To a non-writer, it might seem that writing a memoir is easy. You know what happened—just tell the truth.
Here’s a passage from a good writer that is on point.
The passage is on page thirty of the novel Lila by Marilynne Robinson. The protagonist of the novel is a young woman who scarcely ever talks, whom the reader does not yet know well. She is sitting, virtually silent, with an elderly minister in his kitchen, drinking coffee. He has just told her an event about angels.
She said, “I liked that story.”
He looked away from her and laughed. “It is a story, isn’t it? I’ve never really thought of it that way. And I suppose the next time I tell it, it will be a better story. Maybe a little less true. I might not tell it again. I hope I won’t. You’re right not to talk. It’s a sort of higher honesty, I think. Once you start talking, there’s no telling what you’ll say.
Read that last sentence again—Once you start talking, there’s no telling what you’ll say.
Most people don’t suffer under the burden of being writers. Truth in writing is more complicated than most people understand. Once we writers start talking—writing—there’s no telling what we’ll say.
What we writers say is for the good of the story we are telling. The good of the story we are telling becomes our motivation, which is paramount. Truth notwithstanding.
If the need of the story is for its protagonist to step off the porch and to trip over the cat, then that is what the protagonist does—even though the truth of the incident was that it was the bottom step of the inside staircase, and it was the dog.
Lila is a novel. Fiction is one thing; memoir is another. I write memoir. It’s harder.
For one thing, the people you write about in memoir are still alive, or they may be, and they have a right to privacy—which is true even if they’re dead. For another, you yourself have a right to privacy, even when you seem deliberately to have opened yourself up to scrutiny. But the main difficulty about your memoir is that your memoir is not about you. Your memoir uses you to support its real subject. Its real subject is your theme for writing.
What are you writing about? Not you. Frankly, no one is much interested in you except a few friends and relations. It’s your theme that is of general interest—you hope.
Let’s say your memoir’s theme is how pet ownership has opened up your life to greater awareness of God. In that case, it really doesn’t matter if the accident was prompted by the porch and the cat or by the stairs and the dog. Either is relevant to the theme.
However, you know that it was the stairs and the dog, but you’re going to use the porch and the cat.
That’s the truth trouble, right there.
Why do you use the porch and the cat? You write that it was the porch and the cat because, later in your memoir, at the climax of your theme—when the awareness of God comes vividly upon you—that event actually did happen on the porch.
You decide you’ll use the porch and the cat for the accident so that your memoir, as a whole—rising as it does toward the God revelation—can occur on the porch, where it really did occur. That’s the best way for the revelation scene to be literarily cohesive with the accident event.
It’s not easy.
How do you balance?
Or do you serve each of these needs at the same time by using techniques of fiction, without stepping across the line into fiction?
Readers of your book want to be excited by your memoir, not because it is about you, but—because of the gift you have made to them of your theme—it is about them.
Yes, you are providing detail about your life and your events, but their attraction to your memoir is that you have allowed them to think about themselves in new ways. Their lives and their events have been affirmed, or tested, or questioned, or balanced by what you have said about yours.
They are drawn into your memoir by this. But they stay inside your book because of what you have revealed to them about them.
Each draft of your story perfects your story, while each draft is a little less true. That’s because once you start to write your story, there’s no telling what you’ll say.
Written by Dikkon Eberhart
Don’t skim your eye down the words. Go back and say the words. Say them with measured solemnity, four syllables to each word. Sixteen syllables all together.
You are praising the Lord. This is the Gloria in excelsis Deo that you are pronouncing.
It was late morning on the eve of Christmas Eve. I called my wife at the church. Since she and I came to Christ six years before, she had been our pastor’s secretary. I was checking in, concerned about errands I needed to finish while I was out on the road. We spoke briefly about the errands.
Then I asked her when she planned to come home from the church. Uncharacteristically, she did not know. Usually, she knows. Usually, she knows because she knows what tasks she must finish. Usually, she responds with a time—an hour, two hours.
But this time, she was vague. It was odd of her—my wife is not a vague person, about time or about anything else. “I don’t know,” is what she said, and she said it with a puzzled intonation, as though she wondered why she did not know and yet she said it anyway. I was puzzled, too, when I hung up.
I thought perhaps I should call her back, to ask if she were all right. I thought perhaps I should question her tone of puzzlement, which suggested she did not feel in charge of her time that afternoon. But I did not call her back. I had errands to do.
Here’s what I learned later. After I hung up, an hour or two passed at the church. My wife was alone. She finished tasks. There is always a task to finish on a secretary’s desk. But, puzzlingly, she did not formulate a plan for the finishing of her tasks and for her getting home. Then the church’s door opened and a man entered whom my wife had never seen. The man introduced himself and asked if the pastor were in. The pastor was not in.
The man seemed puzzled by the circumstance that the pastor was not in at the church. “But God told me I must come to see him now.”
“Well, would you like me to make an appointment for you, for later?”
“But God told me I must come to see him now.”
After all—this is how my wife reported the conversation to me—after all, the man was puzzled himself. He had done what God had told him to do. Now, it was the pastor’s turn.
The pastor had left the church not long before, with several plans in his mind. He had not been certain which of the plans he would undertake. He would let my wife know which plan he would undertake, he said, when he knew himself.
My wife dialed the phone. The pastor answered.
“There’s a man here,” she said, and she gave his name. “He says he needs to see you.”
“I wasn’t certain about your plan.”
