Monday, October 24, 2011

The Memoirist's Great Fear, Part 1

I was scared to call him.

I had told myself I was free and clear to write my memoir, Standoff at Ronnie’s Place, about my first husband’s suicide. My sons, now 22 and 24, had generously given me the green light. Ron’s parents had died, the executor to his mother’s estate had died, my father had died, and my mother suffered from a dementia that would keep her from reading it even if she wanted to. My siblings had provided input and would not stand in the way. The first chapter had even been published.

The stakes for completing the project were on the rise. Last summer I found out that Ron’s first wife, who’d been a staunch cheerleader for the project, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). She also happens to be my target reader. I’d overcome that first nasty fear of the memoirist—“Who would want to read about me?”—by answering, Deirdre does. She’d always said, “But you and Ron had children together. How on earth did you raise those boys after Ron killed himself?” I aimed to tell her.

But as I neared writing the centerpiece of the project—the all-day suicide standoff at our little Berks County farm—I realized I’d been fooling myself. There was another person involved, one so tortured by these events that despite a lifelong friendship he hadn’t spoken to me in 12 years.

I could disguise him, I thought. Change his first name and other identifying details. But no—my entire project was a search for meaning, and I’d found so much of it in the details of his life, living as he did on the edge of the lake we both considered a spiritual home, in the camp where my father grew up, warmed by a fireplace built by a grandfather I’d never known. To mask such detail would sap the power from my story. And I’d never get away with changing his name. The nearby town is small. The details would reveal him. I could change the name of the lake, put it in another state—but that would be a thin disguise. I run writing retreats for women at our lakeside home. Too many people associate me with it.

A literary attorney told me that the project was dead in the water unless I wanted to fictionalize everything. Or—get his permission to proceed. In writing. All legal-like. Meanwhile, Deirdre's decline outstripped my progress.

Day after day this summer, as Deirdre clung to her functionality by being fitted with braces to keep her walking, learning to “speak” through a computer and “eat” through a stomach tube, my project remained in limbo. I watched Steve from afar. His camp—my grandfather’s camp, on a road named after him—is just six doors down the shoreline. Time was evaporating if I wanted Deirdre to ever read my memoir. I screwed up my courage and…

…couldn’t do it. He had a family now. I saw him splashing in the water with his squealing five-year-old son, laughing, then pulling his girlfriend’s older kids behind his motorboat on a tube. Enjoying a beer on the dock with friends. What right did I have to insert my need to tell my story into any of that?

In part 2 tomorrow, I screw up my courage—and lie.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. At her blog, Healing through Writing, she is currently posting about the philosophical, logistical, and biological challenges of healing from a triple ankle fracture sustained during Hurricane Irene.


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20 comments :

  1. What an amazing story - and I haven't even heard the entire thing. I think you owe it to yourself and everyone who has given you the ok to approach him and ask. You never know what healing powers your story will have for him.
    I can't wait to hear how this goes.

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  2. Wow, can't wait for tomorrow to see what you have decided. You have a powerful voice and it is apparent this story is pushing you to tell it.

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  3. Halli: Thanks for your vote of confidence. Stay tuned -- tomorrow you'll see how it turned out. I truly appreciate your sensitive notion that I may not anticipate the ways my story may be healing for him. Thank you for the gift of that.

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  4. Resume writing service: Thanks for stopping by.

    Maryann: High praise from one of my fellow BRP editors. Thank you.

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  5. You left me wondering who this person is. I want to hear the end of this tale, so I'll be back tomorrow.

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  6. Thanks Chris. ;)

    And Helen--we'll talk again after tomorrow!

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  7. Given my own history with suicide, I'll be very interested in what happens next.

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  8. Martin (a lovely name, which I gave my younger son): "My own history with suicide"--you suggest a club here that no one wants to be in, but we never know what life has in store, do we. My sympathies to you for whatever struggle you went through, and whatever reverberations still endure. Thanks for reading.

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  9. I was a member of Story Circle Network for years and what I know about memoir is that we all have stories to tell, ones that can benefit others as well as ourselves - and it is the damned hardest thing on earth to tell them! It takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable.

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  10. Dani: Thanks for that. The first time I read aloud from my memoir, even to a group of supportive women, I began shivering deep inside—as if dying from the exposure. I was author, the protagonist, and my life was the story—hard not to take the inevitable criticism, even constructive, literally "to heart." It's gotten easier, with time and practice.

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  11. Hi Kathryn, I like the way you have developed suspense in your blog. Nice storytelling touch. And I'm intrigued by your central concern about seeking permission to avoid a law suit. It sounds like you are getting closer to feeling it is ready to publish. Congratulations!

    You are right that memoir writers have to overcome great obstacles, but many of the problems are more psychological than legal. Some writers never want to break the taboo of complaining about a parent, and others are not sure they want every stranger for all time to know about some secret. My own issue (in addition to the usual one about wanting the book to be perfect), is the notion that I am revealing more about my friends' life style than I think is fair. I know it's "My Story" but I can't help thinking that I am dragging people into public view who have not necessarily signed up for it. I expect to eventually overcome this reluctance with a bit of rewriting, further discussions with my friends, and the blessing of everyone growing older.

    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

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  12. Your voice is strong, your words are healing. Your story is real and full of pain yet uplifting and hopeful. Your comments are wise and funny and compassionate!

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  13. Jerry: Thanks for stopping in. I knew you'd be interested to hear about this piece in my memoir puzzle. I hear you, it's a big question about what right we have to expose the others in our lives to such scrutiny—or even our scrutiny, conducted in such a public way. Yet the fact that the memoirist is willing to do so is what makes the form such a thrill.

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  14. I can't wait to read more. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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  15. Very interesting, especially so since I live next door in Bucks. Do hope to read this memoir one day.

    One thing--memoirists change names all the time. I wouldn't sweat that so much.

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  16. Wow! I am hooked already. I want to read more...both about how you decided how to handle the situation and what the situation actually was. Keep writing.

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  17. Damian: Hey, I now live in Bucks, too! The lawyer I spoke to suggested that changing the name does no good if the person is easily identified through other details, and it was those identifiable details that made this man's inclusion in my story so compelling. To lose the details was to lose the story. I had no choice but to ask.

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  18. Janice and girlseeksplace: Thanks so much for your kind words, and encouragement!

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  19. Wow great i have read many articles about this topic and everytime i learn something new i dont think it will ever stop always new info , Thanks for all of your hard work!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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