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Revolutionary Road: Memoir Writing

I saw the film Revolutionary Road last night.  It's a work of art on every level, the cinematography, the acting, the script.  Based on Richard Yates' great novel, the script uses dialogue directly quoted from the book.  Powerful.  I was riveted. 

The film is a poem of brutal truth.  It doesn't flinch.  I won't say anything more about the plot, so I don't spoil the experience if you decide to see it, except to say this: I'm taking an online memoir writing class right now and reading The Situation and The Story by Vivian Gornick.  In her book, she explores many essays and memoirs, and I'm also awakened by some of her quotes from other authors. Like an arrow straight to the target, D.H. Lawrence wrote:  "Man is free only when he is doing what the deepest self likes, and knowing what the deepest self likes, ah! that takes some diving."

Revolutionary Road is about a couple who never do this diving, and the consequences.  It's also about that era of "hopeless aimlessness," the 1950's.  It's about defining yourself in terms of another person, which never works. 

Years ago, a friend and mentor said to me, "Never make another person your art." 

Unfortunately, women were (and are) conditioned to make another person their art.

The consequences are devastating.

My mother died twenty years ago today.  It was a car accident, but I don't see it that way.  She was killed by the crushing wreck of her generation's mindset. 

She did not do the necessary diving, but there are reasons why.  Neither did my father.  The consequences were devastating.

I'm their daughter who became a college teacher.  Yes, I teach English, writing and literature, but really what I'm doing is diving lessons.

Last Thursday, my students and I talked about the script/film American Beauty for three hours.  It was one of the best conversations I have ever had with students in almost thirty years of teaching.  We did some diving.  I asked them to come up with their own theme for the film, and they said: The Beauty of the Naked Truth.

Here's a definition of memoir from The Situation and The Story:

"A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom.  Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand.  What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.  As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, ‘It's all in the art.  You get no credit for living.'"

It's all in the art. To transform the event, to see the beauty in the naked truth.

The memoir class is making me dive.  And I get no credit for living.

16 Comment count
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Great blog entry today.

Susan, Your class assigned the theme The Beauty of the Naked Truth. Sounds better to my ear when even more terse, The Beauty of Naked Truth.

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Hello Dennis

I agree, and I had taken the second "the" out, but that was the way the students said it, so I kept it.

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Susan, I've been thinking of you today...

I never met your mother but with your writing I feel like I did know her. That alone is art.
I read the book Revolutionary Road years ago and loved it. I'll go see the movie soon.

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Hi Jennifer

Twenty years.  Hard to believe.  Time!  Life. Death. Memory. Love.

Yes, go see the movie, and tell me what you think.

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I love your blog and my

I love your blog and my favourite piece of film is the final few scenes in American Beauty featured on my home page. Thanks for the provocative thoughts Susan. Mary P.

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Hi Mary

Thanks for your comment.  Yes, my students and I are watching the film next week.  I'm always shaken to the core during that last scene, no matter how many times (about ten, I think!) I've seen the film.  I never tire of it.  What a masterpiece.

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Not yet

I know I will see Revolutionary Road, eventually. I'm procrastinating. Some movies you can go to see cold, just walk right in, set your fanny down and let it wash over you. No big deal. Some you need to ready yourself for. My instinct says I need to have a resevoir of strength before seeing this one.


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Hi Kate

I know what you mean.  I often don't go to movies I feel that way about.  I'm so interested in this subject; it's a joy to see that side of the truth done so well.

What was the last movie I had to "gear up" for?  No Country for Old Men.

I knew that was going to be a lot of shoot em up violence.  But I wanted to see it because of the novel.

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Wow thanks for the inight

I am not using that anthology and am really just winging in teaching my first creative nonfiction class.  I can't imagine writing another memoir right now and mine isn't even out!  You get  no credit for living it.  That's right--but more to the point you give up a lot credit to even get your shot and then in my cases it feels like my pockets are empty. 

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Hi Matthew

The pockets do come up empty of coin in the writing business.  But we write!  We have done some diving. 

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more on memoir writing


Your entry made me remember my days teaching memoir writing to seniors. It was really amazing witnessing people in their 70s and 80s "diving."

I haven't done any memoir writing myself yet - but the character in my novel is essentially writing a memoir, a "letter" to a lost relative. It made me think a lot about the process of remembering, recasting.

Your students sound very lucky to have you.


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Hello Christina

I will look up your memoir.  Thanks for commenting.

I'm so lucky to have my students.  They show me what really matters.

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diving and digging

I found that to write my memoir, not only did I need to "dive" to find the raw truth, but I had to burrow into and below the mud at the bottom. It's a whole different world in there. Dark and beautiful and dangerous, all at once.

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Hello Veronica!

I've been reading your memoir, and it's terrific!  I'm working on a memoir right now.  Lots of digging and a whole different world than I thought when I first began the project.

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I'm excited to know you are reading my book! I've been tempted several times, when visiting my dad in Pleasant Hill, to come to DVC and look you up. Maybe I will one of these days.
It's also wonderful to know you're writing your own memoir. Especially considering your poetic sensibilities. I'm sure the outcome is going to be "deep," and very lyrical. I sincerely look forward to reading it.

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I found your comments very interesting. I just finished a first draft of a memoir and had it returned from a reader I respect. She felt I was absent from my marriage (a Revoluntary Road kind of marriage) and I was. I was just forming a new identity that included "diving". ( I see identity as fluid and constantly forming.) I was depressed and absent until I started therapy and gaining awareness. Became feminist.I also started doing visual art and using journals to track my feelings. Have you ever read anything that shows absence within a person? I am looking for ways to actually "show" it. I was depressed not shallow. Well, maybe shallow too. Sounds like your "the daughter" of this perhaps. I have a son and he has told me how he was wounded. Would like to hear from you. Any fiction to suggest? I LOVED Revolutionary Road too.