Writers turning memories into memoirs

Roxana Robinson and Dani Shapiro

Jennifer Almquist

Writers turning memories into memoirs

Early evening in West Cornwall, twilight descending, the lights of the Cornwall Library glowed as a capacity crowd found their seats to spend the next two hours in the presence of three local authors Saturday, Jan. 27.

Cornwall resident Roxana Robinson was the moderator of the Author Talk in the library, part of a series of scheduled events. She began the evening by introducing the women seated on either side of her: “Dani Shapiro and A.M. Homes are two of our most interesting contemporary writers. Through the lenses of fiction and memoir, they have explored the world as we know it. It’s a choice all writers face — which genre, which form, will best allow me to explore this subject?”

Robinson, the biographer of Georgia O’Keeffe, has written six novels and three collections of short stories. She was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. She is an environmentalist, master gardener and scholar of American paintings. Robinson teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College.

The evening in Cornwall felt like a university seminar. Robinson spoke of the transformation of the genre of memoir in the last 20 years following the “blazing memoir” ["The Liar’s Club"] written by Mary Carr, who once wrote of “the sheer convincing poetry of a single person trying to make sense of the past.”

Robinson said, “Dani Shapiro has chosen primarily to use memoir as a means of exploring the world, writing about her rather sensational coming of age, in 'Slow Motion,' the question of faith in 'Devotion,' the story of her marriage in 'Hourglass,' and the revelatory discovery of her biological parent in 'Inheritance,' while writing novels that explore similar themes.”

Shapiro has written four memoirs — "Hourglass," "Still Writing," "Devotion" and "Slow Motion" — and five novels. Her work has been translated in 14 languages. She has taught at Wesleyan University, the New School, New York University, and Columbia University.

Robinson asked Shapiro how she chose her form. She answered: “It is dictated by what happens — a shimmer — and my obsession becomes the theme. Writing 'Slow Motion' was a conscious choice, but I was not in charge. 'Slow Motion' was a curative for my fiction.”

Turning to her right, Robinson asked Homes, “How did you choose memoir?”

She replied: “I was adopted, I was a replacement for a child who had died, and my biological family found me in my 30s. Time and history change things. I think the relationship between self and story IS the story. I was writing about secrets, but I WAS the secret.” She was the product of an affair between a married man with a family and his young mistress. Homes said she had grown up fascinated by George Washington, written about him, and was freaked out to learn from her biological father that she was related to Washington, and her family once owned all the land that is now Washington, D.C. Her prescience was uncanny.

Shapiro added that in psychiatry that is called the “unthought known” — what we know in our bones. She referred to her own “genealogical bewilderment” upon learning that the man she had adored as her father until 2016 was not her biological father. Her true identity had been hidden from her for 50 years. Shapiro marveled that she had written over 100 pages describing a certain male character, and then learned later that her biological father was a dead ringer for the fictional character she had summoned up.

Robinson explained: “A.M. has focused on the sociological aspects of the world, exploring the possibilities of transgressive behavior in her controversial novel, 'The End of Alice,' which was about a homicidal pedophile, and 'Music for Torching,' about subversive currents in the well-behaved suburbs, and now in 'The Unfolding,' which imagines a group of rich, entitled men who can’t tolerate the election of a black man for president, and who set out to undermine the American system in response. Her memoir, 'The Mistress’s Daughter,' explores her own discovery of biological parents who intrude on her life in an unsettling way.”

Homes, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University, has written 26 books that have been published in 22 languages, and is the writer/producer on television shows including "Mr. Mercedes" and "The L Word." She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She collaborates on book projects with artists including Carroll Dunham of Cornwall and has written the libretto for three operas. Her newest book, "The Unfolding," is oddly prescient as she began writing it when Obama was elected, and it centers on a character known as “the Big Guy” who organizes a group of wealthy Republicans to form the “Forever Men,” a secret cabal who will do anything for their species to stay in power.

The friendship between these three women was palpable during their dialogue. They know and respect each other’s writing. The sensibility of Homes and Shapiro are polar opposites, yet they write about the impact of their parent’s decisions, and family secrets, on their own emotional, psychological development. Homes is irreverent, witty, and creates “the least likely characters, and then I inhabit them — I want my characters to be someone I would like to spend time with.”

“A.M., you make people love your unsavory characters, they have a strange dichotomy,” observed Shapiro, and Homes replied, “Dani, your characters are beautifully struggling with that, but they are way more tender.”

Each author asked questions of the other. “Dani, you are renowned in the mentoring teaching world, what was the evolution of that?" Shapiro answered that moving up to the country changed everything and she began running writing classes, creating a creative bond with her students that has continued for 25 years. “I teach at Kripalu once a year — real generative work with small groups with prompts, and in 2007 started the Sirenland Workshop in Positano, Italy." Shapiro’s podcast "Family Secrets" has 30 million downloads.

Homes: Writing a memoir is like doing surgery on yourself.

Shapiro: Writing a memoir is not cathartic, it drills down your own story more deeply. What haunts us is part of our DNA.

Homes: Dani, how do you translate memory?

Shapiro: Annie Dillard said follow the line of words.

Shapiro: Dolly Parton said, “figure out who you are, and do it on purpose.”

Shapiro and Robinson will be in discussion again on Feb. 13 at The White Hart Inn in Salisbury at 6:30 p.m. to discuss Robinson's newest novel, "Leaving."

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