The Art of Memoir

Over the weekend, my husband, Steve, mentioned a radio news segment he heard about my alma mater.

“The Silent Night game?” I asked, referring to Taylor University’s now famous tradition during the last men’s basketball game before winter break.

“Yeah, they had a story on ESPN radio,” he said. “Did you do it when you were a student?”

“It’s where they all dress in pajamas and are quiet until someone scores a point, right?” He nodded. Actually, the crowd dresses up in all kinds of costumes and is quiet until the 10th point is scored by the home team. Then applause and shouting erupt, and at the end of the game, the entire crowd sings “Silent Night.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I did that,” I said, trying to remember what I wore and whether I went all four years. “I didn’t go to a lot of sporting events, but I went to some. I’m sure I went to the Silent Night games.”

“Even the president of the college went this year,” he said.

“Back when I was there, Jay Kesler was president, and we would all wear pajamas and go to the dining hall and he would read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” I explained. “Did they mention that in the news story?”

Steve shook his head.

“Maybe I’m confusing the two,” I said, racking my brain again, trying to remember myself in pajamas at a basketball game. “Just a minute…”

I ran to get my iPhone. With a quick Google search, the facts began to transform memory into truth.

“Well, it says here that the tradition has been going for 19 years. I graduated in 1993. Apparently I wasn’t even a student when they started Silent Night,” I told him. I felt like a fraud, though we both just laughed it off. Over the past few years, I have heard so much about the tradition, I had started to believe I participated.

But as a writer, particularly a writer of personal essays and memoir, I was mortified. How easy it is to get the facts wrong, to misremember, and in the process, to create an alternative version of the past, to create a different version of myself—one who went to college basketball games in my pajamas, even.

In her latest book, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr talks a lot about truth and memory and self-perception in creative nonfiction. “The thought of misrepresenting someone or burning down his house with shitty recall wakes me up at night…So when people ask in challenging tones how I can possibly recall everything I’ve published, I often fess up, Obviously I can’t. But I’ve been able to bullshit myself that I do. By this I mean, I do my best, which is limited by the failures of my so-called mind,” she writes.

Of course, among the more egregious failures of an author’s “so-called mind” is the zeal that leads some authors to intentionally create a less truthy truth. To lie. Karr highlights “fake Holocaust survivor” Binjamin Wilkomirski, the over-the-top addict James Frey, and the “skunk-posting-as-saint” Greg Mortenson as recent perpetrators of this kind of deception.

While bemoaning the fact that even the occasional fabrication creates “a sweeping tendency to deny even the possibility of truth” and “bogs down our collective moral machinery,” Karr describes a worse fate for authors who lie. “Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences the memoirist off from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty,” she writes. “Some memories—often the best and worst—burn inside us for lifetimes, florid, unforgettable, demanding to be set down.”

Perhaps the greater failure of our writerly minds, however, the one more memoirists must face—especially those who are seeking the deepest level of truth—is believing the false perceptions of ourselves that the past and our present memories of the past create. “I often find students in early pages showing themselves exactly opposite from how they actually are,” Karr writes.

Maybe that’s what was happening as I somewhat confidently latched onto past events that didn’t even happen. It had nothing to do with an intentional lie (I didn’t even know I was lying, in fact) and probably much to do with fabricating a false self to present to my sports-enthusiast husband, a self that frequented sporting events and participated in campus traditions when, in fact, I was more often in the library or the newspaper office and usually bypassed the shouty, dress-up activities that many co-eds on campus enjoyed.

This kind of self-deceit may, in the end, be even more harmful to our writing and to our relationship with readers than intentional deceit, Karr contends. “We can accept anything from a memoirist but deceit, which is—almost always—a shallow person’s lack of self-knowledge,” she writes.

Getting to the truth of oneself, though, requires more than just a good memory or even the maturity of self-awareness. The quest to truly know oneself, especially on the page, comes down to a battle with pride, the pride that always wants to see oneself as better or smarter or meaner or any other superlative than what reality has given.

“No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle,” Karr writes. “Start trying to bring yourself to the page, and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.”

