Patrici Hampl, author of I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, takes an unusual approach to memoir.

Koláčky - czech sweet bread with plum jam or p...

Koláčky – czech sweet bread with plum jam or poppy seeds, Czech Republic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, she tells you about a time when she was a young woman, trying to figure out love.

She meets a stranger on a cross-country bus trip, a middle-aged woman she’d just seen passionately kissing, on the mouth, a young man in his 20s, whom Hampl presumed to be the woman’s son.

The woman gets on the bus, sits down next to Hampl and, guessing the reason for her confusion, confesses that the young man is her husband of five years.

“I could tell you stories…” the woman starts, then stops and drops off to sleep.

But, let Hampl tell you the story.

“Looking out the Greyhound window that red morning all those years ago, I saw the improbable face of love….”

“How faint his golden curls have become (he also had a smile, crooked and charming).”

“It is she, stout and unbeautiful, wearing her flowery cotton housedress with a zipper down the middle, who has taken up residence with her canny eye and her acceptance of adoration.”

“’I could tell you stories’ – but she could not. What she had to tell was too big, too much…for her to place in the small shrine that a story is.”

And, so Hampl introduces you to her approach to memoir, her favorite genre,

“Because everyone ‘has’ a memoir, we all have a stake in how such stories are told.

“For we do not, after all, simply have experience. We are entrusted with it.”

“We must do something – make something – with it.”

“A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.”

Hampl’s approach is to start with her own stories, then to deconstruct them so the reader understands how memories get transformed over time, by subsequent events, then to use other people’s memoirs to frame her own story.

One of her early memories, at the age of seven, was starting piano practice at her Catholic school.

Describing that first exposure to the piano, she reveals details about the piano teacher, a Catholic nun, the school, her red instruction book, and the reason for the lessons, so that she and her violinist father could play duets.

But, after writing down all the details, she now realizes that most of them are false.

She did not have the red book on the first lesson.

It was a treasured possession when her parents finally bought it for her.

Putting it in her hands for the first lesson in her memory she came to see as her reward to herself the way a friend of mine, adopted in early childhood, finally bought himself a bike as an adult, because he’d never had one.

He rode it twice.

But, it didn’t matter. Every time he looked at it in the garage, it healed his soul, because he could ride it, any time he wanted.

When Hampl started recalling what really happened, she realized her father was not already playing the violin before her first lesson.

Although he knew how, he didn’t start back again until her playing advanced to the point that they could play duets.

Hampl reveals the draw of writing, “I don’t write about what I know but in order to find out what I know.”

And, writer now professionally, Hampl remembers constructing her first metaphor.

Her first piano teacher showed her in that first lesson where Middle C was, but she lost it in the midst of all those identical keys.

Shown again, she brightened, thinking, “Middle C is the belly button of the piano.”

Hampl next tried to learn Czech from a woman in the neighborhood, a woman who filled her with the pastries of Hampl’s father’s heritage, if little language skill.

Skip to Hampl as a young woman.

She used Walt Whitman’s optimism about the country in the face of the Civil War in his autobiographical “Leaves of Grass” to cope with the Vietnam war her boyfriend protested by refusing the draft and going to jail.

In fact, Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass” in response to a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay asking for a poet to describe the unique American character, both our virtues and our faults.

Citing Whitman to his draft board, “Dismiss whatever insults your own soul,” Hampl’s boyfriend found them unreceptive to poetry.

“It is so much accepted now as part of the national relation to that era that ‘Vietnam was a mistake’ that it is hard to recapture the anguish and loneliness many people felt as they protested not only against the war but against people and institutions they would otherwise have trusted.”

Hampl continues her memoir using the memoirs of others to explore her own history.

Of the Polish/Lithuanian poet and Nobel Laureate, Czslaw Milosz, she describes his memoir, Native Realm, not as self-reflection, but cultural consciousness,

“At stake is the survival of memory itself. In such works, memory lives to serve history.”

“And how else could it be in what used to be called ‘the other Europe,’ the land of the concentration camp, the massacred villages and lost populations?”

“Memory, for a small nation, (or one denied sovereignty) is the nation.”

Hampl’s analysis of the poet Sylvia Plath’s life is a question – does ambition inevitably lead to disappointment and suicide?

Yet, she knows of herself,

“I cannot imagine killing myself. Like everyone, I’ve sometimes wished I were dead, but have never inflicted a wound: a habit of being interested in the next things saves us non-suicides, I suppose, at dangerous moments.”

She finds in Augustine, the Catholic bishop and 387 A.D. convert to Christianity from paganism, and 397 A.D. author of the first autobiography, “Confessions”, permission to continue to search for spiritual answers.

“The fact that Christianity, unlike either Judaism or the religions of the Greeks and Romans, was a cult founded on the narrative of a single life – Jesus of Nazareth – may help explain the appeal of life stories in Christian literary culture – and continuing into our own.”

When Hampl explores the difference between reading then, in Augustine’s time, out loud, in small groups, and reading now, alone, silently, she explains,

“Augustine has found a way to reveal the privacy of a mind thinking.”

“This is the narrative engine that drives autobiography: consciousness, not experience is the galvanizing core of a personal story.”

Hampl ends with stories of her Czech grandmother.

“My Czech grandmother hated to see me with a book.”

“She snatched it away if I sat still too long…absorbed in my reading.”

And, yet…

“My first commissioned work was to write letters for her…My fee was cookies and milk, payable before, during and after completion of the project.”

A Minnesota writer, Hampl explores her roots by trying to understand the Eastern Europe of her father’s people, her own instincts to write and autobiography as a means for bringing meaning to experience.

Yet, it’s food that traps memories of family.

Click on the title to order Hampl’s book from amazon, “I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory.”


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers

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