The literary docu-memoir form and working definition—what it is and is not

This week’s blog is taken from a part of my essay titled “Literary (creative nonfiction) docu-memoir: a different way of writing a life,” which was published in the international European Journal of Life Writing Vol. 3, 29 October, 2014

As far as I am aware, other than for my own work, there is no existing research or definition of literary docu-memoir as such. In this paper, based on my analyses of the form invented by Tony Parker, and the new form I invented though adapted from that of Parker, I will discuss, and attempt to tease out, the key aspects of the type of literary docu-memoir in which I am interested, and as I use it in my own work, understanding that other definitions may be proposed.

Literary docu-memoir is a rare form of life writing which involves the writer interviewing and audio-taping ordinary people for their unusual life experience and thoughts and feelings, as the resource material for a literary work of creative nonfiction. Caroline Forché and Philip Gerard define creative nonfiction as factual writing that is “infused with the stylistic devices” of the “best fiction and the most lyrical  of narrative poetry,” and which has a fidelity to “truthfulness”;  it is “storytelling of a very high order—through the revelation of character and […] the subtle braiding of themes, rhythms and resonance […] precise and original language,” and a distinctive narrative stance; “its very literariness distinguishes this writing from  deadline reportage” and “daily journalism” (Forché and Gerard 2001, pp. 1-2). Unlike fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers cannot work from imagination and memory alone (Cheney 2001, p. 196). Literary docu-memoir involves the writer interviewing, researching deeply, and immersing themself in the subjects’ lives. Theodore A. Rees Cheney advises that “the highly involved research effort” requires that the writer be willing to “conduct their research out in the real world”, to “move in on the lives of complete strangers and to dig deep into those lives,” and also willing to “stick with a story” for weeks, months, even years (Cheney 2001, p. 196).

Literary docu-memoir is not the same as “documentary memoir,” which is an unusual creative approach that can be used variously in nonfiction works. One definition of documentary memoir is implicit in an article by Loni Ding about the making of her documentary film series Ancestors in the America (1997): “Our visual method […] tells stories from the viewpoint of the […] subjects themselves; it is a way of combining research history with fictive storytelling. […] we are finding ways to create a first-person voice using historical and cultural materials in which the personal accounts and experiences of Asians in America are conspicuously absent” (Ding 1998, p.1). The aim, writes Ding, was to give an insight into what the subjects “thought or tried to do for themselves in response to the opportunities and obstacles they encountered” in their life in America (Ding 1998, p. 1). To recreate these stories the film-makers searched for archaeological sites, artefacts, Asian folklore, and “conventional primary documents such as census records, legislative reports, and period newspaper clippings,” and “framed these remains of a once robust presence, with the critical analyses of on-camera specialists and scholars” (Ding 1998, p. 1).

A literary parallel to Ding’s film would be Dianne Wilson’s The Spirit Car: journey to a Dakota past, (2006). The publishers describe the book as “documentary-memoir,” an “exquisite counterpoint of memoir and carefully researched fiction” that “vividly illuminates the difficult history of the Dakota people” (Wilson 2006, n.p.). In her author’s note, Wilson explains her work: “The stories in Book One are based on real people whose lives have been reimagined […] I wanted to bring the facts alive,” to transform history “into a living, breathing reality”; the stories in Book Two are a mixture of memoir, family stories, and pure invention, but readers “can trust the information in these stories [.…] The letters I quoted are real, all of the people existed, and I visited each place that I wrote about” (Wilson 2006, p. xi). As well, Wilson audio-recorded her family’s stories and first-hand accounts of their past experiences as Dakota Indians with mixed heritage as a resource for her book. In crafting, Wilson “imagined conversations and feelings based on plausible assumptions and the intuitive understanding” which she “gained of these people after burrowing inside their lives” (Wilson 2006, p. xii).

Ding and Wilson both employ the fiction writer’s techniques of authorial omniscience to imaginatively explore the experiences of ethnic groups from the viewpoint of the subjects themselves. Ding situates the subjects in relation to the socio-political climate of an eighteenth and nineteenth century America in which the European population held political power. Wilson does likewise, but the time period of her work extends from the 1800s into the present day. The documentary memoir approach departs from what I mean by literary docu-memoir.

Pioneered by the British writer Tony Parker, the literary docu-memoir blurs the boundaries between life writing and life narrative, and straddles literary memoir and literary documentary. The memoir component is primarily that of the subject. The writer does not tell or explain the subject’s story, rather creates a literary space in which to introduce the subject to the reader. Literary docu-memoir uses first person, and is written in such a way that the subject speaks for them self about her or his experience. Unlike biography (for a comprehensive discussion on biography see Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson: Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P., 2nd ed. 2010),  in literary docu-memoir matters of time and timing do matter; the subject is living at the time of writing—the death of the subject is definitive even though the work may be published posthumously. The documentary component can take the form of illustrations, and images such as photographs and documents inserted by the writer to lend credence to the text. The documentary component can also be factual elements which the subject mentions naturally in conversation about her or his experience, and which produces a documentary-type effect in the subject’s narrative on a personal and affective level.

