Truth Be Told

“Do you swear to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” We’ve heard this intimidating oath on every television show with a courtroom scene. Fortunately, writers of memoir and personal essay don’t have to make this declaration – at least under oath. Or, if they did, it would be with the caveat that, “This is my truth. This is the way it was for me, so help me Goddess of Imagination.” It turns out that “truth” has many levels of being, depending on what one is writing about. For most of us, our truth is what we think we remember. Other people might recall the same event differently, but if what you are writing is a memoir about your life, then even other witnesses, like your brother or sister, might  remember details differently than your recollection. This is an important concept to keep in mind when writing your story because, if you are swayed to consider some other rendition, based on what someone else claims is the almighty truth, you may not get to the essence of what you are after. Intention matters. As Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz describe in Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, “If our intent is to capture the messy, real world we live in, we fulfill the first obligation of creative nonfiction. Intent helps us resist the urge to change facts, just to make a better story. It stops us from telling deliberate lies, even as we let our imagination fill in details we only vaguely remember.” In my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, describing my experience of […]

Musings on Memoir

In memoir, a self is speaking and rendering the world. The real subject is your consciousness in the light of history. The objective is to be personal and impersonal all at once. In a sense it is to be a witness and a storyteller. The hallmark of memoir is the expression of both Now and Then. It is a kind of shuttling back and forth between the past and present, interrogating the experience back then and expressing what that experience means to us now. We can also think about this as the “I” that was then and the “I” that is now. Or, imagine that your present self is having a conversation with your much younger self. Memoir begins with a kind of intuition of meaning. The event itself usually happened years ago and a memory, a scene, lingers. I remember weeping in a kitchen in a lonely apartment in a foreign country in 1968 and devouring a box of graham crackers – a big box.  Whenever the memory came back, I was uncomfortable. When I eventually described the scene by writing about it, the events before and after came flooding back and I started to get closer to the story. Memories survive on fleeting things – a wisp of a fragrance, a plaid shirt your father wore, a song that reminds you of another song. These details are the starting point for the deeper story.. Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and who you are today. It is mental and emotional time travel and sometimes it might involve actual travel. The memoirist Patricia Hampl wanted to understand who she was as a free-thinking […]

Lost for Words: Can Writing be Healing?

How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They describe themselves as being “lost for words,” as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint feelings with precision. Some people eventually find their voice by writing poems, essays and memoirs, or keeping a journal.  For those who are visually oriented, the voice may speak through a painting or a photograph. The body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around experiences for others to hear and see. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal is a continuous, or discontinuous, process. For others even the mental recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge long after, perhaps during another life-changing event that dredges up old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to the Desert Storm conflict in the early 1990s. “It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.” Sometimes the burden of owning the story is so great that there is a need to fictionalize and tell it as if it happened to someone else. It can take months or years to become comfortable with the telling.  Whatever the starting point, be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time, reflection and […]

A Time to Cry and LAUGH: Writing with a sense of humor

Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. “I don’t want to feel as if I’m being forced to feel bad,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.”   Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time – but – maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad.   Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that I hadn’t yet dug deeply enough to discover. As Dorothy Parker said in Writers at Work, “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. […]

Truth and Consequences: When family and friends see themselves in your writing

(a workshop presented at a meeting of the SE Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association in Groton, Connecticut, October 21, 2013) People will always assume that what you write is true – whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.   We cannot know in advance what people will be offended by  – and sometimes you will be shocked. They may resent that you haven’t included them enough in your story.   Vivian Gornick – author of “The Situation and the Story” says that good writing must do two things. It must be alive on the page and it must persuade the reader that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.   Writers of all genres wrestle with putting autobiographical material in their work – and writing things in which friends and relatives might recognize themselves.   For writers who write memoir this is an especially important question. In fiction you can use false names, new settings, or even a different ending to the story. Memoir offers no such hiding places.   With family stories, the stakes are particularly high – especially if family members are still alive. You have to make ethical and practical decisions at every stage of the writing.   You have to decide – what is yours to explore and what should be respectfully left out.   (a large part of this decision is related to what really needs to be in the story. There are some things that should be left out simply because they don’t actually contribute to the story)   Every writer has to make the determination of what is too private and how to know when enough has been said and all writers approach this control differently.   For example, Paul Austin, an emergency room physician who wrote a memoir entitled: “Something for the pain” wrote about his feelings […]

