Tackling the Problems of Memory in Memoir: 5 Questions for Rachel Starnes

I’m hoping what people come away with this time is a bit of grace and forgiveness for how complicated memory really is, and how clever our brains can be with telling us we’ve got the whole truth, when what we’ve got is really a fraction that changes shape. ” -Rachel Starnes

Rachel Starnes is the author of The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace and Other Missions Impossible. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from California State University, Fresno and her BA from the University of Texas. Her essays have appeared in The Colorado Review, Front Porch Journal, and O Magazine, and she has been a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross.

On Saturday, April 13, Rachel Starnes is teaching a class for the WLT called “Tackling the Problems of Memory in Memoir. In this class you’ll discuss the difference, both in neurobiological terms and literary ones, between “objective truth” and “narrative truth,” and reveal ways in which the writer can help a reader (and is, indeed, obligated to) understand the difference between the two.

Here’s what Rachel had to share with us:

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?

Rachel Starnes: I’ve always written one thing or another, ever since I was a kid – stories, jokes, poems, and rambling, overwrought diaries. I’ve published one memoir, but I worked my way up to it through a series of personal essays. It’s still a genre I’m drawn to for its experimental potential, but I think I exist better here as fan rather than practitioner. My MFA and the last decade or so have been focused on nonfiction writing, but these days I’m feeling the itch to move over into fiction.

Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?

RS: I’ve found Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to be continual lifesaver when it comes to peeling back the accumulated funk that can build up into writer’s block. I’ve done the course twice alone and once with a facilitated group and it ends up feeling new every time. With challenges of craft, I’ve tried to learn by observation – I read widely, and I always pay attention to the acknowledgements at the end of the book, like how bands used to call out their influences in the liner notes of their albums (remember those?). When it comes to business-related challenges, I’m absolute trash with those, honestly. I haven’t had much patience or discipline with self-promotion, and I’ve taken the nine-to-five route versus trying to make writing my financial cornerstone. Instead, I’ve just tried to be consistent and generous with my time and only take on writing projects that I feel passionate about. The writing community in and around Austin is so vibrant and generous anyway, there’s always been interesting work and connections to make.

Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

RS: I think to the extent that I’ve had a feeling of epiphany, it’s more that I’ve surprised myself by stumbling upon an insight I didn’t know was there. It’s often when I think I’m most lost, when I’m moving my hand across the page just to move, and then what comes out is actually truer than what I’d started out thinking I was going to say. I’ve explained it before as writing to know what I think, instead of thinking I know what to write. Most of the time, though, it’s draft after draft of “what the hell am I doing?”

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

RS: I think it all comes down to listening and paying attention in one form or another. Read voices you admire, watch the way they build sentences. Write down the dialog you hear in real life. Listen deeply, both to what other people are saying and doing, but also to the things they’re not saying – with the people you know and love deeply, how can you tell when they’re sad? When they’re lying? When they have a thing to tell you but they won’t get right to the point? I also think you have to sneak up on yourself sometimes to get to the thing you want to say, and writing exercises can help. Linda Barry’s What It Is has some great ones with her lists of ten things.

Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

RS: I’m hoping what people come away with this time is a bit of grace and forgiveness for how complicated memory really is, and how clever our brains can be with telling us we’ve got the whole truth, when what we’ve got is really a fraction that changes shape. We’re conditioned in this culture to believe that facts will reveal the Truth, but I think where memoir really gets interesting is where it allows for slippage, makes room for other interpretations, and invites the reader into the struggle of making meaning from experience rather than telling us the One Right Way to see what happened. I’m also hoping anyone coming to memoir at this moment in history will be gentle with themselves, their stories, and their energy around writing. It’s an enormously powerful and healing discipline, and I’ve found it works best when given time and space, not hammered into too many hard deadlines or a perception of what’s hot in publishing at any given moment.

Thanks, Rachel!

Click here to learn more about Rachel Starnes’ upcoming class.

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