Coming Home to Memoir
Teachers suggested many books for me to read when I was young, so I slogged through a canonical list of Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, and Maugham. These are all worthy should reads. They forced me to imagine life beyond my small town of Emporia, Kansas. The conventions of fiction—Aristotle’s unity of plot, catharsis—became familiar.
Finally, though, I took charge of my own reading list and discovered memoirs. These enraptured me. Their narrators are intimate and true, not invented characters with exaggerated beady eyes and rumpled top hats. Memoirs now populate my private shelf of books to reread.
Sally Carrighar’s Home to the Wilderness: A Personal Journey (1973) is a book that changed my life. I picked it up for the naturalist lore, topic of her first books. My own yard is a small nature preserve of wrens, opossums, and auburn-necked cottontails. It is not exactly Carrighar’s Beetle Rock cabin in the Sierras, but creatures are regular family members. Carrighar’s book explains how she turned to the natural world for her career. It is frankly personal, with revelations about her mother’s mental illness, written at a time when the subject was taboo. Her openness about family imperfections helped me break free of my 1960s Doris Day movie illusions. In Home to the Wilderness, the author decides to heal herself, like she observed animals nursing themselves. Her well examined life is encouragement for overcoming adversity.
Another nature writer who speaks through personal essays is Loren Eiseley. His memoir All the Strange Hours collects beautifully wrought essays that are his trademark. The mid-20th century science writer focuses his lens on the grasslands region of my home. He describes the proxemics of small humans within a giant sky. He explores the flora and fauna, as well as saurian beings turned to stone below ground. His memoir draws on a naturalist sensibility, plus it highlights his boyhood isolation in that Brobdingnag setting. In it I recognize my own adolescence. I spent much time alone on bike rides to the Neosho River, where sky dwarfed everything. His confessional life story, and his neighborly review of the prairies, makes him a boon companion. The printed word bridges isolation, as a book’s page suggests a timeless audience.
Because of my family Indigenous background, I turn to memoirs of Native writers, especially those with similar mixed Native and European heritages. Among them are Allison Hedge Coke Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer , Joseph Bruchac Bowman’s Store, Joy Harjo Crazy Brave , Linda Hogan The Woman Who Watches Over the World, N. Scott Momaday The Names , Louis Owens Mixblood Messages , Carter Revard Winning the Dust Bowl , Ralph Salisbury So Far, So Good, Leslie Marmon Silko The Turquoise Ledge and Gerald Vizenor Post-Indian Conversations. All construct an identity from multiple parts—a persona that Owens calls “Mixblood.” These writers create, through words, an evolving body of shared stories. Their written memoirs transcend geography and cultural differences.
Linda Hogan’s book The Woman Who Watches Over the World shows how the Native memoir can reflect deeply on inner issues, somewhat in the tradition of Saint Augustine’s self-examination. Hogan writes with a Chickasaw-influenced perspective. “What is a human being?” she asks. She decides that words have a spiritual valence, and “Language is an intimacy not only with others, but even with the self.” She surveys the difficulties of her Chickasaw family, as well as haunting tribal narratives. She recounts historic trauma, which she experienced as being rendered mute. She finds her voice and articulates the attempted erasure of marginalization, and more. She finds, “there is a geography of the human spirit, common to all peoples.” Hogan is a philosopher who writes wisdom through the medium of memoir.
Leslie Marmon Silko is a remarkable Laguna Pueblo writer whose fictional works express oral tradition narratives in printed form. Her novel Ceremony is one of the most taught books in college. She also has written a memoir, The Turquoise Ledge. In it, she lays down sediments of words accumulated in sequenced chapters, not arcs of Aristotelean plots. Background setting of Arizona’s Tucson Mountains shifts to foreground; her daybook observations reference them constantly. Her rambles on ageless mountain trails present opportunities for description of dramatic surroundings. They also are walking meditation, as the author reflects on her own life, also a layering process governed by the element of time. Silko turns memoir into an object of nature, as natural as a turquoise stone.
All these books were models as I sat down to write my own memoir, The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). I hoped to capture the intimacy of the genre as I reached out to readers. I hoped to reflect and to follow the natural ox bows of memory. No words can explain my life experience exactly, since slippage of language is as natural as soil erosion. I found myself thanking those mentors who insisted that I read widely. I used age-old fictional craft as I joined other storytellers. Memoirists sit within their circle.
Denise Low is an adjunct professor for the Master of Liberal Arts program at Baker University, former Kansas poet laureate, and former dean of humanities and arts at Haskell Indian Nations University. She is the author of numerous creative works, including The Turtle’s Beating Heart (University of Nebraska Press, 2017) Jackalope, Melange Block: Poems, Natural Theologies: Essays about Literature of the Middle West, Words of a Prairie Alchemist: The Art of Prairie Literature.
The image featured at the header of this post is Denise Low at the AWP conference, with Tayler Lord. Credit: AWP / Robb Cohen Photography