Dreaming of Creativity: Imaging and Imagining the Creative Self in Memoir

Donna Lee Brien

Abstract


Where can creative people find models of creativity and possible creative selves? How do they find examples of how others have imaged and imagined the creative identity that they dream of inhabiting? This discussion focuses on book-length memoirs written by creative writers, surveying these texts as a sub-genre of popular memoir and seeking to contribute to understanding of both the creative self and practices of writing about creative process and creative identity. A number of published book-length memoirs include discussion of the creative process and creativity. Despite memoir being a popular and enduring category of popular literature, such works have not been investigated as a group. Nor, with rare exceptions, have individual memoirs in this group received significant critical or scholarly attention.

Method

Considering qualitative research, Giorgi states, “nothing can be accomplished without subjectivity, so its elimination is not the solution. Rather how the subject is presented is what matters, and objectivity itself is an achievement of subjectivity” (205). This entanglement of objectivity and subjectivity when conducting qualitative research – and attendant notions of bias, influence and, therefore, the validity of results – is especially apparent in what has been described as “insider research”. As its name suggests, in “insider research” the researcher is directly personally involved in, connected to, or otherwise privileged in relation to, the subject under consideration (Robson). While such research has long been charged with a lack of validity (LeCompte and Goetz), others have asserted the importance of the “insider view”, asserting how, in some research, including in interpretivist methodology, the researcher’s perceptions from this position are valued above the “outsider view” (see, Blaikie 115). Insider research is often used as a descriptor of work-based inquiries, where the researcher acts professionally within the profession under investigation (Costley, Elliott, and ‎Gibbs) – often called “practitioner research” (Robson 382) – and is common in professionally-focused research such as in social work (Kanuha), education (Sikes and Potts) and nursing (Asselin). This work-based context may be widened to incorporate situations where researchers are members of the specific community under consideration (Rooney 6). 

This discussion mobilises this awareness of the insider perspective in considering the “creative memoir”, which I am here defining as those popular memoirs about creativity and/or the creative process and, in this case, specifically that of creative writing. Herein, in this consideration of the creative memoir, alongside only considering writers’ memoirs rather than those of other creative individuals, this discussion is also restricted to the first-person autobiographical memoir – rather than biographical memoirs about creative people, as in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. This use of “creative memoir” is unlike the way the term is used to describe a memoir written, structured or presented in what could be described as a “creative” way – as when Suciu describes Maxine Hong Kingston’s innovative The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among the Ghosts as a “creative memoir” (online). This idea of innovative memoir is often used when the term is used in a book’s subtitle and refers to a level of imaginative reconstitution or invention, as in Bill Boyd’s Stepdaddy: A Creative Memoir about how, in 1948, as a 12-year-old boy, the author hitchhiked with his stepfather 1,500 miles from Arkansas to California in search of farm work. Boyd explains that, after more than 50 years, “I don’t remember all the names and exact dates, and, yes, I’ve also taken the liberty of reinventing the characters we met along the way” (iii). Similarly, in A. P. Eberhart’s Trouble in Paradox: A Creative Memoir, the narrative of a suicidal young man’s camping trip in Colarado’s remote Paradox Valley, the “creative” in the sub-title refers to the author’s struggle with objectivity, producing what the author describes as a “sourmilk kind of truth, tainted with acknowledged ambiguity” (x).

This discussion and analysis enacts a series of insider perspectives. As researcher, I am taking an insider perspective in this inquiry – as I am a creative writer and teacher and researcher of creative writing and creativity. In writing memoirs about their creative process or creativity, these memoirists are also employing this research methodology (although certainly not explicitly expressing it), in the process, “blurring the boundaries” (Rooney 6) between the self and subject of study. Memoirists indeed employ Hamilton, Smith and Worthington’s three research methodologies that “privilege self in the research design” (17) in the course of their storytelling: using “narrative (a look at a story of self), autoethnography (a look at self within a larger context), and self-study (a look at self in action …)” (18). Richardson asserts that in writing about lives, we need to be aware how language is a “constitutive force, creating a particular view of reality and of the Self” (in, Richardson and Adams St. Pierre 960) where writers “can see more clearly” (967), while her co-author Adams St. Pierre suggests that if writing is seen as “a method of qualitative inquiry” (967), it can be understood as “thinking … [and] analysis” (967). Furthermore, as another group of insiders, other writers may also read these memoirs as a form of research into writing (Prose; Brien “Creative Practice”). In both the reading and writing of these memoirs, therefore, producers and consumers of these texts are insider researchers engaging in a form of narrative inquiry (Clandinin and Connelly) – into the creative self where “the professional identity and knowledge of the researcher is revealed in the narratives and explored by those involved in the inquiry” (Hamilton, Smith, and Worthington 19). Although insider research usually involves gathering data and stories from participants (Hesse-Biber and Yaiser 200), the following discussion also suggests that such insider research into creative writing can be conducted using already published sources. In this case, all works discussed below are published and available in the public domain.

