Between the Lines: Memory and Memoir

Aug 7, 2015

Gail Griffin
Credit Russell Cooper

Gail Griffin says writing a memoir may be the most challenging, even painful, kind of work for writers. Griffin is the Parfet Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Kalamazoo College, where she taught from 1977 to 2013. She is also the author of several books. The most recent is The Events of October: Murder-Suicide on a Small Campus, about a tragedy on the Kalamazoo College campus in October 1999.

“I taught courses in women's literature, 19th century British literature, autobiography, nonfiction writing, and a whole array of things I wasn't trained to teach,” says Griffin. “And it's there that I came to define myself ever more explicitly as a writer.”

Griffin is known throughout the Kalamazoo area for leading seminars and workshops on writing. But she's also known for helping lead discussions of difficult topics like racism, white privilege, and domestic violence, among others.

Griffin says teaching continues to be her passion. She taught a workshop on writing memoirs at Kazoo Books, 2413 Parkview Avenue in Kalamazoo, earlier this year. She'll be back by popular demand for a second workshop, also on writing memoirs, on Saturday, September 12, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The cost of the workshop is $35 and space is limited. 

“People think it’s going to be easy,” Griffin says about writing memoirs. “Because it’s what you know, it’s your own life. Just write it down. But in fact, to make a memoir meaningful takes a great deal more than just writing it down. Memory is a tricky thing.”

Griffin says memory is often colored by our perspective. And that perspective changes in countless subtle ways as we grow older and accumulate life experiences. Memories rise up from the deep not as coherent stories, she says, but can be a patchwork of passing images.

“It’s not the nature of what you remember,” Griffin says. “It’s how you treat what you remember.”

Writing down personal truths can mean stepping on the toes of others in our lives, she admits. Griffin says she's stepped on more than a few toes herself when writing her own memoirs.

“I do think it’s important to check your truth against others,” she says. A writer may wish to check versions with others who were there, which doesn’t mean the writer has to change the version remembered. But (they) may wish to include the observation that the writer’s memory doesn’t match that of others.

Warm, red, fear, pride. These are just a few of the word prompts Griffin uses in her memoir workshop. Participants are given a minute to write down memories these words evoke.

“These words bring up sense memories but sometimes also emotions,” says Griffin. “It can be pretty basic. But sometimes they bring up memories people didn’t realize they have.”

Listen to WMUK's Between the Lines every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m.