What Really Happened: Writing a Memoir

By Morris Dickstein

In recent years, whenever someone asked me what I was working on, I would hesitate a moment. “A memoir,” I’d say, never quite sure of the reaction I’d get. Friends would perk up, perhaps pleased that I was doing something different, “creative” rather than critical. I could see they were curious to learn more about me. Other reactions were more skeptical, though the skeptics were usually too polite to object directly. Someone I knew in passing was less restrained: “What do you have to write about?” It was rude but there were times I agreed with him. Too many people were publishing memoirs: you could say there was a glut in the market. After all, what were my credentials for writing about myself? I hadn’t served as secretary of state, committed high crimes or misdemeanors, or found a cure for cancer. From a lifetime of teaching and writing, I couldn’t report on titanic battles with addiction or any spectacular breakdowns. It’s true that I had lived in interesting times, that accursed fate, but I was an intellectual, part of that rarefied breed, awash in a medium of arguments and ideas.

Though I’d been fortunate in my teachers and colleagues, I’d rarely hobnobbed with celebrities or journeyed to exotic places. London, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem – did they count? The Jewish immigrant culture from which I sprang had often, perhaps too often, been written about. Still, I had a story I wanted to tell — many stories, in fact — about a disappearing world I was eager recapture, a personal past still vibrantly alive for me, one that would engage readers if I could bring it to life for them. Some people I know plow straight ahead, never looking back; for them the past is an ash heap, memory an indulgence. The opposite has always held true for me: even when I was young, the accumulating past was a magnet, a flourishing landscape of memory that drew me in, partly as a way to understand the idiosyncratic person I’d become. It was hardly an accident that I was attracted to psychoanalysis and had spent years on the couch, talking my way through an interminable flow of memories and feelings.

Thanks to this wellspring of emotion bubbling up from earlier times, bits of my life would often surface in whatever writing I did. Reviewing a novel by Bernard Malamud triggered recollections of my father’s virtual indenture to his small dry goods store. Composing eulogies of departed teachers or friends, of course, led me to revisit the times and scenes I’d known with them. When I wrote a book about the 1960s, an era that idealized openness and first-person witness (“let it all hang out,” the mantra went), I dipped inevitably into my own experiences; the era had lit me up and changed my life. Better still, whenever the writing turned more personal I seemed to shift into another gear; I felt empowered, as if tapping into a sensitive region of the brain. I could sense the emotional temperature rising, the prose turning tighter, more incandescent. As I got older I also felt the urge to leave something behind, some of the sentient life that burned brightly in me. Would it simply be an album of memories, a sheaf of anecdotes, or would it carry a freight of meaning for others as well? Would it turn slack with factual recollection or glow with remembered incident and feeling? That challenge confronts any writer but perhaps the autobiographical writer most of all. A memoir, after all, is a form of licensed self-absorption — that’s part of what’s exciting about it for a writer. But how do you make it matter to other people, make it seriously real to them? There are lazy options I had no desire to take. At a time when the lines between private and public seem almost obliterated, for instance, writers are tempted to traffic in the lurid, the grossly unedifying, either to attract attention or simply to connect viscerally with readers. Losing any normal sense of shame, they take a tabloid view of their own lives, flaunting what should remain intimate and private.

Better writers mask such revelations, using fiction to expose yet also to camouflage their emotional terrain. My own memoir, Why Not Say What Happened, actually began as an idea for a novel, not a straight autobiography. Quite miraculously, it arrived in a single bolt of inspiration one morning in the unguarded time between waking up and getting out of bed, a delicious interval that invites fantasy and free association. In the early sixties, as an unhappy grad student in English at Yale, I was offered a fellowship to spend a year in Cambridge, England, working up a subject for a thesis. A wonderful idea: blessedly free time after years of course assignments, term papers, academic pressure. From a distance, venerable and historic Cambridge, Gothic yet pastoral Cambridge, looked like paradise, and in some ways it was. I relished the unstructured stretches of time to read widely; I also worked hard at breaking into a surprisingly different culture, whose social codes I could never quite crack. But much of the time I was miserable: homesick, adrift in a cold, wet climate, missing the girl I had left behind. The novel I imagined in that morning reverie would center on the story of that year abroad, with flashbacks and foreshadowings that evoked other phases of my life — the Jewish childhood in a large, boisterous extended family, the religious education I sometimes loved and sometimes rejected, the intellectual awakening I experienced as an undergraduate, the anxieties that sometimes had beset me earlier but emerged in force during that fretful English year.

As the novel took shape in my mind, it was even clear where it might begin. I was haunted by a creepy incident that played out the day I departed for Cambridge in October 1963. Driving on the Grand Central Parkway, just past LaGuardia Airport, I caught sight in my rear-view mirror of a huge car, a stretch limo or Lincoln Continental, rearing up, leaping the divider, and bearing down on a VW bug, some hundred yards behind me. I had passed through the spot not ten seconds earlier. I looked on in horror as the smaller car veered wildly from side to side to avoid getting crushed. Then, as the road curved, I lost sight of the scene, so brief and eerie that I wondered if I’d imagined it. A few hours later I boarded a plane for England and never found out what actually happened that day on the road. This open-ended memory, framed in the mirror like a movie clip, became an emblem of my troubled feelings all that year, the collision course from which the novel could set out.

