To anyone who keeps a diary, writing a memoir might seem like a cakewalk compared to the imaginary demands of fiction-writing.

But how does one take creative license on characters that actually exist? Or embellish events that history has crystallized? Or brave the intellectual and emotional honesty that memoirs pledge?

Five Fordham professors and published memoirists took up these difficult questions during a reading and panel discussion, “The Art of the Memoir,” held May 1 at the Lincoln Center campus.

Moderated by Susan Kamil, publisher of Random House and Dial Press imprints, the panel featured:

•    Mary Bly, Ph.D., professor of English;
•    Richard Giannone, Ph.D., professor emeritus of English;
•    Eve Keller, Ph.D., professor of English and director of graduate studies;
•    Kim Dana Kupperman, writer-in-residence; and
•    Elizabeth Stone, Ph.D., professor of English.

Several panelists admitted that they had no experience in the genre of memoir before attempting their own. Bly, who writes under the pseudonym Eloisa James, said her sole intention of writing Paris in Love (Random House, 2012), a memoir of her sabbatical year in Paris, was “not to remember, but be present.”

“My mother died of ovarian cancer and I was diagnosed with cancer two weeks later,” Bly said of her impetus to go abroad with her family. “So we left. We went to Paris. We sold our house, we sold our cars—we ran away from home. And what I wanted to do was not forget.”

According to Bly, the book, which is currently #26 on the New York Times bestseller nonfiction list, served to bring together her memories of the year and her reconciliation with the events leading up to it.

Giannone, whose recent retirement was celebrated at the event, had different reasons to write Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS, and Spiritual Desire (Fordham University Press, 2012). The book chronicles his transformation from a solitary gay academic during the burgeoning AIDS crisis, to the primary caregiver of his dying mother and sister.

According to Giannone, the memoir represents the class of “ordinariness.”

“These reflections tell of northern New Jersey Italian-Americans,” Giannone said. “The world is not that of ‘The Jersey Shore’ or Rick Santorum, but of plain people plugging away in domestic obscurity, surely dullness to most—plugging their way out of immigrant, blue collar status.”

Primarily a scholar, Giannone said the memoir was a “radical upheaval.” While his scholarly articles and books have forced him to confront the limits of the mind, Hidden required him to confront the limits of the heart.

Two Rings: A Story of Love and War (PublicAffairs, 2012) was a collaboration between Keller and Millie Werber, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor. Werber was 16 when she married Heniek Greenspan, who was killed in Auschwitz soon after their marriage. Despite her own arrest and imprisonment in Auschwitz, Werber saved a single tattered photograph of her husband along with their two wedding rings.

Eve Keller (right) talks with Mary Bly (left)
and moderater Susan Kamil.
Photo by Chris Taggart

Keller said she spent a year with Werber before being able to imagine herself in Werber’s role and intuit her thoughts and feelings.

“The result of the imaging… made me think about my own life, too,” Keller said. “Trying to envision a small act of kindness for example… required me to think about kindness itself. What comprises it? What categorizes it? What is entailed in committing such an act in the midst of horror?

“I found myself writing about the past of one person in a way that I wanted to resonate beyond that person, too,” she continued. “In a way that might prompt readers, as it surely prompted me, to think about the largest things in life—love, hate, cruelty, fear, faith, and all the rest.”

Kupperman’s memoir, the award-winning I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence (Grayworld, 2010), is a collection of autobiographical, personal, and lyric essays ranging from her mother’s suicide to the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

For Kupperman, the key element of any memoir is the development of the narrator’s persona. Often a façade rather than a transparent window into the narrator, the persona testifies to the various masks that the author herself wears.

“The narrator is simply the first layer of what we might call the nonfictive veil used by the essayist or novelist,” Kupperman said. “Sometimes I think of [a persona]as the memes that live inside me, the personalities I can conjure in the way actors can pull from their inner beings, selves that are both unrecognizable and deeply familiar.”

Stone’s two memoirs evince the diversity of the genre itself. In 2010, she helped Dina Matos McGreevey write her memoir Silent Partner (Hyperion, 2010) about her marriage to former New Jersey governor James McGreevey.

Her own first memoir, A Boy I Once Knew: What a Teacher Learned from her Student (Algonquin, 2002), tells the story of her student, Vincent, who left Stone his diaries and asked her to write about him following his death from AIDS.

Stone said that the memoir has progressed, historically, to include more than 58 categories, ranging in topics from academic life to war.

“No longer are autobiographies limited to the white warriors of statesmen,” she said. “The autobiographies that have become canonical in the last 30 years are the autobiographies of ‘nobodies’,” she said, referencing stories of immigrants, ex-mental patients, and the children of blue-collar workers.

Despite the variety of their works, the panelists said that the common element to their craft is “messiness,” that is, the fact that composing a memoir is a lengthy and often painful process.

“The process is like a mole banging up against a wall,” Stone said lightheartedly. “Memoirs have a final gracefulness that has nothing to do with the process.”

The event was sponsored by Fordham’s Creative Writing program, the Deans of Arts and Sciences, and PublicAffairs Books.