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{Fri 13 February 2009}   The subjective truth of memories for Memoir
The subjective truth of memories for Memoir

This week in the MA we’ve been working on Memoir. There has been useful discussion around the subject of “truth” in the genre: the difference between memoir and biography, the necessity of being entertaining in order to attract a publisher and an audience, and therefore the necessity of holding to a theme, being selective in what one portrays,  which might mean not telling everything, or even embellishing sometimes  in order to hold the attention… what this means for a supposedly “non-fiction” genre, the expectation that the audience understands that a memoir presents subjective rather than objective truth, etc.

For an exercise, we were instructed to run “the film” of our lives, beginning with our earliest memories, fitting in what we could in ten minutes. I took a little longer over it, as the act of remembering in this way is foreign to me and I felt I was exercising nearly-atrophied muscles. I found that I remembered impressions rather than events – and for some reason they are all to do with being outside in the garden. It was difficult to write a quick list, because the act of writing is actually what draws out the memory for me. I start with a fleeting impression and can’t progress to the next one until I’ve dragged it out to coherence word by word. I also checked a few facts with my Mom, with a startling result in one case. This is what came to me (it is unpolished – the exercises that build on this one are better written – see subsequent posts).

————–

I remember cherry trees when I was three years old – how I loved the hugeness of those three trees in our back garden and how exciting the long cherry season was. They were different types of cherry so the fruit kept coming for ten weeks (I have that time detail through checking with my mom now). We only lived in that house in Linden, Johannesburg for a few months. There was also a swimming pool incident – I remembered that my brother (Ian, one year old) nearly drowned in the low water that was left after it had been drained for repair, but my mom tells me now that it wasn’t my brother but our friend Trevor, who was slightly younger than Ian.

We moved from Linden, Johannesburg to Cape Town. The house there had very thick walls – I don’t have a visual memory of these, but they felt solid and cool and the fact that they were thick has stayed with me because there was an earthquake while we were there and much was made of the fact that the house didn’t fall down. I associate our faithful, not-too-beautiful, but very much beloved dog, Juno, a boxer, with the garden of this house – a spacious half-acre with no trees – maybe that’s why it seems spacious in my memory. (In fact, my mother tells me, we acquired Juno from the SPCA when I was two and we were living in Parkview, Johannesburg (before we moved to Linden). Mom says that Dad and I set out to rescue her from imminent euthanasia at the prompting of a dog-finder who had been unable to find our lost Rhodesian Ridgeback who had wandered. As I was only two, I hardly think I was the initiator of this noble mission, but who knows? I don’t remember any of it.)

In another house, in Northcliff, Johannesburg, where we lived for three years (my age – six to eight), I remember a quince tree in a neglected corner of the garden behind the house. It wasn’t an attractive climbing tree (or bush? For some reason, I think of it as a bush) but mysterious because we were unfamiliar with quinces – no one really knew what to do with them. The light yellow fruit was so large, but so inedible! There was also an avocado tree, I think, which didn’t give much fruit so we thought of it as a disappointment. In the large front garden, there was an enormous loquat tree. I could climb into this, with difficulty. I liked the difficulty and the way it made me feel especially agile and clever when I overcame it. The fruit was tasty when ripe, but awfully bitter when not. Although the ripe orange-yellow fruit was smooth to touch, I seem to remember that it was also furry at some stage – maybe in early development or just around the base?

As I think about that loquat tree, more impressions from the outside of the house begin to cluster around it. There was a large swimming pool with a tough blue plastic cover over it. I remember the smell of that plastic, and its yielding support underfoot when we walked on it (which was very exciting as we weren’t allowed to do it). I think there was also a wendy house or a shed or other such hiding place at the bottom of the garden beyond the loquat tree – or if there wasn’t, we children met there as though there were when we pretended to be Peter (me) and Jane (I forget whose role that was) and others from Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven. I also remember games where I was an Indian warrior called Bravery. I presume my brothers were cowboys – oh yes! I remember the cap guns – toy guns that would give a loud report as they were fired – simply a hammer coming down on a strip of tape, and the smell of the tiny curl of smoke that would rise from the gun. I always preferred a bow and arrow – I’d somehow formulated a concept of the noble savage – must have been from something I’d read.

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[…] on from the “film of  your life” exercise in our Memoir workshop with Jonathan Taylor, one of the next instructions was to […]



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