I finally came to the top of the queue at the San Diego Public Library for Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? Review after review has mentioned her frequent references to Woolf, which was what piqued my interest, and indeed Woolf is a constant companion, serving as one of Bechdel’s navigators throughout her story.
She starts right out with an epigraph from Woolf—“For nothing was simply one thing” (from To the Lighthouse). Bechdel is writing about her mother, and she comes back again and again to Lighthouse and its representations of Mrs. Ramsay as Woolf’s mother, recollections from Woolf’s own childhood that are transposed into the fiction, and Woolf’s avowal that she was able to put her mother to rest after writing this novel.
As a writer of memoir in the form of personal essays, I’ve been exploring the whole topic of memoir as distinct from autobiography. An autobiography is usually a somewhat straightforward history of one’s life, starting at the beginning or even before. Sometimes generations before. Autobiography doesn’t interest me a whole lot—it often feels puffed up and self-serving. It doesn’t have the objective (or not-so-objective) distance of a biography or the personal investment and reflection of memoir.
Woolf elaborated on this in “A Sketch of the Past,” her own thought-to-be-unfinished memoir, by distinguishing between what she called “I now” and “I then.” When I write memoir in a personal essay, I’m the person, now, looking back and writing this essay, and I’m the person, then, about whom I’m writing, the one having those experiences. But something in the story being told has to resonate for “I now,” or why would it pop into my mind at a prompt and why would I bother writing about it? In the course of writing, one revisits memories with new eyes, more analytically perhaps, and takes something away from them that is then reflected back in the memoir: what does this mean to me now?
Next month I will be joining a memoir read and critique group led by Tom Larson, a San Diego writer, teacher, and author of The Memoir and the Memoirist. In his book, Larson devotes several pages to Woolf, calling “Sketch” “the gauntlet to this generation of memoir writers.”