For Christmas this year, I purchased Handling The Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart. I couldn’t go any farther than the first chapter without participating in the writing assignment “expectations for memoir.” Kephart asks her students and readers to write 750 words on what draws us to memoir, then challenges us to “not fail our own gold standards.”
Here are mine….they are impossible and hard, and explain why I balk at the blank page.
Perhaps I should lower my expectations and just write.
Expectations for Memoir
Perhaps my expectations are too high. But the truth is that I want to be grabbed by writing that goes deep emotionally. I want complexity in sentences and to be led into compelling questions raised by complicated relationships and social situations. I also want to eat good food voyeuristically, through characters that relish and savor and appreciate meals. I want characters who clean their houses or apartments or impoverished shacks. I want to see the ordinary celebrated and appreciated and valued. I want to be shown a wider perspective through place or characterization that is different than the narrow one I experience through the consequences of my lifestyle choices. I want to travel, to be slightly disoriented and then later, to be shown the way home. Once at home, I want to feel just a little bit larger, expanded and changed.
I love to be shocked, and then also comforted by surprising events or intimate moments. I want to cry, to laugh, to rage against injustice. A good memoir is also a great story. I want to be told the truth, but I also want to know about things imagined that aren’t real or that never happened, the unfulfilled wishes, dreams and fantasies of people. I want to know how they survived, coped, avoided, misplaced, rejected or embraced the hardships and the victories. What I don’t like is someone telling stories to glamorize or sell themselves as a celebrity. I want the speaker to be accessible as a friend, someone who suffers but ultimately recovers.
I ask for so much. I also expect to discover another something or someone to care about. What the writer cares about will hopefully expand empathy in society. I want the writer to be writing for a purpose, to heal something or improve a situation for someone, a human, a creature or natural landscape. I don’t like to be advertised to in regards to a particular cause, but I would like my awareness of a particular issue to be expanded. I want to deepen my understanding of cultural differences, political differences, religious and educational differences.
I’m intensely interested in how people learn and grow. I became hooked on memoir after reading Frank McCourt’s three memoirs. I was working at the library, preparing to have some time off to have my wisdom teeth removed. I walked to the nonfiction section, hoping for something interesting. Angela’s Ashes seemed to fall off the shelf into my hand. McCourt’s story gripped me, pulling me down to the couch, where I read continuously for a week, simultaneously recovering from oral surgery. I love to read about miserable circumstances when I am feeling miserable, like people who play the blues when they’re depressed.
I love the blues. I love sad, terrible stories of fantastic loss, of discomfort, then recovery or redemption. I am inspired continuously by the resiliency of ordinary people struggling through life; the ones to whom much is not given and to whom much is taken away. I value strength and endurance and hope and faith and finally…peace to accept it all.
But how does one begin to go to all the places in a memoir that we dare not discuss? All of that suffering and recovery may come at an impossible price; the exposure of secrets, the breaking of trust. We must not hurt people this way; we must not betray our loved ones. This is my writing block, the duct tape on my lips.
I once asked Elizabeth Gilbert this question when she gave a talk at UNCG-Asheville. I wondered if she would ever consider writing a childhood memoir. She said she was waiting for someone to die before writing that— but she was confident that she would outlive that person and be able to write it one day— even if she had to do it in her nineties.
I don’t want to wait until I am ninety to write an honest memoir. I just have not yet learned how to handle the truth.
What does one do with all of that raw material?
My expectations are incredibly high. I’m not sure how they got that way. Perhaps if I’m going to spend time reading a book, with so many competing demands, I want it to be worthwhile. In years past, when I did not care so much about dishes in the sink or piles of laundry hiding behind the closet doors, I read everything the library offered. Now, with the responsibility of home education, a small handmade business, a larger house, three pets, exercise needs, meal preparations and generally higher expectations for orderliness, I read less. I write less. My vocabulary suffers from too much scrolling on social media sites. I need something deeper and more complicated than I am currently able to write. I want to read love in a memoir, and write love too.
Maybe I could begin with this single, simple intention: to love.