Memoir 101: Demons and Angels

by Ed Davis on September 23, 2011

A Place to Start

My Comp I (English 111) classes at Sinclair Community College are writing memoir essays this week. For a lot of reasons, it’s a loaded medium. I’m trying to play fair by not requiring anything of my students that I don’t require of myself. Therefore, I’m writing one, too.

Memoir, while easier in some ways than argumentative thesis-and-support essays, can be a challenge for seasoned writers, much less newbies. Writing honestly about your own life is daunting, especially when students are given a criteria sheet containing everything from organization to pacing and significance (see link to Narrative Writing link, below). Narrative writing is a great place to begin a basic writing class, requiring as it does lively and varied sentences and diction. In a class where secondary research is banned, we’ll need to tell personal stories for the rest of the quarter to support our positions.


We use the time-tested methods of free-writing, brainstorming and clustering (described in any basic comp text) to break writer’s block and find the real topic: the focus, the story-within-a-story, which is crucial to the essay’s success. Plucking a subject thoughtlessly out of the air usually leads to a mediocre story lacking significance. In my brainstorm, I came up with: drinking Clorox when I was a toddler, going on a spiritual retreat to the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani, attending my first Bruce Springsteen concert and playing spring break at Fort Lauderdale with my college Christian rock band. I decided to tackle the Clorox incident, not only because the class seemed interested, but because I am interested in probing its meaning for its lasting effect on my life. Here goes…

Day of the Dragon

It must’ve been a really hot August day. According to family legend, I was a toddler, walking but not talking much. My mother and I were on the basement level of the garage apartment where we lived, and my mom was washing the uniforms of my dad, who, working third shift, was sleeping upstairs. I’ve imagined the scene hundreds of times…

It’s cool but humid in that dank, stuffy space, and I see my two-year-old self eyeballing that glass of bleach with intense interest. Maybe, by that time in my young life, I’ve tasted Seven Up, that clear, sweet drink in a green bottle; maybe I think it’s a glass of water. While my mother’s back is turned, I toddle over, making no noise, reach up, seize the glass, raise it to my lips and drink. It’s hard to imagine the rest.

I don’t think that I would’ve drunk much before it started burning and worse in my infant stomach, roaring up my esophagus like a hissing fuse. Things would’ve happened fast. Howling, I must’ve dropped the container, spilling the rest of the harsh liquid, maybe breaking the glass. When Mom turned around, she surely knew what had happened. Young, and inexperienced, newly saddled with the demands of not only taking care of a husband but now a son, she was doubtless overwhelmed, maybe paralyzed when she saw me crying. Known for her slowness, she must’ve acted fast that day.

The thing she did right, the thing that I have been grateful for all my life, was her summoning my father. Did she scream and wake him, pound a broom on the garage ceiling or leave me alone while she raced upstairs? I have only her word for what happened next.

“Your dad came and grabbed you up. You vomited all over that jacket he got from somebody who’d been in the army in Korea, the one with the dragon on it.” (I can see that jacket if I strain hard, although I may be inventing; to me, it’s Superman’s cape.) She pauses, shakes her head. “He laid you in the Pontiac beside him and took you to the hospital and had your stomach pumped.”

It was one of a handful of kind acts my father did for me, the largest being the gift of giving me life. I could’ve easily died that day—or been a sick kid for a long time. Neither happened. Superman arrived and spirited me away.

I don’t think my dad was drinking much then, therefore he wasn’t in a stupor from which he would not have roused. Within five years, however, he’d be drinking heavily, my mom and I would be living alone and waiting for him to visit, to pay the rent (or electric bill so the lights could be turned back on) and to buy groceries. The word for my dad would soon be Absence. By the time I was in fourth grade, he’d be gone for good.
But the Day of the Dragon, the young dad showed up and apparently took charge. The boy he nicknamed Butch befouled that fancy jacket festooned with its coiling monster of which he was so proud. Maybe I even defiled his car seat; surely there was hassle once he got to the emergency room. A country boy with about a third-grade education, my dad would’ve been lost in a hospital.

“Your father saved your life.” Mom always said it with the greatest pride. She never took any credit for what happened that day, though Dad would never have come running had it not been for her. The one thing my mother would be capable of doing for the following two decades until I left home to marry my first wife was asking people, often strangers, for help. It’s a gift I should not minimize, although to this day I have trouble depending on others.

When I’m tempted to vilify my father for abandoning his wife and son, and minimize his gifts—a wagon, a bicycle, some flashy six-gun sets and a Davy Crockett outfit three sizes too big—I have to recall that he gave me life. Twice.

Truth vs. “The Truth”

Writing which is this personal can be intense. As a fiction writer, I never feel I’m into deep enough water unless I’m nearly embarrassing myself with my characters, their issues, conflicts, revelations and resolutions. There are similarities but also huge differences between writing autographical fiction and writing memoir (see the link below for more information), the biggest one being strict fidelity to the literal truth. In memoir, you’ve got to name names, make people and places recognizable and tell the truth as you know it—not just “the truth,” the theme that naturally emerges from characters in conflict, but what actually happened, or as close as you can get. And you may not know the event’s significance when you begin; you have to take it on faith that you can strike gold by digging for it.

Demons and Angels

When first conceived, I thought my Clorox memoir would focus on my mother and her mental illness, which, while it would increase over time, was apparent even in my earliest years. But as I wrote, my father became the focus, a man I hardly know and about whom I have extremely mixed emotions, a man who abandoned his family, a man I cried for one whole day when he left.

That’s what memoir does: the process of writing can take you to the heart of the matter (or the matter of the heart) and place you right in front of your demons—and angels, as my dad turned out to be on one of the most important days of my life. Lightning may not immediately strike; memoir is a process, like any writing task, and it requires patience, faith and trust. I’d like my students to see this first assignment in their college writing course as an opportunity to face, or at least explore more deeply, an issue, a person or a memory that resonates for them, and maybe—but not necessarily—troubles them, like the relationship with a parent, a sibling, friend or romantic attachment.

Blowing the Top Off

While there are no easy formulas for any writing assignment, there are guidelines for narrative/memoir writing. It’s crucial to have a tight, trusting writing community in which to produce such emotional work. Such writing begs to be shared, and my students will submit their work for silent peer evaluation; we may even read a few aloud, voluntarily, of course. I remind students they must find the degree of self-disclosure that’s comfortable for them. They need to know their truths will be respected, and in my classes they always are. The comments they earn prove their efforts are appreciated and often admired. For the majority, it’s a satisfying assignment; I’ve read many that, in Emily Dickinson’s words, “took the top of my head off.” I expect this latest batch will do the same, and I humbly, eagerly look forward to reading them.

Narrative Writing (PDF)
Memoir vs. Autobiographical Fiction (PDF)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nancy Pinard September 25, 2011 at 6:58 am

Wow! How many drafts before Superman and Day of the Dragon came out? Superman brings out the young boy, but dragon has many possible connotations, both good and bad–as your dad was in your mind/heart. Together they add depth and dimension–cast a long shadow over the incident.

As you likely know, I respect your not requiring anything of students that you don't require of yourself.


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