Through the Lens of Memoir – Amber Flora Thomas

Only 3 more weeks. . .

The Art & Craft of Writing! 

Washington Civic Center
100 Gladden Street, Washington, North Carolina
March 8, 2014, from 9am until 6pm

If you haven’t registered or need information on the conference, presenters, workshops, panels or area lodging, attached is a link to our website:

* * * *

 And now, we are pleased to present this week’s guest blogger.

Amber Flora Thomas

Amber Flora Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing-Poetry at East Carolina University, Greenville, NC. She is the recipient of of several major poetry awards, including the Dylan Thomas American Poet Prize, Richard Peterson Prize and Ann Stanford Prize. Some of her published works include, Eye of Water: Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005) which won the Cave Canem Prize and The Rabbits Could Sing: Poems (University of Alaska, 2012). Her poetry has appeared in Zyzzyva, Callaloo, Orion Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, American Literary Review and Crab Orchard Review, among other publications. She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 1998. She joined the ECU faculty in 2012.

“Through the Lens of Memoir”

By Amber Flora Thomas

My father taught me to swim when I was four years old by throwing me in the river over and over, until I learned that making it back to shore did not necessarily mean I was safe. He had an infectious laugh that filled the air with joy (and a little wickedness) each time he scooped me up and threw me back into the cool, slow tide of a river that meandered between pale boulders in the sun. Eventually, I swam and kept swimming. After that day, Dad’s announcements that we were headed to the river for a swim were met by a clapping, jumping, and screeching audience that included my sister, my brother, and I.

To this day, I love the water and take every opportunity to go for a swim. I am brave in the water, too: I know not to fight the current, but to float to the top and breathe until I get my bearings.

This memory is the stuff of memoir, the thread that connects the writer in the present to the person of the past. Memoir is the product of a mind that understands the past from the vantage point of the present. Unlike autobiography which attempts to relay a chronological telling of one’s life from birth to older age, memoir looks with a magnifying glass at the finite events of one period or a particular event from some earlier point in the writer’s life. From this vantage point, the writer moves into understanding a single event or series of occurrences as a source of meaning in the present.

The writer often does not know what she thinks or feels about the past with true clarity until she begins to write and explore memory with the hindsight afforded her in the present. This is the primary power of memoir: the ability through exposition to remember and piece together truth, influence, and best guesses to make well-rounded narratives that hold the memory to the light so others may gaze through its revealing lens for insight into what makes us human and able to survive all that happens in our lives, especially our childhoods.

For many readers, memoir is highly suspect because so much time lapses between the writing and the events under scrutiny. In general, there is very little documentation in the form of letters, photographs, video, journals, etc. that proves beyond doubt what is really true. Best guesses and imaginative leaps seem to be the stuff of fictional works, rather than works that claim to harbor truth; however, memory is faulty no matter how much evidence we have from the past because memoir ultimately depends on the writer’s interpretation of events and evidence on hand. The “Fault of Memory” was a title of a poem in my first book, Eye of Water. In this poem, I am in debate with my mother about a memory that I have tried to piece together concerning my father and an allegation of sexual abuse. Through our collective memories, I try to make sense of what I remember from when I was five years old to what she remembers from the mid-1970s when she was in her early thirties.

Imagination and best guesses often cavort with truth in the best memoirs because the way we look, what we look to, and how we remember events in our childhoods is complicated by time. The mind weakens with age, dream intermingles with reality, stories told over and over by family members become fact and mold to what we wish happened and our need to forgive, or not forgive, as the case may be. And, we cannot ignore our desperate need to forget the very stories we eventually become brave enough to remember for the sake of memoir.

The memory of my father throwing me in the river over and over is one I have pieced together over time with the help of my siblings, my parents, my own body memories, and a memory of almost drowning while my father laughed on shore and called, “Swim, Booboo, swim.” My father’s nicknames for me were alternately “Booboo” and “Hardhead.” This memory has been very important to me in recent years because it gets at something that is very complex about the parent-child relationship and about healing. It is the clearest portrait of both my love and fear for a man whose influence I still struggle to confront as a woman in her early 40s.

I like to remember him trying to teach me joy through the vehicle of terror because this is how he functioned through much of my childhood. He could be very charming and gentle, then absolutely violent and abusive. Still, I love the water. I love to swim. Maybe we must go through hell to find the true root of our joy? My father was not all bad or all good; in fact, he contained both ends of the spectrum—in spades. Even as I write this, I can see the reader gasping in horror at my willingness to suggest that even violence can lead to goodness. I am making peace with the past and recognizing through the vehicle of memoir that this writing can help to expose the complexities in human relationships.

So, why memoir? Because it allows us to explore truth through the body’s memory and the heart’s memory and reveal the complexity within each person. Memoir teaches us that where we are now is a negotiation with the beliefs we have about who we were then. Memoir is an acceptance of imagination and best guesses to fill in spaces in our memories, and a decision that what has impacted us and the stories that hang on to us from the past are the same subjects. Memoir asks us to develop strong narratives which include more than summary and reflection, but use dialogue and strong description to tell the story, as well. Memoir is evidence of a mind and heart seeking epiphany through an understanding of the past.


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