I talked a few weeks ago about giving yourself permission to tell your story and you absolutely have to do that if you’re going to write anything authentic and real and resonant. You can’t write with a chorus of real or imagined censors peering over your shoulder or shouting from inside your head. That being said, there often comes a moment (or two or three) in writing a memoir when you rub up against something that doesn’t feel comfortable to talk about, or doesn’t feel like it’s yours to tell. What do you do about such moments?
I have a client, Kate Spencer, who devised a really elegant and moving solution and I wanted to share it with you today.
I have been working with Kate on her memoir to be called Smoke: A Story of Love, Lies and Tobacco, for many, many months and many drafts. There is a moment in the story when several people die in quick succession, and it’s a heartbreaking, watershed moment for the narrator. One of the deaths is of a little boy Kate refers to as The Duckling. She kept skimming past it, and I kept putting comments like, “Can you tell us what happened here?” or “This comes and goes so quickly, can you let it breathe a little more?” I was worried that the reader would feel that the writer was withholding something – which she was.
Kate didn’t want to tell what happened to this boy. It’s a horrible story and she didn’t feel it was her place or her right to tell it. She had given herself permission to tell the larger story, but that permission stopped at this one fact. We discussed what to do, and Kate argued that she didn’t feel the facts of the death really mattered to the story. What mattered was that this child died. So that is exactly what she wrote.
The line that resulted is a perfect example of writing with authority – of owning the story and claiming it – without betraying anyone’s trust. It’s a perfect reminder that when writing memoir, you are picking and choosing the pieces of your life that will best tell the story. There is no “truth” – no one, right way to tell something. There is just your truth – and that is what Kate captured here. I highlighted the lines in question, below, so you can see what she did:
Five months after my father died, Frank died too.
Soon after, The Leading Man, the young, dashing father of the Duckling, was killed during his fourth tour of duty in Vietnam. What remained of his remains was identified by my brother, Mike. At The Leading Man’s funeral, Eyre was given a flag and The Leading Man, who had been a Green Beret, was given a 21-gun salute, the sound of the rifles cutting through the air like missiles. A lone soldier played Taps on his bugle. I knew the words by heart.
Day is done, gone the sun, from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
But not as nigh, not nearly as close as God ought to have been.
The Duckling died in a tragic accident some months later. Even if I knew the details of his death, they would not be mine to tell. But the death of a child is detail enough for anyone who loved that child.
The Duckling’s small blue coffin looked like a toy, some heartbreaking, grotesque mistake. It was the last time that my father’s children and my mother’s son, and my parents’ shared children all gathered together. It wasn’t, I think, a conscious decision, but rather, the only bearable way to go on.