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Eulogy as Memoir

Because I write family stories, I've recently become very interested in the forms of memoir and creative nonfiction. I mostly write novels, but as an issue of craft and because I've begun to help others write about their families, I've been looking closely at the genre of personal narratives.

I recently attended a workshop on memoir, in which Professor Ilana Blumberg introduced the group to a reading from Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. She describes the impact of a eulogist’s words about her mentor. Gornick found this eulogy to be a particularly effective personal narrative, because the narrator recalled with exactness and vividness the essence of her relationship with the departed mentor which resonated deeply with the audience. It fulfillied the pact that good personal narrative must make with the reader/listener; namely, that the narrator is fundamentally responsible for truth, while identifying what is special, worthwhile, and perhaps profound about the person or relationship being described.

What is more, Gornick explains, “The better the narrator imagines herself, the more vividly she brings the person to life.” In other words, the better the narrator understands and clarifies her own persona brought to tell the story, the clearer the lens through which the reader or listener can grasp the essence of it.

Having written two heartfelt eulogies for loved ones lost in the last two years, (, and, it strikes me that Gornick’s reminder of the “open need to make sense of relationship” applies in a particularly poignant way to eulogies, which, from now on, I will regard as short memoirs.

As I struggled with my eulogies, I wish I’d known to ask myself Gornick’s clarifying questions; Which of my selves is speaking and why is she speaking? Then I might have deserved the praise Gornick bestowed in her enlightening chapter on the eulogist, “It was remarkable to me how excellent were relations between this narrator and this narration.”

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