St. Thomas Prof. Jim Rogers says memoirs can help people make sense of their lives as well as the world.
Jim Rogers, pictured here in the University of St. Thomas library, will lead a free two-part session on memoir writing at the South St. Paul Public Library. Rogers likes to quote Wallace Stegner, who once wrote, “Tell me where you’re from, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
In his forthcoming “Among Northern Orchards: Places Near the Dead,” Jim Rogers writes, “Abstraction isn’t helpful to memory. Remembrance attaches itself to specifics. That house, that back door; this elm tree, this hillside, this headstone.”
In the book — a mix of memoir, personal essay and poetry — to be published this spring by North Star Press, he explores ideas about memory and place as he journeys through the region’s sacred spaces — from family grave sites at Acacia Park in Mendota Heights to an abandoned Amish cemetery near Wilmont, Minn.
“I always begin with places. Place is the engine that drives all good personal writing,” said the University of St. Thomas professor, who will lead a two-part memoir-writing session at the South St. Paul Public Library Feb. 20 and 27.
Rogers, who claims to be “obsessed with reading memoirs,” serves as the editor for the New Hibernia Review, a quarterly journal of Irish studies, which opens each issue with a personal essay or memoir. Last year’s “Best American Essays” collection, he said, noted three of its selections as notable essays of the year.
Rogers also edited and wrote the introduction for the collection “Extended Family: Essays on Being Irish American,” is editing a book of critical essays about Irish-American memoir and is working on a collection of (non-cemetery-related) personal essays.
He sees several factors behind our current “age of memoir.”
“Part of it,” he said, “is that there are some extraordinarily good memoirists out there right now, and part of it is that people feel free to write about things that they didn’t feel free to write about years ago.”
Also, he said, “I think it has a lot to do with the moving of minority voices into mainstream attention. One of the things memoir does is that it can give voice to people who didn’t have a voice before.”
He considers memoir writing an attempt to make sense of the world. “It’s trying to resist that postmodern notion that everything is random and arbitrary and just sort of happens,” he said. “It’s like trying to find patterns, trying to make sense of the jumble of experience.”
He said that people often come to classes like the upcoming one with family histories they want to preserve. “They have this idea that they don’t want these stories to be lost,” he said. “It’s a way of feeling connected.”
The two-part course involves writing exercises and discussions about subject such as writing strategies, ethical issues in writing memoir and goals of the students. “I spend a lot of time just babbling about memoir,” Rogers said. “I like for people to get in touch with why they want to do this, what they want to accomplish with memoir.”
An example of the guidance he offers: “Write what you read,” he said. “If you don’t read poetry, don’t try to write poetry. If you don’t read novels, don’t try to write the great American novel.”
Rogers often steers students to nonfiction writing such as journalist Joseph Mitchell’s portraits of New York City (“I’m on a mission from God to convert the world to Joseph Mitchell,” he said), Newfoundland writer David Macfarlane’s “The Danger Tree” and the work of Ian Frazier, who Rogers said “has an incredible capacity for writing about the spirit of a place.”
Rogers also advises memoir writers to “trust the story” and to resist the inclination to assign a moral to it.
Also, use lots of good, specific details. “The more specific you are,” he said, “the more universal it becomes.”
And then, maybe, the best advice: “There is no substitute for sitting down and actually writing.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.