On Writing Memoir: Following Mark Doty Past Memphis

(Sue Walker)

Mark Doty’s essay, “Return to Sender” published in the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work From 1970 To The Present, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone  addresses the shifting perspectives of memory.  

This essay is heart-wrenching – as Doty addresses how truth hurts – the truth that memoir espouses – and the truth that hurts family, friends, and the writer herself / himself.  He says that “[t]he past is not static, or ever truly complete; as we age we see from new positions, shifting angles.  

Let’s start with CHILDHOOD.  What is it you remember about starting school? About being six-years-old-or seven.  Indeed, what is your earliest memory.  I am not sure that my earliest memories are my own – or if they are merely stories that I was told about  my childhood.  I don’t recollect stepping on a snake – but my mother told this incident as story – and I believe that my fear of snakes has to do with the fear she created in me.  I remember my grandfather’s peacocks – their magnificent fluffed-feathers. 

The poet-novelist, Marge Piercy, said that one dab of childhood mud helps set a story right – and she tells about how her mother taught her to observe and make up stories on their bus-rides to the library.

But I do remember having to sleep with my Nanny and how she flopped about and pushed me on the floor.   I was younger than five, I think!

So – what of that elementary school?  Your first grade teacher.  Miss Jewell was “portly”; in my mind’s eye, she looked like grandmother figures is children’s books – short, plump, round belly. But I don’t remember whether or not she wore glasses. I have no memory of her voice. I remember where the school house was – and that her room was the first room on the right when you entered the building.

But what of Mother as a girl.  How does a memoirist write of this person that never knew.  Doty says that “the whole point  of memoir” is to make these people known.   How do we, as writers, make sense of the past  in the “then now.”

Doty says that “narration is comforting.”  Readers like to “fee reassured by the presence of a narrator.” 

What does a child / young adult reveal about himself / herself?  Doty said says “it is not usual for children to allow their parents to know them.  It doesn’t feel safe to do so.”  I used to tell my mother I was going to the theater in town – but I actually went to the Drive-In.  I didn’t tell her that – but would be sure to drive by and find out was on at the theater where I said I would go.

“What is it that art saves us from?” Doty asks.  He “wanted to tell the story” of his life “in order, once again, to take control of it, to shape some comprehensible element of cause and effect.”

It interests me that Doty cites the wrong year when quoting Sharon Olde’s poem “I Go Back to 1933.”  The poem is “I Go Back to May 1937.

How, what, forgiveness?  Who do I not forgive?   What is the price of betrayal?

I am still writing the childhood I do not know, recreating a mother I never knew, piecing together fragments of her life, imagining that moment I was conceived.

This then, my first poem about the mother I never knew:

Where are you woman,

you who lay spread-eagled

casting out nine months of me

with a heave and a shove.


Do you remember.

for it was your delivery day.


Did you ever hold that kid of yours,

take me in your arms –

or was it an instant separation,

as quick as the snip of a cord

that severed us two.


Do you ever wonder if my eyes

are like yours? 

Nearsighted?  Lapis blue?


And is the little finger

on both your hands

just a bit crooked

like mine?


You have three grandsons;

two are twins, but they

call another Grandma,

and I another,



Someday I will come,

traveling my shadow

to you door: “Collecting

for the Heart Fund,”

I will tell you,


take your dollar

and walk away.


When I first showed this poem to Judson Jerome in a workshop in Ohio, he said

in relation to my birth-mother.  “I don’t think you forgive her.”  And I realized

that perhaps I did not – and rewrote the ending.


I am still writing about this birth-mother.  Joyce Carol Oates said that we write about something over and over until we don’t have to write about it anymore. 

Speak Memory:  Speak soft, speak              loud.