A Short Reflection on Teaching Memoir and Oral History

By O'Brien, Sharon | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

A Short Reflection on Teaching Memoir and Oral History


O'Brien, Sharon, The Oral History Review


It might seem that memoir and oral history, although both forms of life narrative, do not have much in common. One text is written, the other oral; one demands an individual author, while in the other "authorship" exists in the interplay between interviewer and storyteller; one concerns the self, while the other moves outward, as the oral historian strives to capture another's voice and story on tape and page; one is a shaped narrative, a close cousin to fiction, the other seemingly closer to fact and truth (troubling as those concepts are) as the words "transcript" and "archive" suggest.

As a teacher of both creative writing and American Studies, however, I have long thought that the two genres are close relatives. Both are forms of narrative in which ordinary people claim the authority to tell their own stories; both are forms tinged by imagination as well as memory (since the oral history narrative, like memoir, is shaped by selection and omission, as well as by the length of the interview and the interaction between interviewer and storyteller). And memoir, like oral history, arises from the interconnection of two or more sensibilities, since memoirists commonly write of relationship to others, as well as to the self in the past. Both are concerned with memory, history, and story, and both challenge time by retrieving something from the flood of the past and preserving it for the future.

In the spring of 1996, along with Susan Rose, a sociologist, and Chuck Barone, an economist, I team-taught an experimental one-semester course in multiculturalism and diversity called "American Mosaic" at Dickinson College. The overarching project of the course was a community study of Steelton, Pennsylvania, a multiethnic community in the greater Harrisburg area. (The project is described in greater detail by Marjorie McLellan elsewhere in this issue.)

My responsibility was the memoir component of the course. During the first six weeks students read memoirs and began writing their own during workshops, and the writing workshops continued during the second six weeks. I suspected that oral history and memoir would complement each other. I was also eager to teach memoir writing to students who would never have signed up for a creative writing course, assuming, like most of us, that they were not "creative." But, as one of my fiction teachers once observed, "Everyone has a story that only they can tell." I knew this was as true of Dickinson students as it was of steelworkers and community members in Steelton. I hoped that as they realized every person in Steelton possessed a story, our students would begin to see and to shape their own. I also hoped that the resulting cross-fertilization would strengthen both memoir writing and ethnography.

A guideline for memoir, as for fiction, is "Show, don't tell"--a slogan reminding the writer not to use abstractions or unconvincing adjectives, but to rely on details, images, and scenes to convey meaning. Working with this method also prepares a student to be a good observer and interviewer, so I decided here was where we should begin. The memoir I assigned for this purpose was Charlotte Nekola's Dream House, a historically detailed and lyrically melancholy account of growing up in 1950s America in a middle-class family riddled with unspoken sadness and loss.(1) Nekola, who is also a poet, brilliantly uses metaphoric objects and actions to suggest larger levels of meaning--a man's suitcase, packed with ironed shins and a bottle of Jim Beam; a woman's recipe box; a can opener; Dick and Jane schoolbooks; road trips in finned cars. The narrator, trying to deduce the past from the scraps of evidence left behind, pays exquisite attention to such details because, regarded with the right eye, they can yield meaning: "You could tell that [Aunt Grace] was a woman of the working world only because there were stacks of scrap paper, in different places in the house, made out of 8 x 12 paper torn into four quarters. …

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