Studying the Self in Memoir 

A number of popular memoirists have built writing careers on their first and, more rarely, sequel memoirs (Waters). High profile contemporary authors in this category include Mary Karr, whose first memoir, The Liars’ Club is the book said to have “jump-started the … memoir explosion” (Garner) of the 1990s. Other such prominent memoirists of this “boom” in popular memoir (Rak) include Susanna Kaysen (author of Girl, Interrupted about her institutionalization with bipolar disorder), Lucy Grealy (author of Autobiography of a Face about growing up with an extreme facial disfigurement), Frank McCourt (author of Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, which is often acknowledged to have been the text which prompted the term ‘misery memoir’), Marya Hornbacher (author of Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia and sequel texts), and Augusten Burroughs (author of Running with Scissors about his extraordinary childhood). 

While these, and many other memoirists who were first time authors, have attracted considerable media, critical and scholarly attention (see, Yagoda; Smith and Watson; Couser Memoir; Smith; Rak; Karr The Art), there are also a number of creative individuals who at the time of writing their memoirs were already writers or (less frequently) other practicing creative artists, and these have attracted far less notice. More often, writers who write about writing produce works that could described as “instructional texts”, such as Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book and Stephen King’s On Writing. When writers do write memoirs, they also often write about various interesting aspects of lives, however, most of these do include at least some information about their writing work. It is these texts that are explored herein as, taken together, these works can be identified as a niche subset of published book-length memoirs – the creative writers’ creative memoir – however, these works are rarely discussed in research terms. It is hoped this narrative exploration will demonstrate that such memoir can contribute to an understanding of aspects of writing practice and process, as well as how this can be described, in order to contribute to ways of understanding, and writing about, the creative self. 

As I have posited when investigating other under-investigated sub-genres of memoir (Brien “Pathways”; “Starving”; “The Facts”; “What About”; “Narratives”; “Food”; “Writing”), a case study (Gerring) of a small sample of works, each of which explores an aspect (or aspects) of a form is useful as it allows, as according to Merriam, a richer picture of an under-examined phenomenon to be constructed. This approach aims to provide sufficient examples, background detail and other information to begin a discussion about this form of writing and suggest avenues for future research. Merriam also posits that “much can be learned […] from an encounter with the case through the researcher’s narrative description” (51). In this spirit, the below will begin to sketch a narrative profile of the creative writers’ memoir. In this, I am following life writing theorist G. Thomas Couser’s assertion that “what is important is … exploring what genres are in order to understand what they do” (‘Genre’ 155), which is, in this case, seeking to contribute to our understanding about ways of reporting on, and writing about, the creative self. The memoirs are selected based on my personal knowledge of these texts, supplemented by library research, and are not, therefore, seeking to be representative (Gerring) but, instead, revealing of the variety of texts available.

Classic Creative Memoirs

It has been posited that memoir of enduring value moves beyond the chronicling, or otherwise recording, of the events that have happened to an individual to, instead, achieve what memoirist Patricia Hampl characterises as “the intersection of narration and reflection” (33) and, thus, engage with a sense of wider cultural analysis, memory and history. Writer and art theorist André Malraux clearly articulated this in his autobiographical Anti-Memoirs, asserting that what interested him in writing memoir was not personality or personal secrets, but the attempt to “express … a particular relationship with the world” (9). In asking “what do I care about what matters only to me?” (9), Malraux was suggesting that readers would also not care for a purely personal approach. This framework – of presenting the personal in order to present some broader, more socially or culturally significant commentary – is also, obviously, of interest in relation to thinking about the challenges of representing the creative self in memoir. Lee Gutkind has described this undertaking as “reaching beyond the boundaries of self and embracing a universal audience or message” (qtd. in Brien “A Virtual Interview”).

