This year, I’m presenting at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication. Held annually since 1949, the conference “has provided a forum for all those responsible for teaching composition and communication skills at the college level… For over 50 years, CCCC members have charted new courses in the teaching and scholarship of composition and rhetoric, helping to shape  academic community and professional practices.” This year’s CCCC is being held in Tampa, Florida, and I’ll be blogging about my experiences as a first-time attendee. Until then, I want to share the abstract and bibliography for my presentation, “Reading to Understand, Writing to Know: The Risks of Mis/Remembering in Writing Memoir.”
“Reading to Understand, Writing to Know” is a product of not just “the classroom,” but also many classrooms. It was inspired by a semester-long, creative nonfiction workshop I taught in the fall of 2013. In that class, students read Art Spiegelman’s Maus I and II, and my presentation explains how students used the graphic novel to consider important craft and ethical issues related to memoir writing. In fact, Maus has shown up on this blog before when I taught the book in an introductory literature class and discovered some things about re-reading. Finally, “Reading to Understand, Writing to Know” also reflects what I learned as a student myself in Susan Gubar’s graduate course on poetry and proxy-witnessing in the context of the Holocaust.
In “Reading to Understand, Writing to Know: The Risks of Mis/Remembering in Writing Memoir,” I discuss using Art Spiegelman’s Maus to help creative nonfiction writing students explore the risks of mis/remembering, first by looking at Spiegelman’s negotiation of these challenges and then by confronting these dilemmas in their own writing. Maus is an excellent site to begin such work. Because it depicts his parents’ internment in Nazi death camps and its effect on his life, Maus encompasses the personal, familial, and historical.
An earlier unit on stories of place lays the groundwork for students’ study of Maus and the inherent risks of mis/remembering in memoir. Travel essays on Antarctica and Chernobyl introduce students to two modes of writing about memories: factual recall and factual invention. In a travel essay of their own, they reproduce these modes by combining a specific scene (“here is a sunset I saw last night”) and a representative scene (“this is a sunrise that evokes sunrises I have seen”). Students discover that although the representative scene is invented, it is authentic and could be considered “true.”
With this work behind them, students begin Maus with a basic understanding of how nonfiction writers paradoxically recall past events. They build on this knowledge by entertaining the notion of emotional truth. An emotionally true memory may not be entirely accurate, but it can be authentic because of what it preserves about the writer’s past experiences. In memoirs about family, such as Maus, emotional truth has consequences; it can be seen as misremembering. Students further explore the boundaries and risks of emotional truth by composing a mini-memoir that incorporates oral testimony from family members.
Because Maus is a memoir about family as much as it is about the Holocaust and its legacy, it prompts students to consider the wider, ethical implications of factual invention and emotional truth in memoir. Through a series of multimodal activities, students consider (1) the constraints Spiegelman faces as a memoirist and proxy-witness to the Holocaust, and (2) his attempt to address these responsibilities in the narrative itself.