When Memoirs are Terrifying, Vignettes Save the Day

While all writing draws on the imagination and memory of the writer, the personal narrative and memoir are considered by my students to be exclusively “true” stories.  Whatever. I’m from the “all stories are true” camp and try to discourage dogmatic adherence to genre rules.

However, from their self-reflections, I discovered that most of my students loath the idea of writing stories, either true or false, about themselves.

Here are some of their thoughts:

  • I do not like writing about myself in a mode that directly references myself as the person I am writing about.  – Jacob
  • I struggled with writing the memoir. I felt as if I didn’t have really anything interesting to write about. – Cynthia
  • I have always had trouble talking about my life. Perhaps this is due to my problems with actually remembering my life.  It’s an uncomfortable position to be in and quite honestly it [the memoir unit] consisted mainly of frustration and stress. – Harrison
  • The only things I can remember are hurtful, so I guess memoirs for me are just painful. – Boise

After reading these reflections, I decided to forgo the memoir and personal narrative for the vignette.  Students typically have written one or two memoirs for the “narratives, real or imagined” requirement in ELA Common Core standards, but very few of them are familiar with vignettes.

Vignettes are less about epiphany than about representation.  With vignettes, my students didn’t feel like they had to have figured out what grandma’s death meant or why their parents got a divorce.   Memoir requires the writer to have worked through all the pain of the memory and to have come out on the other side, bearing witness of the journey.  Most of the time, high school students are still in the journey and have no idea how to identify or testify about how events have impacted their lives. Vignettes allow them to remember something as visually and sensually as possible without unpacking and examing all the baggage.

Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street is a great model for this kind of writing. Her chapters are short, often plotless, slice-of-life moments which form a loose narrative about her childhood written in rich, poetic prose. The subjects range from hair to sex to violence to mothers to neighbors. Her language is lush and figurative, offering us a glimpse into her world without much editorial exposition.

First we read several of Cisnero’s vignettes from House and then wrote a few entries of our own, using Cisnero’s form as a model. After we’d written a dozen or so starts, we formed a list of characteristics that good vignettes share. Here is a list my students came up with:

v  Vignettes are short.  Some of the vignettes my students wrote were less than 100 words, but most pieces weighed in around 300-800 words.  The tighter and sharper the image, the better.  As one of my students observed, vignettes are kind of like the flash fiction of the memoir world.

v  Vignettes blend memory and poetry.  While the vignette comes from the subconscious as a memory, the prose of a vignette tends more toward image and lyricism than character, plot and setting.  Even though a story may emerge, the rich imagistic description of the memory is the key to the vignette. By employing synesthetic imageries and visual sensations, the writer transports her reader.

v  Vignettes are always about two things.  I often reference Vivian Gornick’s wonderful book The Situation and the Story in class and ask students to identify the “little S” and the “big S” of a piece or writing.  The “little S” is just the situation, the plot, what happens in the story. For example, in Cisnero’s vignette about shoes, the piece is ostensibly about shoes.  But, of course, nothing is ever just about shoes.  The “Big S” of the vignette, or the real story of the shoe chapter, is about the eroding innocence of her childhood as a lurid, sexualized world envelops her.

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