SARAH VEST – STAFF WRITER
The relationship between time and memory is critically important to consider when writing memoirs, according to Week Eight prose writer-in-residence Jaed Coffin.
Coffin is the author of Roughhouse Friday and A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants. He is a regular contributor to Down East magazine and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Nautilus and The Sun, as well as “The Moth Radio Hour” and TED Channel. He has served as a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and currently teaches at the University of New Hampshire.
He will host a Brown Bag on the relationship between time and memory, and the place this relationship holds in memoir writing, at 12:15 p.m. EDT Friday, Aug. 20 on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch.
Coffin said he spent a number of years writing fiction. However, no matter how many short stories or other works of fiction he generated, he felt that he was never able to create a protagonist that accurately represented himself. As a result, he turned to memoir writing, and produced Roughhouse Friday.
“I don’t believe that I am me in my memoir; I am a version of me that I created,” Coffin said. “… Truth is always stranger than fiction, and I always felt like fiction was secondary.”
For Coffin, time is what changes and influences everything in a narrative, and is the most important thing to understand the relationship between himself and his material. Thinking critically about the reflective voice and how much it is used, as well as the difference between past and present tense, are two examples of how time influences his writing.
“It takes six or seven years for me to be able to look over my shoulder in a way that will help me understand what I’m trying to say about my material,” Coffin said. “It allows me to be more sympathetic to the person I was, more sympathetic to people who might have otherwise been villains in my story, or allows me to see with more complexity the people who I thought were heroes, or maybe irrelevant characters in my story who I realized that they’re more important than I thought they were. Introducing time, and degrees of time, into that relationship between you and your material is what opens up layers of story.”
When Coffin was on vacation recently, he visited a bookstore where he had done a number of readings. He recalls being disappointed to find that they were not carrying copies of his books because they didn’t usually care about sports books. Although Roughhouse Friday is technically about the year he spent boxing on a barroom floor in Alaska, according to Coffin it is really about cultural inheritance and identity.
When Coffin thinks about writing memoirs, he doesn’t think that what the writer is writing about on the surface is very important. A writer could be writing about their shoes on the surface, but have deeper threads running underneath. What is important in memoir writing is the story behind the story and how the author can bring their creative worldview to the surface with their voice.