Remembering War

This essay entitled “My Buddy’s Hat”  also appears in the winter issue, 2013, of the on-line Journal PersimmonTree.org “There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.”  Dwight David Eisenhower   It’s late April, 2011, and already broiling hot at the entrance to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, Georgia. This is the recreational outing during my fourth reunion with the guys of Alpha Company. Once again, we’re part of a motley crew of former GIs who served in the 22nd US Army Infantry Division in various wars, a few spouses, and me, the only Vietnam War widow in the group. In spite of the fact that we are here among about two hundred veterans of all ages, our section of the bus – those connected in some way to Dave’s Company back in 1969 – behaves like a merry band of war buddies, joking and teasing, ribbing each other about things that happened long ago in the region of Tay Ninh.  They include me in their repartee – as if I had been there, too. Our bus driver, Ike, a thin, talkative man, lightens the atmosphere further when he chimes in over the loud speaker in his melodious Georgia drawl throughout the two-hour bus ride from Atlanta with quips like: “Whatever you folks do back there behind me, don’t wake me up while I’m drivin’. “ How amazing to be on a road trip with some of the guys who were with my husband forty-two years ago in the jungles of Vietnam. Each time I’m with these men at a reunion I’m […]

What’s So Funny? Humor in Non-fiction Writing

Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. “I don’t want to feel as if I’m being forced to feel bad,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.”   Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time – but – maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad.   Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that […]

Writers and Their Mothers: A Journey in Fur

I dealt with the furs today. I went to Mesahekow Furs in Waterford with the mink, the muskrat, the persian lamb, the black rabbit, the Russian squirrel stole and the formerly white bunny wraps (they are yellowed now, like rabbits who need a bath). Since my mother’s death in 2008, I kept her furs in the same cedar closet where they had lived for years. Downsizing furs is not easy. I don’t wear fur, but these felt like my mother’s pets. I’m feeling sentimental about a bunch of dead animal skins or perhaps I need to honor my mother’s eccentricities. The showroom at Mesahekow’s had the temperature and mysterious darkness of a wine cellar and might have been painted pale blue except the walls were in shadow. This is the only furrier within one hundred miles of the cedar closet. The spot lighting here and there cast light only in certain directions, highlighting  ghostly fur-clad mannequins and creating dark corners in the rest of the room like the interior of a ship sailing near Antarctica in the endless night winter season or some other frozen place. Furs need to be cold and I suppose if the room was warm no one could be enticed to try on one of these dead creatures. In cold and darkness fur feels warm and safe. An igloo atmosphere, cave-like, makes it enticing.  Fur bespeaks luxury and survival. Capturing, skinning, preserving this amount of warmth against snow and ice could be the difference between the life and death of a hunter. Nate, the furrier in charge, didn’t look like much of a hunter but […]

Vintage Food: Recipe for Nostalgia

Vintage food is not “old” food as in – past its prime; uneatable; expired. It’s not that bulging tin can of stewed tomatoes with cryptic black lettering suggesting it was best eaten before 1985. It is the food we remember like a perfect postcard of something delicious that mom or gramma prepared (maybe dad, although I only remember my father standing in front of the stove once to put out a small fire I started at age seven while making toast on a gas flame). Vintage food is a fragrant pan of fresh-baked Parker House Rolls; little pillows of smooth golden crusts, brushed with butter and brought by Aunt Elsie to every funeral reception. It’s a basket of shell beans encased in papery pink and green mottled pods. It is fat, juicy hamburgers cooked in sliced yellow onions and made from a slab of top round beef that the butcher down the street had put through his meat grinder that same day. It is a picture of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower in the Saturday Evening Post showing them sitting behind TV tray tables with their forks poised over a Swanson’s Turkey Dinner served in an aluminum rectangle with three separate compartments for Turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans. It is Red Flannel Hash (corned beef and diced  potatoes), cod fish cakes sizzling in a heavy, black cast iron fry pan, Finnan Haddie (salted cod cooked in cream) next to boiled new potatoes on a Blue Willow patterned china plate. It is succotash (corn, beans and yellow squash). It is three-layer gold cake with chocolate frosting melting down the sides […]

Writing about buried thoughts in memoir and the personal essay

Memoir and personal essays are all about the self but sometimes something impedes our pursuit of the “I” character. Here we are, writing about our “selves” and there is a hesitation to explore deeper consciousness or personality, or interiority of thoughts. What stops us? Take for example, our reaction to passing a roadside accident. We may be horrified about what we see and at the same time burning with curiosity to see the mangled vehicles and the EMTs prying out a body with the Jaws of Life. Concentrating on that secret desire to watch, to see possibly something horrific, is the challenge for anyone who wants to explore and reflect on one’s personal response in a moment like this – or any moment in time. We bury these thoughts, wishes desires, quickly, and hesitate to return. BUT – sometimes we really want to write about how it felt to be in that situation. How do we go back and dredge up our true feelings? Carl Klaus speaks about “fixedness” in his book, The Made-up Self.” That resistance to drill deeper through our habitual thoughts down to a less-recognized (or less acceptable) self. The question is not to dig up and record macabre thoughts, it is how to think deeply on how we respond, what we truly think in any situation. In her essay Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf speaks about the importance of “scene making” to get at buried thoughts.   She differentiates between private (reflective) thoughts and public approaches to delve into memory. The private are the scenes which we remember but can’t make sense of – the public are the roads we try to build into memory by saying this happened, then this, then this. […]