Terrill to discuss creating meaningful moments in memoir



One obstacle many memoir writers often face is determining whether or not their experiences will be interesting to others.

Prose writer-in-residence Richard Terrill will talk about how to overcome that obstacle with his Brown Bag lecture, called “Creating Subtext in Memoir,” at 12:15 p.m. today on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.

“In works that are trying to be literary, there’s usually meaning, not just on the literal level — there are layers of meaning,” Terrill said. “When something’s really good, you can feel it, you can see that it’s working on different levels.”

Terrill believes it is these varying levels that can give works, and especially memoirs, deeper meaning. According to the writer, creating subtext can help elevate something literal into something metaphorical.

Terrill said that when people are writing nonfiction, they often get caught up in thinking that it should be “just the facts,” which he thinks can prevent the work from reaching its full potential.

“So that’s what I’m going to talk about: different ways that writers have injected meaning into their personal writing,” Terrill said.

Terrill said he will also talk about how the choice of subject in a memoir can go a long way in making sure one’s work has meaning for others.

“You can write something that’s meaningful to yourself, but how can you know if it’s meaningful to anybody else?” Terrill said. “And the point I’m going to make is that a lot of that depends on what specifically you choose to write about.”

Terrill said he is looking forward to taking questions from the audience, which he said has been one of his favorite parts of the Brown Bags in his previous visits to Chautauqua.

“The questions are really what make it,” Terrill said. “I would say that I’m very interested in doubt, in all its forms. So whether it’s other people’s doubt — them asking questions I can’t answer, or that I haven’t really thought about — I really find that exciting. And maybe I’ve disappointed the audience, but that’s what I really like: when somebody stumps me. Because then I’m learning something.”

Terrill said the more conversational format of the Brown Bag is one that he enjoys.

“I think it’s just a lot more fun for the audience and for the speaker,” Terrill said. “Who wants to just ramble on? You want to improvise a little bit.”

Terrill has been writing for nearly 40 years, and is the author of Fakebook: Improvisations on a Journey Back to Jazz and Saturday Night in Baoding: A China Memoir. Terrill said it is having an encounter with artistic language that has kept him engaged over time.

“Just to be working with words — sometimes it’s poetry, sometimes it’s prose — or even something more ‘everyday,’ like writing a book review,” Terrill said. “I think it’s just wanting to deal with language.”

Terrill hopes that his love for language will help attendees of his lecture see the value in writing about their own experiences.

“Writing about events that are important to your own life need not only be of interest to you, your children and your grandchildren,” Terrill said. “There are ways to write about things that happen to you and give it a broader appeal.”