True stories by ordinary people are commonly referred to as the “nobody memoir.” We lack the plot line of celebrity. No rags turned to riches. No lonely child turned superstar. We are still working on the arcs of our plots. Neither famous nor infamous, the typical nobody memoirist describes the most intense incidents of a lifetime. Drama emerges from adventure, adversity, angst, or abuse. The protagonist climbs a mountain or rows an ocean, walks a thousand-miles on a treacherous seaside trail, confronts an abusive past, recounts her recovery from rape, exposes a dysfunctional family.
Popular memoirs dig deep into the wounded psyche. Triumphant narrators emerge, healed by the crucible of experience. This creates a problem for writers’ lives deprived of high stakes adventure, poverty, or trauma.
My first experience with the problem of happiness was in a college social work internship. “You can’t truly understand your clients because you’ve never been poor,” my supervisor said. Just as I once questioned my ability to be an empathic social worker, I now ponder my ability to write memoir about a happy childhood. Several questions emerge—What is happiness, exactly? Did I really have a happy childhood? Is it possible to write an engaging memoir about a happy childhood?
An Internet search of synonyms commonly associated with the word “happy,” results in cheerful, merry, gleeful, delighted, and felicitous. None of these words describes my childhood.
And so, I thumb the pages of the (shorter) Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a three-volume tome always ready to offer wise counsel.The word “happiness,” has as its root the Middle English word, “hap,” meaning luck or fortune. As is often the case, considering a definition elicits memory.
Our family has been traveling for hours in a rental car. Our seven-year old daughter is so bored she begins to sing, bellowing a lyric refrain of her own invention — I’m hap-hap-happy to be myself. I make my life enjoyable. She sings the root of happiness, “hap,” without consulting a dictionary. And she states, with lyrical authority, that you make your own happiness.
When you consider its linguistic root, “happy” does not describe joy. Many life events occur by happenstance. People are often hapless. Stuff happens.
My fortunate birth was a chance event, a happenstance. I am the lucky offspring of educated parents who offered ample food, love, safe shelter, and experiences that nurtured my curiosity as well as a cache of clichés. Our father coached us to keep stiff upper lips and chins held high because when times get tough, the tough got going, and hard times build character. We smiled and the world smiled with us.
Due to happenstance and our parents’ decisions, I enjoyed both ordinary and extraordinary travails, due in large part to the travels my upwardly-mobile father engineered. These would turn out to be character building experience
The root of the word “travel,” is a French word, “travails.” My childhood was abundant with both.
“You’re going to love living in Germany. It’ll be a great adventure.” My mother writes long letters to home on tissue-paper-thin blue Air Mail stationary.
“We’re moving to England!” Brit kids call me a “rich American,” which is only half correct. “You need to put that child on a diet,” the doctor says. “You’re pleasingly plump,” Mom explains.
“We’re moving to Memphis, Tennessee!” The southern girls laugh at my British accent. They call me Butterball and Lardo. “There is nothing wrong with her. You worry too much,” my father tells my mother. Neither can ignore the convulsions. “You should put her in special education classes,” the doctor says. Mom refuses.
“We’re moving to Chicago!” Elvis sings, “In the Ghetto” and my grief quickens. The Yankee teenagers laugh at my southern accent. They call me Southern Fried Chicken. By choice, I lose weight. By happenstance, I grow out of epilepsy, 12 years after the initial convulsion.
“No childhood lacks misfortune. The experience of happiness does not mirror the events of a life. Trouble — the stuff of storytelling — comes in many forms,” says fiction writer Flannery O’Connor. Flannery wrote unreliable and in-credible fictional characters; yet, she is the most trustworthy of narrators. Everything is ripe for story!
Realizing that I can write memoir about my fortunate childhood does not release me from the real trick — the writing itself. I need to pull the reader into the narrative with good beginnings. I need to capture details and vivid scenes. There must be an arc to my plot—authentic moments of reversal and recognition. My real-life characters must be complex, especially my own.
Originally published at http://womenwhowrite.com.
About the author — Kimberly Crum MSW, MFA is sole proprietor of a writing instruction studio where she writes and teaches memoir and personal essay to aspiring writers who want to write for publication or posterity. She is the co-editor of The Boom Project: Voices of a Generation (Butler Books 2019) — a literary anthology of essay, poem, memoir and fiction by Baby Boomers of the Ohio River Valley. Work-in-progress — A segmented memoir titled Slouching Toward Self-Actualization.