailing my coming of age along with the perils of having one foot planted in the rows of strawberry fields, the other in the aisles of my elementary school library, I had to construct a voice that carried a wide range of emotions and allowed me as a writer (and in turn, the reader) to feel completely inside the past. This required a self-awareness that allowed for ample amount of time, patience and discipline—lots of starting and stopping, and thinking and stumbling, and thinking and trying—that’s lasted years. The results thus far have allowed me to arrive at a sharper voice, one that’s given me a lens though which to see my world.
I feel a strong sense of obligation towards my story, longing to capture my childhood experiences as they happened, even if that experience is imperfect. My voice grew out of this fallout, which evolved from the realization that my constructed voice (and persona) was my crystal clear truth. I’ve learned that a good memoirist lets the “edges show” as a way to remind readers of the narrator’s persona. In form, these rough edges stitched together become that personal interior space where readers connect emotionally with the memoirist’s experience.
Even then, I admit feeling concerned about how I represent others on the page, no matter how crystal clear I call my truth. My parents were open and helpful during my summer interview but as first generation immigrants (who also don’t speak or read English), they fail to grasp (or fathom) why I’m so drawn to retrace a time in our lives that’s long gone. For them, it happened and that was that. There was no need to bring these things out in the open. But not soon after our interview, I spoke to my mother, who had since begun to seriously retrace her own past. In tears she apologized.
“I’m sorry,” she said in Spanish.
“For putting you and your brothers through [the hardships of migrant farm work]. We had no idea. It was all we knew.”
I was taken aback. How do you respond to a parent who suddenly understood why I’ve been so haunted by my past?
I told her, “I wouldn’t be who I am now.”
The stories make the life. “A writer doesn’t get to choose [style/structure/voice],” suggests Karr in The Art of Memoir, “so much as he is born into them.” All of this takes patience, determination, and a willingness to stumble our way into being. Rigoberto Gonzalez addresses this very process. He writes, “And in the process of building and rebuilding, I have learned an art. And like any art, memory and memoir is meant to go public, no matter how personal, no matter how small.”
César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He is currently working on a memoir about his life as migrant farm worker in the 1980s.