Writing a memoir is a journey of discovery that involves acknowledging every spectacular defeat and minute victory along the way, says tutor Josiane Behmoiras. Ahead of her upcoming workshop, we talked to Josiane about how the house, in memoir, becomes a container for dreams and aspirations..
You say that the house can be used to trigger memories and emotions in memoir writing, and to explore the ideas of intimacy and secrecy. Were these processes important to you in the writing of your memoir ‘Dora B: A Memoir of my Mother’?
The house and its analogies are central to 'Dora B: A Memoir of my Mother'. The book often deals with homelessness, which was an integral part of the first eight years of my life. In the following twelve years, I lived with my mother in an asbestos cabin in a migrant settlement in Israel. The cabin was a stark space, with a flimsy door that didn’t offer protection against the world, not physically nor metaphorically. I think that in my writing about those years of childhood and coming of age, there is a sense of nonexistence about the house, and a desire to create or recreate an intimate space. So the house becomes more of a container for dreams and aspirations about a ‘real house’. That ‘unreal house’ has stayed in my memory as a theater set, dominated by my eccentric mother who is forever caught in a stream of absurdities.
In your upcoming workshop, participants will learn to balance reflection and description, or ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ in their writing. Do you have any tips on how to get this balance right? Does it depend on the nature of the memoir?
The edict of ‘show don’t tell’ is inaccurate. It targets a specific problem in life writing: the tendency of beginner writers to summarise experiences rather than building complete ‘scenes’ that take the reader through those experiences. ‘Showing’ the reader the action, details and settings are essential, but so is the writer’s reflection about their experience. This is where inexperienced writers may not understand the role of ‘telling’. The telling ought to bring the narrative to a higher plane. This is where the author reflects upon their lived experiences. Don’t tell us you are sad, or why you are sad, or how much you are sad (you may be able to ‘show’ us that). Tell us how sadness tints your inner world in a particular way; tell us what you, the individual, can do with sadness, and how it may have shaped you as the person you are. The ‘telling’ is the author’s philosophical outlook on life, and some memoirists can enthrall the reader with long passages of such reflections before ‘showing’ those to us, as do Rebecca Solnit and Vivian Gornick. Others, like Mary Karr, conjure magic with luminous descriptions of details, offset by carefully chosen deep observations. The main objective of a memoirist is to create a particular balance between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ that is unique to them and their story. In 'Dora B', meticulous juxtaposition of images, impressions and scenes produced an unspoken reflection on lived experiences – or at least, this was my intention.
Are there any authors or memoirs you feel would be essential reading for those embarking on their own writing journey?
Great memoirs are being published each month in Australia and around the world, adding to the splendid existing stockpile, so why limit the choice to a few personal recommendations? I think it’s important for a memoirist to read a lot of fiction, poetry, children books, graphic novels, memoirs, essays and books that reflect on writing. Or that teach us about birds, just for an example. It is important to read out of one’s comfort zone, whether commercial, literary or genre writing. With each, it is important to consider at least ten questions about what it is that makes us want to continue or stop reading. I am tempted to mention the work of Shaun Tan – his highly imaginative picture books can teach us everything we need to know about writing a memoir.
You have said that memoir writing “requires the author to take a certain distance from the personal state of trauma: writing down the events after attending to our heavy heart, which in the first place generated the urgency to write down our story.” Can you elaborate on the importance of distance?
There is an obvious difference between writing a diary and writing a memoir. While pouring out the story in a diary form can be beneficial for the self, and for the production of a first draft, the next stage requires a degree of distance from the experience of trauma. This is necessary for focusing on the craft, for looking at the writing with a cool eye. Essential questions ought to be addressed: what is the theme, how can the story be structured, do the voice and tone contribute to a polished textual expression? The author can’t be fragile when an editor dissects a paragraph of highly sensitive content and points out weaknesses in its structure. Ultimately, it takes some distance – interval of time, some settling of dust - to be able to write with emotional honesty about personal pain not as a victim but as a fighter and/or explorer, acknowledging all the spectacular defeats and minute victories along that journey of discovery that we call a ‘memoir’.
You have taught creative writing at university level, act as a mentor and manuscript assessor, as well as running memoir writing retreats and workshops – how does fostering the talents of emerging writers affect your own writing practice?
I have always told my students that I learn from them as much as I try to teach them. Since life is a work in progress, teaching creative writing and watching other writers’ work evolve is a very valuable continuous apprenticeship for the craft.
About Josiane Behmoiras
Josiane Behmoiras is the author of ‘Dora B: A Memoir of My Mother’ published in Australia and overseas and shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award. She has been teaching writing for a decade, and earned a creative writing PhD at the University of Melbourne. Josiane has particular interest in personal upheaval narratives, family history, travel writing, personal essays and dystopian fiction.
About Amy Adeney
Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.