Some creative memoirists narrate how they came to write. C. S. Lewis, writing about his conversion to Christianity in Surprised by Joy, describes how he was “forced” to write due to his inability to be generatively creative in any other way: “Many sheets of cardboard and pairs of scissors I spoiled, only to turn from my hopeless failures in tears. As a last resource … I was driven to write stories instead” (19). Laurie Lee’s first volume in his autobiographical trilogy, Cider with Rosie: A Memoir, which begins with his family arriving in a Cotswolds village, ends with him becoming aware of his interest in poetry. The next volume, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, about leaving for London and his first visit to Spain in 1935, includes beginning to write. When boarding in London, for instance, he spends long evenings writing by the fire or else playing his violin – activities his landlords described as burdening his brain. This memoir, published 30 years after the events it recounts, so persuasively captures the voice of the youthful Lee that it has been described as an “autoethnographic novel” (Threadgould 33). Although the narrative of novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory, provides an account of his Russian childhood, education in England and life in Paris and Berlin before emigrating to the United States in 1940, it also includes reflection on his development as a writer. The chapter ‘First Poem’, for instance, provides an analysis of his first attempt at writing poetry. 

In the series of essays in The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of her early years growing up in upstate New York on a large rural property and attending a one-room school, through to attending university. She begins her ‘Author’s Note’ with a disclaimer that the work is not intended to be either “a complete memoir of my life – not even my life as a writer”, continuing that the work is “something more precious … an accounting of the ways in which my life (as a writer, but not solely …) was shaped” (e-book). Her hard-working parents clearly influenced this hard-working author, who has produced more than 50 highly regarded published books: “difficult not to feel unworthy of such parents, who’d come of age as young adults in the Great Depression. Their lives were work. Their lives were deprivation. Their lives have led to you” (e-book). She also relates experiences that provided her with inspiration, content and themes for her writing – early knowledge of death and glimpsed horrors involving neighbours – as well as a desire to investigate and question. In this, Oates also shares the above cited writers’ interest in material beyond the personal, stating that “not individuals but rather events and occasions – prevailing ‘themes’ – are what engage me most as a writer, for nothing merely particular and private can be of more than passing interest” (e-book). 

Popular/Genre Writers’ Memoirs

While the above could be classified as “classic creative memoirs”, which have either become classics, or are by well-known literary authors, there is another group of creative memoirs by those who could be described as more popular and/or genre writers. In this, there is no judgement, hierarchy or ranking being employed or imposed, but rather, a way of usefully separating out groups of memoirs for closer inspection. Two works that can be placed into this category are memoirs by popular travel writer Bill Bryson and bestselling thriller writer Frederick Forsyth.

In The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir, Bryson relates growing up in Iowa in the 1950s with a father who was a sports writer for a leading newspaper and a mother who wrote for popular lifestyle magazines – and how, in his early years, he lived in the world of his imagination and especially in an imaginary identity: the Thunderbolt Kid of the title. Overall, despite his mother’s poor cookery and his father’s unwillingness to spend money, Bryson writes of his childhood as happy and the “simpler world “ (19) of the 1950s as positive – adding on the first page “there was little trauma in my upbringing” (1). His ability to find a humorous anecdote can be situated in how he was able to observe the characters who peopled his childhood, and while not writing about writing at any length, he certainly writes about reading.

In his memoir, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, Forsyth relates the story of his success, including writing his bestselling The Day of the Jackal in a little over a month and then being offered a three-book contract upon its publication. The majority of the narrative, however, focuses on the influence his experiences have had on his work and how he has been able to draw on these for literary inspiration. This includes growing up in England during the second world war, as well as working as a Royal Air Force pilot and then a Reuters and BBC foreign correspondent as well as with British intelligence. While the overarching driver of his 45-year-long writing practice has been curiosity, which has taken him around the world as part of the research process he engages in to write his novels, Forsyth also expresses how as a writer he, “lives half his life inside his own head” (The Outsider 11) and the “need for long periods of peace and quiet, often in complete silence” (12). Even in company, the writer is “always watching … [he] observes, analyses, takes mental notes, stores nuggets of the talk and behaviour for later use” (12).