“Well, I haven’t selected the plan yet. I don’t know why. Right now, I’m eating lunch.”
The pastor thought for a moment. “Can he wait ten minutes?”
My wife looked at the man. “Can you wait ten minutes?”
She turned back to the phone. “He can wait.”
“See you in ten.”
In ten minutes, the pastor arrived at the church. He and the man went into his office. Two hours later, the man accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord, and his name was written in Glory.
Late that same night, on the eve of Christmas Eve, my wife and I relaxed on our couch. The house was aromatic with baking gift breads. The Christmas tree was lit with white bulbs, wax candles burned among our mantel display of spruce boughs and red balls, and twinkling candles were alight in our windows so that, as my mother told me when I was a child, if the Christ Child should need a place to lie down, He would know by our candles that He would be welcome here.
My wife had explained to me the odd events of that afternoon—the man puzzled why the pastor should not be at his office when God had indicated that he would be, my wife puzzled about her inability to manage a time to return to our house so that she was available just at the right moment to make that telephone call to our pastor, our pastor puzzled that he had not selected among his plans for the afternoon so that he was, at the necessary time for the man, just eating lunch.
My wife lay back on the couch and put her feet in my lap. In silence, I stroked her feet. The wine was red in my glass, and white in my wife’s. We listened to Susan Boyle sing Hallelujah. The words of poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen filled the room.
We are busy people, she and I, with several jobs between us—retirees who still work hard, and I had a new book coming out, a memoir recounting my life as the son of a poet father—a father whose poetry molded my relationship with our Father.
Relaxing on our couch, weary after days and days of heavy work for both of us, nearing the completion of our Advent anticipation of a miracle—humbly trying to experience our anticipation with patience—the beauty of the season and of the Christ lights overthrew me. I wept.
My wife looked her question, but gently: this was her emotional husband.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
I wept for Cohen’s spare, elegiac poetry. I wept for Boyle’s easy voice. I wept for the still, calm beauty of our decorated home. I wept for giving gift bread to our friends, bread which my wife had created. But mostly I wept that, on the eve of Christmas Eve, the Lord Himself had used my wife and our pastor for His own purpose, which was to bring another soul to salvation—that godly using, which had puzzled each of them, as their planning of their day was set aside.
Written by Dikkon Eberhart
Dad was prominent as a poet. When I was young, I longed not to be a poet.
I’d be anything—a quarterback, an FBI agent, a ship captain. But in my soul, I knew I would be a chip off Dad’s block. Alas, I was a word-smith, too.
So I watched Dad, to learn how.
Read, read, read.
Read any style, content, genre, author, date—it doesn’t matter.
“We pour our souls into these words, Dikkon. You need to learn to identify writing that’s worth that effort and writing that’s not.”
Once, after Dad breezed through an erotic novel I showed him, drily he responded, “Chaucer did it better.”
“I can’t write it,” I moaned, regarding my short story assignment in high school. “It’s too hard!”
Dad caught Mom’s urging eye, put down his pipe, and asked me, “What’s your story about?”
“When they’re choosing up teams, the boy wants to be picked first but maybe he won’t be.”
“I don’t know! Maybe he isn’t picked first, but maybe he hits the home run. It’s due tomorrow!”
“Try making the story about his thoughts.”
“About his thoughts?”
“Yes. Try starting with the word ‘maybe.’” Dad grinned. “Maybe the story is about maybe.”
So I wrote the story and submitted it on time. Its first sentence was “Maybe I’ll be picked first but maybe not.”
Bring the reader in.
“Do you like it?” Dad asked.
“Not what I asked.”
“Then, no. It’s boring.”
“Do you think maybe the author’s just writing for himself and maybe for his closest friends?”
I hadn’t thought of that as a possibility. The author was a major name in modernist English fiction—the focus of my college class.
Dad pressed on, “Do you think it’s important that you be drawn in?”
“You’re his reader, aren’t you?”
I laughed. “I wouldn’t be his reader, not if I could help it.”
“So…that’s my point. Yes, the reader must come to the writer, but the reader only will come to the writer if he’s drawn in, not forced in.”
“That’s not happening here.”
“So when you’re a writer….”
I nodded. “Bring ‘em in.”
Don’t go to sleep until you know what happens next.
“No,” Dad said. “I don’t believe in writer’s block.”
“It’s my first novel, Dad. I can’t get past the point where I am. You’re a poet, not a novelist. How could you know?”
“What’s the last scene you wrote?”
I told him.
“Go back and write it again.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Doesn’t matter. Probably nothing. But write it again—create it again. Your juices will begin to flow again, and you’ll speed on.”
Turns out he was right—I sped on.
Don’t let it fester.
I called Dad. Two days before, I had finished my second novel, doing its last sixty pages in an eighteen-hour burst of ecstatic—almost holy—writing. “It’s done, Dad.”
“Of course. Get a rest.”
“Of course. So…what’s next?”
“I read it over. I think it’s good. Gotta do some tweaks.”
“Do that. But then—get it off your desk.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t let it fester. Get it out into the world. If you tweak it too much, you could kill it. Now let an editor tell you what to do. ”
HERE’S A BONUS!
A Sixth Thing I Learned
Sitting in our garden, Robert Frost turned to me and remarked, “Dikkon, the work of the poet is to write at least one single poem that they can’t get rid of. They’ll try. But don’t let ‘em.”
© – Dikkon Eberhart, 2016