I am very happy to be able to host a guest post today by one of my favorite writers and bloggers, Christi Craig! I’m fortunate to have met Christi in person, and she is every bit as graceful and lovely as her writing. Please refer to the end of the post for her bio and blog, Twitter, and Facebook info.
On Stanley Kunitz, Memoir, and Fiction
by Christi Craig
Sitting in a critique group one night, Stanley Kunitz came to mind as we discussed the challenges in writing memoir. Not because I thought Kunitz wrote memoir, but because I remembered one of his poems that sheds light on how to craft a good memoir, and in turn, how to craft good fiction.
An older gentleman in our group had just finished reading a section from his life story, a collection of tales that would capture any audience. In that one section, several scenes begged for expansion, and soon it became apparent that his life story could easily become an epic-length book, or two. The question arose: how does a writer condense decades of one’s life into 300 pages?
Which memories should this writer spotlight, when his adventures spanned the course of twenty years or more, and how does one pull pieces together into a complete story and, at the same time, avoid rehashing every minute of every day of how you got from there to here?
“Stanley Kunitz,” I said. And, then I explained.
After my mother passed away, a good friend gave me The Collected Poems, by Kunitz, and directed me to page 217 where I read “The Layers.” This poem, a tribute to loved ones who have died but whose presence lingers long after their physical being is gone, gave voice to my grief. It urged me to move forward at a time when I desperately wanted to do the opposite, to go back. Two passages from “The Layers,” stood out for me:
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
Abandoned campfires and precious stones. That poem first spoke to me as a daughter, but in the midst of my critique group, I saw, in its words, a new meaning.
Memoir isn’t about retelling every detail of every day. It’s about picking and choosing pivotal moments and recounting powerful relationships in our lives that served as a catalyst, that swayed us one way or another or shifted our perspective slightly, that forced us to grow and to change and to become.
I write mostly fiction, but the moment I related Stanley Kunitz’s poem to memoir, I realized the same principle applies to novels. I get stuck in the minutia of fictional characters’ lives. My early drafts always read like a ticker tape:
She stood up and walked into the kitchen. She turned on the water and filled up her glass. She took a drink.
But, I don’t have to record every gory detail to complete the story. I need only to discover places along the characters journeys where they stayed awhile – just long enough – so that an imprint remained. Then, whether I’m writing memoir or fiction, I tie those moments together with story structure: plot, character arc, and theme.
In an interview on Writer Unboxed, between Jan O’Hara and Kim Michele (author of The Unbroken Child), Michele’s comments confirm my belief that memoir and fiction mirror each other. Michele says:
For a memoirist, a book must offer two important components for a reader; hope and resolution. Each writer’s journey or path taken to reach such is diverse and personal.
Abandoned camp-sites, precious stones, hope and resolution.
Those are the ingredients of memoir.
And, those are the same ingredients I hope to weave into my fiction.
What about you? How does poetry guide memoir, and does memoir guide your fiction?
Kunitz, Stanley. The Collected Poems. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.
Christi Craig lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two children. She is a sign language interpreter and a writer. Her work has been published online and in print, and she was chosen as a Finalist in Glimmer Train’s April 2010 Family Matters Contest. You can follow her on Twitter, friend her on Facebook, and catch up with her at her blog, Writing Under Pressure.