The battle with pride may even result in contradicting one false self with another, making myself out to be more academic and more serious than I really was. Could it be that I skipped most athletic events in college not because I was studying or playing gatekeeper over campus news but instead because I was watching TV in the lounge or exercising on the StairMaster? I struggle to remember.

Karr offers two primary suggestions for memoirists to be both honest and humble.

First, write with carnality, which Karr defines as that which you can perceive with your five senses. “Carnality sits at the root of the show-don’t-tell edict that every writing teacher harps on all the time, because it works,” she writes. Concrete details of a story not only bring the scene and characters to life; they also help us sift through the fog of the past. Karr listed four stories she could tell in order to highlight one element of her childhood. Three of the stories were vague and may have been part of a neighborhood legend. She could recall very specific details about only one of the stories. “Those concrete images made me trust my memory of the whole scene as mine, not just something I heard about,” she said.

That was my own first clue that something was missing about my memories of the Silent Night games. I couldn’t see myself there. I couldn’t remember what I was wearing. I couldn’t even recall who I was sitting with in the bleachers when that 10th point was scored.

The second suggestion for great memoir contradicts the first: focus on the interior life of writer as narrator. “Carnality may determine whether a memoir’s any good,” Karr writes, “but interiority—that kingdom the camera never captures—makes a book rereadable. By rereadable, translate: great. Your connection to most authors usually rests…in how you may identify with them. Mainly, the better memoirist organizes a life story around that aforementioned inner enemy—a psychic struggle against herself that works like a thread or a plot engine.”

Of course, the interior struggle of the narrator fills in the gaps of carnality’s details. Interiority allows the author to fess up that she has always tried to be less herself and more what the people around her want her to be. Acknowledging an internal struggle allows the author to even present sketchy evidence of an event as long as she is honest about it … and willing to admit that perception and truth don’t add up yet.

But coming to terms with the true self, though personally liberating to the writer and emotionally rewarding to the reader, doesn’t make drafting a memoir easy. Turning the awareness of the true self, whoever she ends up to be, into a character on the page can feel like a type of failure of its own.

“Writing the real self seldom seems original enough when you first happen on it,” Karr says. “In fact, usually it growls like a beast and stinks of something rotten. Age and practice help you to rout out vanities after you’ve ruined perfectly good paper setting them down, but you can’t keep them from clotting up early drafts.”

Apparently I’m not the only one with a fuzzy memory about Taylor University’s Silent Night tradition. A 2014 article in the Indianapolis Star tried to trace the tradition back to its founder, and though the silence until the 10th point part did start in 1997, the rest goes back a little further, back to a certain college president in pajamas.

“Silent Night started in the late 1980s with then-Taylor president Jay Kesler, who invited students to his campus residence for cookies and a reading of The Christmas Story. In 1988 he showed up to the pre-exams Friday game in pajamas. In 1989 Taylor students showed up in pajamas too. In 1997 they watched in silence until Taylor scored its 10th point, then erupted,” writes Grey Doyel.

When the reporter attended the Silent Night game in 2014 and ended up talking with Jay Kesler himself, Doyel had a few questions.

Wait – are you that former president? Are you Jay Kesler?

“Sure am,” he says. “And this is the Kesler Center—my tombstone.”

Kesler tells me he started wearing footie pajamas “to restore the idea of a family Christmas, the nostalgia of Christmas. You’re not too big a big-shot for Christmas, just because you’re in college.”

Kesler tells me the 10th-point eruption came from a student. He doesn’t remember the kid’s name.

“All I know is he said his high school had this tradition where they’d hold newspapers and look disinterested until a predetermined time, when they threw the papers and made noise,” Kesler says. “He wanted to know if we could do something like that here. I said sure.”

Why after 10 points?

“No idea,” Kesler says. “It was arbitrary.”

“Even for the founder, Silent Night is equal parts history, mystery,” Doyel writes.

Maybe I was there, I think. Not for the 10th point cheering, of course, but the pajamas and the story and the singing of “Silent Night.” Maybe I did go to a few basketball games and show up for the happy-clappy traditions, when I wasn’t studying or watching TV.

And maybe writing about that formative time in my life requires something deeper than details, something more than just the facts. It’s about remembering who I was, who I am, even if I’m not always sure myself.

Originally published at The Curator on December 28, 2015.