When I look this morning at the iconic photograph of a rusted tricycle in a driveway in front of two small brick houses on the cover of William Eggleston’s collection Guide, I consider starting a short memoir with an image of my own tricycle. Here, so it seems, is an object, a referent, from my childhood.
But my childhood doesn’t exist, not really—though, of course, it once did. It is now a set of unfixed images, fading stills of a time and place, which only develop when I call them forth, hold them up in the light of present consciousness, and then only for a second before they morph quickly into a kind of truth/fiction blend—memory’s shards with the help of imagination’s integrative force, pieces of the past repositioned and repurposed in the present.
In other words, I am a memoirist “looking” not through a viewfinder but through a fog of subjectivity, the necessities of linguistic construction, the human meaning-making impulse, and the tunnel of time. At the far end of all this is memory’s chosen topic—my tricycle—potential writing material, a blurry image against a dark background of nothingness, all the things I don’t remember.
From this apprehended image, I can use facts, my personal history, what I know, or think I know—more material from memory—as a context and a backdrop. These, too, can be dubious, however. What about all the forces that warp and bend this context? My protective delusions, my defensiveness, my self-justifications? My biological brain health? My emotional and psychological stability? Is my relationship to reality roughly akin to my intended and mostly imagined reader’s? Neuroscience tells us that it is what we forget as much as what we remember that forms our identity, our ever-evolving self.
So: A few things I can say with certainty as the cursor winks roughly in syncopation with my heartbeat: I lived in a house like the two visible in the photograph until I was seven. I had a tricycle like the one in the photograph. Rust on the bars. Hard rubber wheels. It is as if William Eggleston took hundreds of photographs of my life and memories.
Now as I “look” at my own tricycle in my memory in an attempt to capture it here in writing, make a little story of it, or at the very least describe it, my mind—I’m just letting it (my mind) go where it goes—veers toward a friend of mine from that time, when I lived in that house, named Nicky, a little Italian-American kid with a vocabulary like a hardcore rapper. I’m thinking that Nicky and I rode tricycles together. Must have. Otherwise why remember this? I think we did for a second, but then I realize, in the next second, this second, essentially mid-mental-construction of what could become a sentence, that I probably didn’t know him until first grade when we were too old to be riding tricycles.
I’ve just remembered something else.
Nicky’s dad owned the one pornographic theatre in Newport News, Virginia, (I need to fact-check this) and I used to play with him until my mom put two and two together, as they say, and she realized that this Nicky had a father named Nicky and this father named Nicky had been in the newspaper because some church groups wanted to close his theatre down. Big Nicky was the local champion of porn. I was friends with his kid. My mom was a good Methodist—my family studiously church-going. It was a short relationship.
Thing is, it now emerges out of the attic of my mind that Nicky—little Nicky, I mean—had a copper-orange 70s banana-seat cruiser, and he could ride it even though it was huge, an adult bike really, or a teenage bike anyway, and he was only seven.
I came to believe—this I remember very clearly, though I think we’ve established that in no way makes it so—that anyone who knew the words “fuck” and “dildo” and even “blow job” at seven and could ride an adult bike, a pretty sexy adult bike frankly…that there was a one-to-one correlation—i.e., advanced dirty vocabulary, advanced bike-riding skills. I believed that the fact that I couldn’t say those words because I didn’t know what they meant and my mom wouldn’t let me anyway was keeping me, somehow, on a little kid bike.
Now I love all kinds of language. I love, even, or at least sometimes, filthy language because of its subversive power, and the reason this is so, or at least the reason this is so in the moment of my thinking about it now, probably partly goes back to the times in my driveway and on the sidewalk in front of my house—the house in Eggleston’s photograph, but not quite—when Nicky, filthy-mouthed porn-theatre Nicky, was riding on his big bike, which seemed to me to be powered by his magic and awesomely shocking words.
I sat down an hour ago, looked at the cover of a book of photographs, and tried to remember my tricycle, or to use an image of a tricycle as a stand in for my tricycle and a kind of prompt, as a way to get started writing from memory and in a particular direction about a place and a time in my life, which I do think has rich material to be mined in regards to social class, race, the South, customs, culture, values, mores, beliefs, and the everyday rituals of American life and how they situate us, comfort us, carry us. Instead I ended up with Nicky, dirty words, and a big copper-orange, banana-seat bike. No tricycle anywhere near here. And now I’m not sure the kid’s name was Nicky. Maybe it was Mikey.
The cursor keeps winking on the white plane of the page. I’m thinking now that I’d be better off to write a cultural history essay on the one porn theatre in Newport News in the mid-1970s and the politics and social upheaval that arose around it. Or I could write some kind of more reflective or argumentative essay on the uses and value of foul language.
But I want to delve into the past, I want to write a story, and I want to write from and explore memory. I want to think about memory’s procedures. It is hard, though, to defend memoir, unlike photography, as sturdily “nonfiction” on even the most rudimentary philosophical grounds. Narrative writing from experience does not actually capture life; it replaces it with facsimile, the success of which has a lot to do with how slick this magic trick of facsimile, of creative writing skill, is performed. Again, my childhood doesn’t exist, though it once did. Call it fiction? I can’t. That feels like a bigger, more intentional lie in a different way.
Memoir, to me, must use facts, all that is or was real and available, as a skeleton and then adhere to the truth of thought, and of symbolic or felt truth, but it can only be honest, truly honest, if it acknowledges, on the page, in the text, the problematic relationship between memory and the ever-receding lived reality it is meant to describe. What Jean Cocteau said of himself is the best description of literary memoir I know: “I am a lie that always tells the truth.”
A memoir that rigidly abided by the narrow contemporary definitions of “nonfiction”—a word that should probably have a permanent place inside of quotation marks in the 21st century—would look something like the above paragraphs—a stuttering, digressive, self-reflexive anti-memoir, a memoir that progresses while obliterating its own existence.
Greg Bottoms is the author of a memoir, Angelhead, an Esquire Book of the Year in 2000; a documentary narrative, The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art (both from University of Chicago Press); and two prose collections, including, most recently, Fight Scenes (Counterpoint, 2008). He is associate professor of English at the University of Vermont, where he teaches creative writing. (updated 3/2009)