My three years in a girls’ Catholic boarding school (first grade at St. Mary’s Academy; second and third at SJVA) have never left me. I cannot forget those days and the emotions involved. I need to explore how that time shaped me. What was the effect of that place on who I am today?

I know the details of why I was sent there. My mother, single and divorced, had to work. My grandmother had sent my mother to the same school when she was a single parent, working in New York’s Garment District where she sewed silk and cotton nightgowns for the Eve Stillman line. The gowns sold in Bloomingdale’s and other high-end stores. Neither my grandmother or my mother had other family who could watch over a young child after school nor did they have the means to pay someone to do so. And then there are the details of that life sent away.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Dawidoff has a thoughtful piece, “The Trouble With Memoirs,” in which he goes over the usual problems with memoir–facts vs. imagined–and those who violated the readers’ trust–Frey, “Jones” Seltzer, and so on. But he also examines what makes memoirs wonderful:

“. . .Memoirs are typically episodic, likely to describe only a fragment of a life or an aspect of it — aspects that tend to emphasize emotional subject matter. The things we stay up late thinking about are the stuff of memoir. They are our interior lives, our complicated feelings, what we write about when we write about love — and the complexities of failure and sympathy and ambivalence and money and mortality.”

I have thought so much about my life as a boarder. That world has lived on in my head: the memories of saying goodbye to my mother on Sundays, the fear and anxiety of doing something wrong and the punishments I’d endure, the sense of being watched all the time, the struggle to shine my shoes perfectly, the older girl assigned to me to “supervise” me, the nagging feelings of abandonment and loneliness, the two girls whose friendship became my refuge. Every time I make the bed as a grownup, I remember where I learned to make hospital corners, and then it all comes back. Why?

The journalist in me wants to ensure that I get the story factually correct. To that end, I have been doing a lot of research. I need to keep in mind what Dawidoff says about this genre. Yes, he writes, be rigorous in your factchecking, but also remember:

“Memoirs imply that they are giving you the whole story, but in conception they are idiosyncratic, less comprehensive and formally constrained than autobiographies, often set within a brief time frame, and that seems appropriate in a genre where often the writer is attempting to give shape to ambiguity. The memoir looks inward to offer a personal outlook, and what is seen is as varied as life itself. The memoirist can write at length about the American Dream, or wrinkles, or optimism, toughness, shoplifting, a stamp collection, shorthaired dachshunds, a bus stop, a will with surprising contents, something that mortified you in the moment but later became funny, the smell of witch hazel, a life shadowed by an obsession with the Internal Revenue Service, encountering a Whites Only sign in an antiques store, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an effective boss, what happens to a parent who comes unwillingly to know that she has a favorite among her children, what led a person to switch political parties or to grow more religious as he or she got older.

“Lousy memoirs come bound in the dull skin of self-involvement, but the memoirs destined to endure are those that open outward and use the author’s life as a point of departure for exploring the broader emotional themes and common faiths that apply to lives everywhere. Spending so much time with your own past, examining it over and over, the story must expand and accrue, become something bigger than you.”

I also want to avoid sounding like I’m indulging in navel gazing. I believe that my story speaks to , something larger, something universal. Every day that I write about it means that I can get closer to that truth.

Dawidoff himself is a memoirist: “The Fly Swatter,” which was a 2003 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and “The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball.”

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