by Karen Carnabucci
This post is part of a HippoCamp 2021 recap series, with guest blog posts written by HippoCamp attendees. Learn more about our conference for creative nonfiction writers.
Narrative writing – whether it’s a book-long memoir or a short personal essay – isn’t only about plumbing your tender soul for the deepest of personal tragedies and misery. It’s also good ol’ research.
As a former newspaper journalist turned psychotherapist turned educator and author, I’m alert to the need for careful research and accuracy. That’s why it’s always good to see excellent writers preach the importance of research as well.
In her presentation at HippoCamp 2021, author, essayist and editor Lilly Dancyger explained how research adds depth and richness to personal stories.
Her topic, “Three Ways to Use Research in Personal Narratives,” mixed her personal story of writing her new memoir, titled Negative Space, with examples of various writers who have used research for various purposes and themes.
Lilly considers research one of the memoirist’s most valuable tools. First, research can be employed to bolster memory, grounding and enriching the personal narrative. It also becomes a narrative container, giving the flavor of the memoir-as-detective-novel and the author as detective. Finally, it often serves as a metaphor, as part of a braided narrative that puts one’s personal experience in conversation with an external concept.
Lilly, a former journalist, is one of these skillful writers whose work has been enriched by rigorous research. Her book tells her story of her anger and pain mingled with the artistic and ancestral inheritance of her father, the holder of multiple identities: an intelligent, talented and provocative artist who was also desperately deep into a serious addiction to heroin – a junkie, so to speak – who died suddenly when she was entering adolescence.
Her memoir is fashioned from her memories and, yes, research. In preparing to write, she read through her father’s old journals. She paged through the favorite books he left behind – with handwritten notes in the margins – and the letters her parents wrote to each other. She studied his art, picking several examples to illustrate her memoir. She cuddled up against one of his favorite T-shirts. She interviewed his old friends and talked with her mother, a former stripper who also struggled with heroin addiction, and read her mother’s journals.
Here is what Lilly told us about research to bolster memory:
- Write every detail that you remember. You will eventually come to the limits of your memory, where you will need to seek out allied sources of information.
- Seek out primary resources. These are the people who are related to the story that you are telling, and they will be able to provide you with their memories and perspectives.
- Visit physical locations important to your story personally and online. These are the places where people lived, walked, ate, slept and signification to their realities.
- Look for sensory cues in these places: the stench of rotting sea life, cigarette smoke floating up to the trees, drinking bottles of warm flat “40” beer.
These points focus on using research to bolster memory. However, it’s important to understand that each of the three research principles that Lilly mentions form a triune of memoir strategy; each is an equally valuable structure to create a memoir.
Ultimately, each memoirist must determine the limits of memory. When you research, you may find certain truths that contradict your memory. In her interviews, Lilly found that some people contradicted each other in their recollections and sometimes even contradicted themselves during a single conversation. Eventually, you may come to discover, as Lilly did, that her story was “truth,” one of many.