The literary docu-memoir is a specialised form of writing that demands the writer’s use of creative empathy. The writer who employs creative empathy aspires to be as non-judgemental of the subjects as possible, and to write with reflection. This involves the writer using immersion research techniques to gain a sympathetic understanding of the subject’s story in order to show the reader what it is like to have led an unusual life. This also depends on the ability of the writer to feel empathy with the subject and convey that in writing in order to share with the reader another person’s feelings or emotional experiences as if they were her or his own. Alfred Margulies posits that affective resonance, how we internally “mirror”— “see” and “feel”—those affective states that are those of some other, and relate to that person through unconscious recognition, is key to the process of empathy (Margulies 1993, p.p. 181-83). Margulies also notes the psychiatrist’s dilemma in providing descriptors for the subtleties and extraordinary nuances in the various in-between states or complex amalgams of some other’s emotional experiences: “in our attempts to feel into another person’s” emotional experience “we come up against our inherent limitations of language and meaning” (Margulies 1993, p.p. 181-2). This could equally apply to the writer. Words are the writer’s sole tool to convey others’ complex and subtle affective states through creative empathy.

Literary docu-memoir is a mixture of fact, lyricism and story. Being a form of creative nonfiction, it permits the writer’s use of some novelistic techniques. Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz argue that even though “the world of creative nonfiction is not invented” the “reality is mediated and narrativized”: “the particular subjectivities of authors are crucial and should be textually embodied” because “language and form must have a surface and texture that remind readers that the work is artificed,” because, by its nature, creative nonfiction is “not reserved for a narrow specialist audiences” rather aimed at the general reader (Perl and Schwartz 2006, p.p.  4-7). The further implication for literary docu-memoir is that to best convey a sense of the subject’s experience the writer must choose which threads to follow from the wealth of detail granted in audio-taped interviews. Memoirists, and so literary docu-memoirists, are bound by a strict code of ethics that novelists are not.  G. Thomas Couser (2012) posits that ethical dangers for memoir stem from the fact that it is “rooted in the real world and therefore makes certain kinds of truth claims,” and while “utter fidelity to truth” is neither possible nor desirable in such work, the writer assumes “two distinct kinds of obligations,” one to the biographical and historical record, and one to the people they depict” (Couser 2012, p. 10).

Literary docu-memoir of the type in which I am interested, exists in a liminal space. It lies in the interstices of oral and social history, and life narrative and life-writing, and crosses boundaries into other disciplines such as, for instance, psychology and sociology, and also incorporates elements of survivor narrative, trauma narrative and witnessing. But it is different from all those forms by the fact that it is essentially a work of literary memoir. Moreover, the creative approach to the crafting of the oral narratives, while maintaining their integrity, distinguishes the literary docu-memoir from other forms with which it might be confused. In my view, it is the author’s positioning in the writing of the literary docu-memoir that is crucial in defining this area of creative nonfiction.

Works cited 

Ablon, Steven L. and Daniel Brown, Edward J. Khantzian, John E. Mack, eds. Human Feelings: Explorations in Affect Development and Meaning. Hillsdale, New Jersey USA: Analytic P, 1993. Print.

Cheney, Theodore. A. Rees. Writing Creative Nonfiction: Fiction Techniques for Crafting Great Nonfiction. Berkeley: Ten Speed P, 2001. Print.

Couser, G. Thomas. Memoir: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2012. Print.

Ding, Loni. “Documemoir Visual Approach.” In About Documemoir by Loni Ding. Center for Educational Telecommunications. “Documemoir.” 1998 (pp. 1-5). Web. 4 Nov. 2012.

Forché, Caroline, and Philip Gerard, eds. Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from the teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Cincinnati, Ohio:        Story P, 200     1. Print.

Margulies, Alfred. “Empathy, Virtuality, and the Birth of Complex Emotional States.” In Human

Feelings: Explorations in Affect Development and Meaning. Eds. Ablon, Steven L. and Daniel Brown, Edward J. Khantzian, John E. Mack.  Hillsdale, New Jersey USA: Analytic P, 1993. Print.

Perl, Sondra, and Mimi Schwartz. Writing True. Boston: Houghton Miffin Co., 2006. Print.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2nd ed., 2010. Print.

Wilson, Diane. Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past. Minnesota: Minnesota Historical P, 2006. Print.

Flying out for South East Asia tomorrow morning early … more Words for Sam then …

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