“Building the Homeplace: Misremembering’s Role in Creative Nonfiction”

It is unavoidable, the terrible, awful, diminutive questions of: what is your work about? The question is the writer’s albatross tied round the neck, their cross to bear, their Achilles heel! Dramatic, I know, but articulating the “about” of a story, a story as personal as “Homeplace” is to me, is a harder task than writing it was. “Homeplace” rediscovers my Grandma Jane, my Dad’s mom, who was born in the hills of Bolt, West Virginia, a girl who worked on her family’s farm and walked to school during the Great Depression. In it, I explore that she can not only be what she remembered; she is all she forgot, too: she is the mother who loved her children, the girl who lived, breathed, and loved Bolt. “Homeplace” is about the reality of memory loss, Alzheimer’s, and identity. It explores my Grandma Jane, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, a disease which warped my understanding of her as a child and kept me from ever really knowing her—kept me from ever seeing glimpses of who she was as she forgot. Through “Homeplace” I wanted to uncover what she didn’t remember, wanted to imagine those stories she lost. When I accepted memory as faulty, memory as liminal, I used it to reject what my Grandma’s memory loss took away from her legacy.

I wrote “Homeplace” so that at least for Sophia Jane, what she lost doesn’t mean she was lost. I am writing about the writing of “Homeplace” because through this I am able to articulate more than how I wrote my work, or summarize what it is about, but defend both its significance and originality in the genre. “Homeplace” began with my never-ending curiosity and questions about the role of memory in storytelling, and in specifically creative nonfiction. Since creative nonfiction relies on memory for authorial credibility I felt obligated to consider the idea that memory is a construct, and an unstable one at that. When writing about my own life and past it was undeniable that memory is not only faulty, but liminal— and realizing memory is liminal is terrifying. Although every nonfiction craft book talks about memory, and unavoidably what one cannot remember I could not “claim” my stance on the role of memory. How “creative” could I be while writing about my past nonfictional memories?

Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell it Slant say of metaphorical memory “It is not important what I remember—or even the factual accuracy of the scene— but why I recall it the way I do” (6). While I agree with that understanding of metaphorical memory, I was still uneasy. If the factual accuracy, if my memories were all part of a faulty creation are they not also susceptible to being lost? How do I determine which memory matters and what matters about it? This uneasiness encouraged me to write about the memories and people I never wanted to forget, which led me to write about my Dad in a work called “Remembering Sophia Jane.” As the title gives away, the work was not solely on my dad. The fear I had of my father forgetting, and the reality of how my Grandma Jane’s memory loss dominated my remembrance of her linked their narratives together. Remembering Sophia Jane helped me find the words to express what I never want to forget about my dad and “Homeplace” took that true picture of my Grandma and sought to rediscover her.

As much as I did not want to admit it, my memory of my Grandma Jane was shaped by what she forgot. The reality was, what she remembered, or rather all she forgot, defined her and the truth of her memory was buried in what I did not see or understand about her. So, while I agree with Miller and Paloa, that how I remember something is significant, the “truth” or the possibility of who my Grandma was outside of my own memory interested me. I needed more about my Grandma than to recall how I saw her, because how I saw her was as a version of herself. In “Homeplace” through research, interview, and imagination I combatted the reality of what I did not know to create a version of what could have been. In a way I was practicing what Miller and Paloa outline, and what numerous other memory sections of nonfiction craft books and articles express, that as writers we create versions of the truth, or people, and of course memory, but instead of accepting my version I sought out to create a new one. The reality of how I remembered my Grandma Jane is important, and that honesty is within “Homeplace:” “If I’m honest, which I believe writing demands, I wasn’t extremely close with my Grandma Jane, and because of that I’m still trying to figure out if I should be writing about her at all. I loved her, I know she loved me, but I didn’t know her.” However, the rediscovery of her and the imagination of her is also created, “I imagine, on a Bolt summer day leaning against one with long pigtails and a worn cotton dress, my Grandma Jane, and I see her as a girl.”

“Homeplace” is not going to teach the nonfiction world something profoundly new about memory; the idea that memory is constructed and that people, places, and the past can become truths of and in our stories without actuality is not new. Harry Crews, author of A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, which I quote from in the epigraph of “Homeplace,” says “nothing is allowed to die in a society of storytelling people” and that every person, story, life and memory is “colored and shaped by those who bring it” (6). That is exactly what writing “Homeplace” helped me discover and accept, which is not to say it is exactly like Crews’ narrative, or other nonfiction works with that idea. “Homeplace,” like any story, is the creation of a memory, person, and identity that only I could create. I hold on to the things I remember and how my Grandma Jane forgot to see and in doing so find her. In a section of “Homeplace” I list what I remember about my Grandma Jane:

I remember when she still had dogs, Murry a lab mix, Ben a Rottweiler, Gordelia the Australian Shepard with strange light eyes, and at one point a Dalmatian

I remember staying with her the Easter I ran into a yellow jacket’s nest, got stung by the eye, and went to church with a black and swollen face.