Journalists and Other Immersion Memoirists

Other experienced writers-as-memoirists include professional journalists and others who have immersed themselves in an experience and/or set themselves a task to chronicle in a personal narrative. George Orwell’s observations gleaned during his time as a soldier the Spanish Civil War, but written after return to England, Homage to Catalonia is a classic of this type of memoir. While Orwell’s account of the war has been lauded and contested (see, Janvier; Cunningham 192), in writing about his experiences he mobilises a range of writing about the senses, and the importance this plays in evocative writing – as one reviewer stated: “no one excels him in bringing to the eyes, ears and nostrils the nasty ingredients of fevered situations … the realities of personal experience” (Pritchett 96). The power of his precise prose – as discussed in his influential essay, “Politics and the English Language” – have influenced the way the self has been represented in text, and especially in memoir, ever since. In what could be a primer for the contemporary memoir writer, Orwell suggests: “a scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” (“Politics” 260).

American John Steinbeck pens an early example of what could be called an “immersion” memoir (Gutkind; Hemley) in Travels with Charley in Search of America about a journey he made across America in a pickup truck in 1960. Accompanied by a French poodle (the “Charley” of the title), Steinbeck visits almost forty American states, this journey providing the author, who left no other book-length autobiography, the opportunity to reflect on his upbringing among a grandfather who “loved good writing” and his daughter, the author’s mother, who also valued reading and writing. He also describes the power of place and nature to inspire a writer. Interestingly, a large number of contemporary creative memoirs result from a journalist or other writer similarly immersing themselves in a situation in order to produce a memoir from this experience. Many food memoirs fit this description including Bill Buford’s Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany and Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. Other food memoirs of this kind deal with such content as following the competitive eating circuit (Fagone), living for a year on home grown food (Kingsolver), becoming a pastry chef (Jurgensen), training to be a butcher (Powell), following celebrities’ diets (Harrington) and learning about wine (Bosker). These memoirs provide a range of information regarding how to research, structure, compose and edit such narratives.

Other Memoirs

Authors of children’s and young adult fiction have also penned a series of memoirs which include reflection on the creative process (Brien “What About”). These include much-loved examples such as Paul Zindel’s reflection on his teenage years: The Pigman And Me. While revealing the humorous way in which Zindel interpreted his younger life, and then translated this into his writing, other texts portray a much rougher start to the writing life. Walter Dean Myer’s Bad Boy: A Memoir describes growing up on the streets. Jacqueline Woodson’s A Way Out of No Way: Writing about Growing Up Black in America details the inspiration and hope she drew from books read when growing up. Nilsen and Donelson note that such texts can “serve as models for … creative writing” (38) for younger as well as adult writers, and urge their use in this manner. 

Some creative writers’ memoirs could be classified as “illness memoirs” (Frank 119), including a number about depression – a condition many writers report experiencing (Piirto; Walker, Koestner, and Hum). A classic example is William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, the Sophie’s Choice author’s account of his struggle with this debilitating illness. This memoir was extremely well received by readers, who responded to Styron’s authorial approach, which elegantly modelled the creative nonfiction mixing of the disclosure of his personal despair with elements of a broader study of depression. Styron also wrote revealingly of his use of alcohol and its connection to writing – an area of interest for creative writing researchers (see, Krauth; Brien “Transgressive”) – detailing how he “used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination … although I never set down a line while under its influence, I did use it … as a means to let my mind conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to” (Styron, Darkness e-book). 

A representative of another kind of personally reflective creative memoir, the bereavement memoir, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, powerfully recounts her feelings about the death of her husband (an area of creative writing in which many believe Didion has set a benchmark) and – more importantly for those seeking information about her writing processes – the “magical thinking” that followed, and which allowed her to craft a book from her experience. “We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss,” she writes. “We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes” (188). The result is a memoir in which creativity, and how to image it, is also in the forefront.

Conclusion

This profile of a series of popular memoirs demonstrates that the personal memoirs of creative individuals can contribute to investigations of creativity and, especially, provide models of imaging, and imagining, the creative self. In doing so, this discussion has also attempted to answer a wider question in relation to personal memoir: whether the personal memoir, often neglected and/or disparaged in scholarly and critical discourse, can be usefully integrated into investigations of creativity, creative identity and creative writing research. This discussion provides an answer that the personal memoir can do this. Moreover, these expressions of, and reflections upon, authorial creativity has relevance for both writers and readers who are seeking expressions in this mode as both models and sources of information.

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Keywords


Creative writing; memoir; creativity; dreaming; imagining



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