Crafting my literary docu-memoir…

(Continuation from last week)

To begin with, like Parker, other than to determine the focus of my work, I did not plot a theme for each of the subjects’ stories. I could not. I did not know what any of my subjects would have to say about their life experience, I did not know their personal “truths.” During the audio-taped conversations, like Parker, I saw myself as a blackboard for the subjects to write on, and waited to see what themes would emerge from out of the wealth of material gathered in the interviews. In ordinary conversation people use a language of their own making when trying to make sense of their experiences for themselves and the person they are talking to. As I see it, literary docu-memoir goes further to also give the subjects the opportunity to express their deeper feelings about their experiences. For example, in ordinary life and also in his taped conversations, and so in my book, M–describes himself as an ordinary person, but because the taped conversations are intended solely as resource material for a literary production M– has been given a specific context in which to discuss his experience. As a result, M– freely expresses himself in a way that he most likely would not do in ordinary everyday conversation, and this enables him to come to terms with his demons. In his taped conversations M– takes a philosophical slant. He observes that sometimes in life bad things just happen, and that reflection can bring a form of resolution, and then voices his childhood experience as the source of his bouts of depression. I feel that M– rewrites his experience in a way that could allow the reader to gain a sense of M–’s experience and hopefully empathise, In his interview, and so in my book, M– states: “So my reality is all I’ve got and it’s made me what I am and I figure I could be a lot worse, but with people like us … you have to accept you’ll always have that monkey on your back. You can’t throw it off because it’ll just jump straight back on … so you’ve got to learn to try and carry it with dignity.”

Like Parker, I situate my subjects in the ordinary world, in their actual homes and towns, as they go about living their daily lives. In  my attempt to bring the subjects into three-dimensional life for the reader I try to have both them, and others in the smaller stories, move and speak as ordinary people both within, and outside of, the interview situation. It is my belief that writing of this type allows readers to identify with the subjects, and also allows the subjects as care-leavers a literary space in which to claim a sense of identity.  Differently to Parker and his persona in Lighthouse, I openly include myself in my book as a lead into the work, and I include myself as a part of the action, as the writer, researcher, and observer in an attempt to provide a framing reference and a setting for the stories and lend credibility to the work as a whole.

I begin my book with my true story of my traumatic childhood, and I begin the subjects’ stories with my true experience of battling floods to gather these stories, and end with an equally true story—on the hot March day I finished collecting the data for my work, as I made my way home a welcome storm broke the sweltering heat, and the after-storm light bathed the landscape with a surrealistic golden glow. I intend the story of my interviewing journey, a journey that is both physical and metaphysical, to foreshadow the drama of the tragedies within the subjects’ stories. I also intend this outer shell to highlight the temporal by situating the subjects’ stories in a given time frame and anchoring them in a text to create a sense of continuity—something the subjects did not have as children. As well, I feel that once the stories of horror and trauma are no longer confined to the subject’s unspoken memories but out on a page intended for public view, the subject and the reader, and I—as the interviewer and writer—can view and contemplate the care leavers’ childhood trauma and hopefully gain a sense of what the experience felt like for them, and what it feels like to be a care-leaver.

Somewhat differently to Parker, in my book, in my more creative story (the inner framing narrative about my interviewing journey, and which I attempt to relate back to the subjects and their stories nevertheless) I try at times to step outside the interview situation and view the world through the lens of my own subjectivity. I hoped that this might provide the reader with information they can use as further points of reference and give added validity to the work. Within the framework of the interview process, I frequently interrupt the subjects’ narrations with “smaller” stories that refer to life in general and tie back to the deeper meanings in what the subjects are saying. Some of these smaller stories are about my own experiences, present and past. I tried not to over-balance and go into competition with the subjects, but to write in a way that these smaller stories at once displace and frame and support the subjects’ stories yet take second place to the subjects’ stories, so that as soon as the subjects’ conversations are reinstated their stories displace and reframe these smaller stories. My hope was that this would allow me to further make and highlight certain points, and also create in the work a sense of place, displacement, place and displacement that is in keeping with the subjects’ experiences.

Somewhat differently to Parker also, in crafting I chose selections from the interview transcripts that I felt would balance the work, and moved these around. My wish was to create a readable story. Some critics might argue that this is in itself a fictionalising process. Others might say that fictionalisation begins the moment the writer begins crafting the literary docu-memoir from the interview transcripts. I feel that if one were to directly insert interview transcripts into the written work, without removing nearly all stops, starts, and jumping around natural in spoken conversations, and without moving selections of the edited verbatim interview material around to create a sense of flow and engender continuity on sometimes discontinuous memories, the reader would without a doubt find the written work too arduous to contemplate. But in the course of this “composing” I believe that I do not alter what the subjects have said in their interviews and transcripts, and I assign what has been said to the original speaker her- or himself so that, in the text, the subjects only ever say what they have actually said in real life.  As well, to try and make it clear to the reader where the boundary lies between fiction and fact, and between verbatim and edited testimony, I use italics to indicate my actual interview questions as lifted from the transcript material, and I sandwich the edited and verbatim transcript material in between the more creative work which also includes snippets from the actual audio-taped conversations. I think of the literary docu-memoir form as I have tried to evolve it as a single car that has dual controls, and which requires two drivers—the writer, and the subject (a different subject in each of the stories)—who smoothly switch control of the vehicle backwards and forwards between them whilst the writer guides the car through the narrative.


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