I have gaps in my memory of Grandma Jane though, which if anything is ironic. I remember those small things and see glimpses into a time before she began to forget, but at some point, we stopped staying at Grandma Janes’ at all.

The first two statements hold on to a reality I remember but the last paragraphs begins to   blend reality and imagination of what is the truth and what is a construct of what I remember.

Returning to the fear of memory loss, “Homeplace” also is unique as I use not only the construct of memory which Crews outlines but also the imagination of forgetting, a subject few dip their toes into. To create my Grandma, I had to not only research what she forgot to remember, but I had to imagine what her own memory loss was like and containd: “I don’t know what she thought, or who she remembered, but she held onto home. When she forgot me, when she forgot herself she recognized Greystone was never home. Which means at some level she remembered home. Which home did she remember?” This section goes beyond “regular” imagination but into one that wonders about how the reality of memory loss steels and leaves traces of what and who someone is. I not only had to imagine what could not remember about my Grandma, but also how she forgot. Continuously I worked to bend the nature of memory and identity writing by combining the truths of forgetting, remembering, and imagining.

“Homeplace” both blends with and turns away from similar memory constructed stories, characters, and styles. It reminds me of Jeannette Walls’s Half Broke Horses which she calls a “true-life novel” and Dorothy Allison’s semi-autobiographical novel Bastard out of Carolina both narratives centered on place, memory, and a blending of what is real and the imagined. Although Walls does “think of the book as fiction” she chose to write it in first person not concerned with “historical accuracy” but making her grandmother’s story a “vein of an oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years” (272). While I was concerned with a similar task of finding and recreating stories, like Walls, and illustrating hard realities as Allison does, it was important to keep “Homeplace” as nonfiction, and keep the first person point of view my own. Even nonfiction like Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia which like Crews is labeled, a biography of a place, took a reality of setting and culture and the trouble of storytelling and misremembering into a more fictional place. McClanahan’s appendix and notes of Crapalachia reveal some interesting and “genre-crossing” choices he made. “Homeplace’s” difference from McClanahan’s construction of a story is that I did not have the memories to alter; I sought to discover those and who I did not know so that I didn’t have to blend reality, but worked to clarify the uncertainty of the past and from the memory loss of my Grandma Jane.

Alzheimer’s captures what it means to be fundamentally human, as it is an embodiment of what a lot of people fear most; a total loss of control and a loss of self. The idea of a total loss of self should interest and scare the life out of nonfiction writers; it scared me. With that reality I admitted, “no amount of research that does not find a cure for Alzheimer’s is going to change the agonizing feeling an individual gets when they know they’ll forget, when they have to sit by, knowing their spouse, children, and grandchildren will all be washed away” but writing can. “Homeplace” asks what it looks like to forget, examines the significance of memory in identity and legacy preservation, and illustrates the underexplored reality of Alzheimer’s for those living with the disease. It is more than just an expression of the reality of memory or memory loss, but is also the impact and tradition of storytelling within and outside of the Appalachian region in which I write, live, and where my Grandma Jane lived as well.

The discussion of memory is not only current in the creative nonfiction field but vital. It is impossible to perfectly remember “Homeplace,” and craft pieces like mine show why authorial credibility does not become void when an author forgets or misremembers; it is both the memory of and reflection on what we recall and forget that matters in creative nonfiction. “Homeplace,” like Crews and McClanahan’s biography of a place, like Walls and Allison’s fiction of reality took he liminality of what I knew and what my Grandma Jane could remember and rediscovered a version of both the place and the person she was. For “good” creative nonfiction is about the past that we remember and forget, about present reflection, and about the analysis of how those reflections shape not only who we are but who we will be. Through “Homeplace,” I understood that what we remember and also what we fail to remember both have their place as a necessity of creative nonfiction.

Works Cited:

Allison, Dorothy. Bastard out of Carolina. Penguin, 1992.

Crews, Harry. A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. The University of Georgia Press, 1995.

McClanahan, Scott. Crapalachia. Two Dollar Radio, 2013.

Miller, Brenda, and Suzanne Paola. Tell it Slant. McGraw Hill, 2012.

Walls, Jeannette. Half Broke Horses. Scribner, 2009.




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About Sarah Canterbury

Sarah Canterbury is a student and writer born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia. She is finishing her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and Literature at Marshall University where she will also be attending graduate school in the fall of 2018. Her nonfiction essay “The Books I Never Read” was published by The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and her nonfiction essay M O V I N G L E T T E R S has been accepted for publication by GNU Journal. Sarah also has an upcoming academic publication with The James Dickey Review for her essay “James Dickey: The Unknown Magical Realist.” Her braided essay Remembering Sophia Jane is currently entered in the AWP Intro into Journalism awards and is also part of a larger nonfiction and memory research project backed by Marshall University’s Undergraduate and Creative Discovery Awards. Sarah is working to complete her first novel based on her own family’s struggles with learning disabilities and perseverance to understand God’s will.