Behind the Scenes @ “Plain and Fancy Girl”

Writing a blog post is magical–right? Words appear in the right order and photos sift down from above and settle into a nifty niche between paragraphs. Well, sort of . . . When I created the post Mennonites, Ventrlloquists, and Memoir, 3 things happened in succession:

1. In Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir I read that the author can “ventriloquize” his voice by inventing incidents, characters, and relationships.

2. The word “ventriloquize” sparked an image of Howdy Doody and the forbidden TV show I sneaked off to watch.

EmersonTVHowdyDoody

3. That reminded me of a story about our next door neighbors, the “red-light” Rentzels whom I wrote about 10 years ago.

Writing that post wasn’t fast or easy but it was smooth, not usually the case.

So I invite you to the website of author Kathleen Pooler, who is hosting me today in a blog post which features me “undressing” some of my posts in public. Click here for secrets divulged! (You can leave a comment below or better yet on Kathy’s blog.)

Mennonites, Ventriloquists, and Memoir

The wild, permissive Rentzels with a red porch light live next door to our family, the Mennonite Longeneckers, one of several plain families that live on Anchor Road.

Image: Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia

In their parlor, the Rentzel’s old Emerson black & white TV has introduced me to the wonders of The Howdy Doody Show with Buffalo Bob. As often as I can, I escape at 4 o’clock every day, running next door to ask Mammy Rentzel whether I may watch the show. Of course, she says Yes. I become part of the Peanut Gallery, mesmerized by Howdry Doody himself, a freckle-faced boy marionette with 48 freckles, one for each state of the Union in the 1950s.

EmersonTVHowdyDoody

My favorite parts are seeing Quaker Oats shot from guns, cannon-style and laughing along with the speechless Clarabell the Clown, who talks with a honking horn or squirts seltzer water. The shades are always pulled in the Rentzel’s tiny living room that smells like pipe smoke and mothballs, adding to the secretiveness of my television viewing. We’re not allowed to have a TV at home. Our church forbids it, but there is no rule to keep me from watching shows on somebody else’s TV! (Statement of Christian Doctrine and Rules and Discipline of the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church,1968, Article V, Section 7):

Television programs are often destructive to the spiritual life and undermine the principles of separation from the world, the precepts of Christian morality, the proper respect for human life, and the sanctity of marriage and the Christian home.

Yet, Phineas T. Bluster, Clarabell the Clown, and Howdy Doody himself, continue to cast their spell upon me. Before I knew the word, I observed that Buffalo Bob Smith was a ventriloquist, himself voicing words that appear to come from the mouth of Howdy Doody.

The word ventriloquist derives from two Latin words: “venter” referring to the belly and “loqui,” to speak. Isn’t that what writers do? Speak on paper or computer screen from a place deep inside themselves where language mixes with thought and feeling.

Critic Brian Boyd says of writer Vladimir Nabokov, “In his novels Nabokov can not only ventriloquize his voice into the jitter and twitch of [his characters], but he can also” invent incidents . . . names, relationships.” Like a ventriloquist, Nabokov in his autobiography entitled Speak, Memory translates his life experiences into words.

Yes, memoir writers do just that: Give life to their memories by putting them into words. If your life is recorded as jottings in a journal or collected as photos in albums, you are “writing” memoir, perhaps starting out as amusement for yourself, but just so bequeathing a legacy to the next generation.

I’ll bet you may already have recorded your history, ventriloquizing your voice into something tangible: letters to family members in college, love letters, scrapbooks, family photo albums (physical or online) even recipes.

Question Mark w border1_1x1_300

How are you ventriloquizing your experience: art, journals, recipes, a memoir?

Inquiring minds want to know. The conversation starts (or continues) with you. As you know, I will always reply.

Thirty Days Hath September: Memory and Memoir

 Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November.

All the rest have thirty-one,

Excepting February alone,

And that has twenty-eight days clear,

And twenty-nine in each leap year.

Thirty Days Has September_12x12_72

Memory is at the heart of memoir. It fuels unfolding stories. A memoir writer like me depends on it for inspiration. When there are glitches, I freeze: Trying to remember a word, I experience a flicker: Ah, it has three-syllables, begins with V. But what is that word?

One of my earliest memories is sitting in a high chair looking over the wooden tray and seeing the kitchen table covered in oilcloth with a red, black, white, and silver repeat pattern. It’s just a flicker, but I’ve experienced it so many times, I’ve convinced myself it is true.

In the blurry border between sleeping and awakening, a landscape often forms in my head: a cornfield disappearing acres away into a stand of trees. An image from my childhood, the picture is reinforced every time I look out the front window of my mother’s house where she has lived for over 70 years.

In probing my childhood . . . I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold.

                                           Vladimir Nabokov

Smells often arouse memory. A sniff of hyacinth in the supermarket takes me right back to Grandma’s spring garden. My grandchildren’s Crayolas transport me to my own fresh box in first grade. Fresh ink . . . new second-grade textbook, Friends and Neighbors. Crinkly crepe paper, my Hallowe’en costume. 

crayons

Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of years and all the miles and all the years we have lived.

                           Helen Keller

Memory is erratic too. I used to think that if I remembered something, then it must be true. But maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. We all remember Grandma giving us a dose of whiskey with honey at times of extreme unction when we were deathly sick with the flu. We all agree it went down our throats like fire. But we disagree on the details. Was it Schenley? Or Jack Daniels? One or two tablespoons?

The brain invents stories and runs imagined and remembered events back and forth through time.

                                Edward O. Wilson

We all know stress shrinks memory, but “a good dose of sugar—found in dieter’s no-nos like jelly doughnuts, banana cream pie, and chocolate eclairs—markedly enhances it.” (Rupp)

Let me take a bite . . . . Well, it worked. I remember the word now: “VICTROLA!”

VictrolaOpen Similar to one Daddy had in his shop

Source: Rupp, Rebecca. Committed to Memory: How We Remember and Why We Forget.

rosemary

 Hamlet — “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”

What flickers of memory came to mind as you read this?

About what memories do you and a family member disagree?