I was trying to finish another book, long in the making, but every so often I’d turn this unwritten novel over in my mind, tinker with assorted plans for it. But once I was free to write the book I had a solid hunch it would never come off. My stabs at writing fiction in my 20s and 30s had usually petered out. My doubts grew as I thought back to distant England in 1963 and 1964, watching movies made on location then, wondering whether I could bring that distant, somewhat alien world to life. Writing it as fiction would offer me the opportunity to invent, to enhance or embroider whatever I remembered, but could I make it all fully present? My reverence for the alchemy of fiction might serve to disable me. If I hewed closely to my recollections of what really happened, I might as well come clean and cast it as a memoir. I’d still have to make it a believable world, alive on the page, but I could at least count on the unspoken contract with the reader, a bond of trust that I’d stay close to the facts according to my own lights. If my literary gifts were not really suited to fiction, they could yet provide all I needed for decent autobiographical writing.

I still had to fashion a plot, grasp the narrative arc of at least part of my life. I would also want to probe what attracted me so strongly to the past. A peculiar, deeply irrational moment stuck in my mind and I decided it might serve as a prologue. Instead of the impending crash that I’d glimpsed on the highway, I would lead off with a scene toward the end of my grad school years in New Haven. Once, on an aimless walk, I knocked on the door of a seemingly empty place where I’d once lived, got no response, yet felt compelled to walk right in and wander around, though others were then clearly living there. As an interloper, I thought I might be assaulted at any moment. Trembling with emotion — where did it come from? — I was acting on an impulse I couldn’t resist, as if trespassing upon my own earlier world.

As I conjured up this feverish moment of more than forty years back, it set off a train of memories of that whole period, just before the year in Cambridge, when I was on my own for the first time. From there I could reach back to my parents’ marriage and my own childhood, to college adventures and the travels that followed, just as I had once imagined doing in the novel. Now the book unexpectedly began writing itself, telling me where it wanted to go, even where it had to end. I still needed to sort out what mattered only to me from what might also trigger recognition in others. “Follow the emotion,” a friend advised. If I cared enough, probed deeply enough, others would care as well. “My heart laid bare,” so Baudelaire described it. As a writer and critic, as a teacher, I’d also have to include the life of the mind, the books I’d read, the poetry I loved, the ideas that turned me on. But I felt it should not be a largely intellectual biography, an essay in cultural history, like those that some of my admired mentors had written. It had to be personal as well, something ripped from the gut. I needed to unburden or debrief myself, for there were moments and milestones weighing upon me. Above all I had to create myself as a character, not so different from a fictional narrator, and bring the spark of life to the sketches I drew of the people around me. Would they prove as memorable to others as they were to me? Above all I wanted to tell stories, irresistible stories, without putting the thinking mind to sleep.

It was odd to find myself doing research not in texts but in the corners and folds of my own psyche. I soon discovered there were vexing clauses in the all-important contract to tell the truth. What about the embarrassing stuff I’d discussed with virtually no one: episodes of panic attacks and physical symptoms, years in psychotherapy and then full-scale analysis? And what about the harsh or painful memories, crucial to any three-dimensional work, which might prove upsetting to others, uncles or cousins, teachers and friends, even their children and grandchildren, people I had no wish to anguish or harm? I didn’t intend to trace my own coming of age at their expense, except where honesty demanded it.

Strangely, I took heart from Orwell’s injunction not to trust any autobiography that didn’t tell us something discreditable — he actually said “disgraceful” — about the author. If nothing else, such details would add drama to my tale, lay out conflicts that would make up for the dearth of nail-biting melodrama. I could rely on Montaigne’s justification for writing about himself – that each man’s life potentially bears the whole form of the human condition. The trick was to grapple with it honestly, wherever it led, at some risk of looking bad or foolish. I would never allow it to become a confessional debauch, but I wondered: was there too much neurosis in my memoir, or not enough? Only the reader could judge. Some discretion was inevitable but I tried hard to avoid turning it into censorship. It took some inflation of ego to think I was worth writing about, but also a willingness to be exposed, to be vulnerable. Part of the story would be the reversals, the disappointments and serious losses, though surely Orwell exaggerated when he said, “any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Whatever those setbacks were, I’d have the dubious pleasure of living through them again, savoring some past experiences, regretting others, revisiting indelible moments and trying hard to make sense of them at last.

Morris Dickstein’s memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education, has just come out from Liveright, along with a new edition of his cultural history of the 1960s, Gates of Eden. His previous books include Leopards in the Temple (2002), A Mirror in the Roadway (2005), and Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (2009).

Lead photo by Nancy Crampton.


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