- Reflection and Retrospection:A Pedagogic Mystery Story
In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, which will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one's current self. This second perspective, the author's retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past, is not merely an obligation but a privilege, an opportunity. In any autobiographical narrative, whether memoir or personal essay, the heart of the matter often shines through those passages where the writer analyzes the meaning of his or her experience. The quality of thinking, the depth of insight, and the willingness to wrest as much understanding as the writer is humanly capable of arriving at—these are guarantees to the reader that a particular author's sensibility is trustworthy and simpatico. With me, it goes further: I have always been deeply attracted to just those passages where the writing takes an analytical, interpretative turn, and which seem to me the dessert, the reward of prose.
So it startled me when I began to discover among my writing students a fierce reluctance to allow their current, mature reflections to percolate through accounts of past experiences. When I say "writing students" I don't mean only undergraduates, but graduate MFA candidates in creative nonfiction, who had dedicated themselves, at great fiscal expense and personal sacrifice, to the lifelong practice and, often, teaching of literature. Many already possessed admirable stores of technique, talent, and ability to engage the reader, and I liked them as people; so I was dismayed, I'll admit, when I found these students resistant to the activity of retrospective thinking on the page. I had to guard against taking it personally, as a rejection of my own innermost literary sensibility, or as an omen betokening one of those [End Page 143] "generational cultural divides" that threaten to plunge middle-aged professors into morose speculations that it is time to hang it up. Since most of my students seemed to return my liking, and to be disposed to learn from me, I decided to regard this particular reluctance impersonally, as a curious phenomenon that I needed to understand better.
Over the course of the semester, many of them came around to what I was pitching, and developed a greater fluency in handling the double perspective. The only way to demonstrate this would be to compare their compositions from the beginning of the term to the end—trust me, it happened. Whether this change was merely a temporary one, to please their professor, or a permanent shift, I have no way of knowing. What interests me here is not to show how some pedagogic method worked in unblocking their resistance, but to analyze the reasons for that resistance in the first place. I hope by doing so to reveal something about the current practice of creative writing instruction, as well as the changing nature of the memoir, and perhaps the difficulty of thinking itself.
My students wanted to "walk" the reader through their experiences as they happened or, I should say, as they relived them in memory. In the early, rough-draft stages, there are few things more pleasurable than bringing up a memory and transcribing it directly, like a wide-awake dream. Some got no further than accumulating these verbal snapshots and never did hit upon an overseeing narrative voice to provide the necessary connective glue or thematic context. But this is what they liked to do, transcribe memories as they came, without (as they said) "clogging up the narrative" with hindsight. To me, it was not a clogging-up but an essential counter-narrative: that is, one strand reported on what happened, and another, equally important, speculated on the meaning of those events, through the ongoing dialectic between their prior and present intelligences. But it was interesting in itself that they saw such commentary as merely an interruption of the action.
This commentating knack is particularly valuable in the set-up, in which the memoirist ought to tell us what year the...