Well, yes, I confess. I am writing a memoir. Or trying to.
It may never see the inside of two book covers. Maybe the impulse to do this is just a function of revisiting two shoeboxes full of letters I wrote when I knew nothing about anything, but thought I did.
Or it’s a result of months of hunkering down and musing on the past, waiting for the many reckless outliers to realize a somber truth: the COVID-19 virus needs new hosts in order to replicate and mutate. By not complying with sensible public health restrictions (masks, social distancing, AND now vaccinations), such irresponsibility just prolongs the duration AND the virulence of the COVID-19 pandemic. And so it’s only natural that memories – good, bad, sad – fill my mind, as well as hopeful yearnings for a better future.
Anyway, I must introduce you to a writer who might just set some bells ringing for you at this trying time in our nation’s history. Perhaps her words will offer you balm for your soul, as it did mine.
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart is close to the best book I’ve read about writing memoir. And maybe about just plain writing, too.
According to Amazon, I apparently bought it at the end of December 2017, just after I spent three days in an ICU unit in Roanoke, Virginia. An undiagnosed gastric ulcer mimicked a heart attack, and I suffered through every test known to medical science, including cardiac catherization. Fully awake, strapped to a metal table, every nerve in my body screaming, the dope they gave me to relax doing nothing, I watched my blood spurting like tiny crimson rivers all over the physicians sticking a wire into my femoral artery and up to my heart. They wore forest-green rubber butcher’s aprons and plexiglass face shields. The room shone bright as the sun, mirrors reflecting everywhere. When the doctors finished, my blood dripping down their ample stomachs, I turned my head, my eyes met a bright blinding light, a migraine bore through my skull like a truck that’d lost its brakes on a freeway.
As I recovered in the ICU, my life passed in front of me between Fentanyl injections.
I guess that’s why I bought Ms. Kephart’s book once the ordeal ended: I wanted to remember my life before, well, I couldn’t.
But, given a clean bill of health – except for the tiny ulcer, I never opened the book until a week ago.
Sometimes delayed gratification can be a great thing. Since I believe that books often present themselves to me when I most need them, what can I say?
I once read a memoir in process – not my own. You learn a lot sitting at the side of a person writing a memoir. And the most startling thing about reading the drafts of that memoir was this: chronologically it was fine, but I didn’t feel anything. No raging weather descriptions caused my blood to curdle in fear. Nor did I sense what mud did to shoes and boots and skin. Buzzing insects never zoomed in for the bite, though they should have. No metaphors, no drawing of parallels with the larger world of the times lived and remembered. A skeleton of a life. No flesh on the bones.
Beth Kephart reminds me of this crucial factor in memoir, indeed in all prose or poetry, the crux of it all a zinger for the reader, the one telling detail where words meet flesh and bone, where blood drips and tears fall. The universal, without which a reader just walks away.
Here’s what you’ll find in Handling the Truth:
Definitions, preliminaries, cautions.
Memoir is not
Read to write
Wrestling yourself down
Find your form
Do you love?
Whether the weather
The color of life
I hear voices
Something smells– fishy?
Empty your pockets
Let me check on that
What’s it all about?
Fake not and other last words.
Mothers, fathers, children
The natural world
Leaving and returning
Some additionally cited sources
And one more thing.
Before you turn the very last page of Handling the Truth, Ms. Kephart leaves an annotated list of superb memoirs, and further resources for the serious memoirist.
A surfeit of riches indeed.
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