Next in this new series called Writing Lessons, my guest teacher is Katrina Kenison, a writer whose work is beloved by her readers. Smart, provocative, and beautifully written, her books teach us about ourselves while we read scenes from her life. Here, Katrina writes about how to tell the truth while writing memoir. She is part of a group of fine writers you will meet here, all of whom are going to teach us a thing or two about our favorite genre. Each entry in Writing Lessons includes a piece on how to write memoir, an excerpt, and a chance to win the featured book. Read to the end for more.
How to Tell The Truth in Memoir
by Katrina Kenison
“Wow. Really. That’s not the way I remember it at all,” my husband said, shaking his head in disbelief after reading a chapter in which I untangled the complex reasoning behind our decision to sell our house in the suburbs, uproot our children, and move to the country.
“Mom! I can’t believe you put my black sweatshirt in your book! Now everyone’s going to think I was a Goth in seventh grade!” my son Jack protested when he discovered I’d written about a particular oversized garment with long, dangling sleeves and a capacious hood that he’d insisted on wearing to school every day for six months.
“That wasn’t the World Series; it was actually the post-season play-offs,” my son Henry informed me, upon reading a passing reference in my manuscript to a baseball game on TV.
“You never put chocolate-chip eyes into bear-shaped pancakes,” both of my sons pointed out after attending a reading during which I referred to an old Saturday morning tradition in our family. “Raisin eyes, but not chocolate chips.”
“I just don’t want everyone to hate you,” my friend Carol said in response to some pages about the death of a dear mutual friend. “And I’m afraid if you write about her, it will feel too much like you’re trying to own her, when in fact we all loved her, too.”
Welcome to the world of the memoir writer. A world in which everyone has their own version of the truth, but you are the only one sitting alone in a room, day after day, crafting your version of the truth into a story.
I wasn’t surprised my husband’s memories didn’t exactly match mine; we don’t pay attention to the same things. The two of us can sit across the table from each other at breakfast and each have a completely different experience of the meal: he’s tunneling through a bowl of oatmeal, lost in the New York Times; I’m eating a banana and noticing that the kitchen windows need washing. It’s not that one version of breakfast is true and one isn’t; what’s true is that we are each having different experiences.
As for my younger son, he’d had his chance to censor me: I’d asked him if he wanted to read my manuscript before I sent it to the publisher, but he didn’t bother. A year later, when he finally took a look at the chapter about him, the black sweatshirt was both preserved in print and ancient history; the book was published and he’d moved on to fitted tee shirts in bright primary colors. But Jack made a request that day – no more writing about him without his permission. And since I value my relationship with my son more than any book contract, I agreed.
Henry’s minor baseball correction, I made. Gratefully.
Chocolate chips vs. raisins was a little more complicated. I often did make bear-shaped pancakes. And sometimes, under pressure, I stirred in some chocolate chips. I think the kids are probably right though; the eyes were raisins. But the cadence of my sentence worked better with two words instead of one. I went with chocolate chips simply for the rhythm. Reason enough to nudge the facts just a little? I think so. My sons, however, are sticklers when it comes to the details of their childhoods.
And what to do about my friend’s concern that if I wrote about the death of someone dear to us both, I would be resented for it, as if I were somehow stealing everyone else’s grief and claiming it for my own? I took a long deep breath. I thanked her. And then I took the risk.
Writing about my own life means that I must also write about the people who are in my life, the very people I love most in the world – my family, my neighbors, my friends. Every memoir is, to some degree, a story of relationships. But to write memoir is also to stand alone, shouldering the burden of truth. Truth not as arrived at by consensus, but truth as I know it and experience it myself. And the truth, as I’ve learned the hard way, is rarely simple.
I am honest in my writing about my own inner struggles, self-doubts, mistakes, and shortcomings. If a narrative is strengthened by my willingness to be vulnerable, then I gather up my courage and step naked onto the page. But just because I’m baring my own soul doesn’t give me a free pass to expose someone else’s in the process. This is where truth hits up against trust.
I write what’s true for me, in a way I hope also honors the experience of those I’m writing about. When in doubt, I err on the side of kindness. I give my subject the pages to read well in advance of publication, and I ask for, if not exactly approval, consent. I willingly change names. I correct factual errors. I remove words that cause pain or embarrassment. I acknowledge, right up front, that our individual memories and experiences are almost certainly different, and that that’s okay – this is simply one version of reality.
And yet, I also know there’s a grain of validity in what my friend said. Putting words to an experience is also a way of owning it: This is what happened. This is how I felt. This is what I thought. This is what I’ve learned. And, for better or worse, this is the rendition of the truth that will survive, because it happens to be the one that got written down.
I have a responsibility to my reader to tell it like it was and a responsibility to myself to get it right. But I feel an even greater responsibility to the innocent bystanders who, simply by virtue of being part of my life, run the risk of becoming characters in my writing as well: to do no harm. So, I draw a big, invisible circle of protection around my loved ones, and I then do my best to write right up to the edge of it, but not to overstep. Most of the time, I do get it right. But not always. Writing about the living (or the dead, for that matter) is always a risky business, no matter how pure one’s intentions. We venture into the territory of memoir, and wrestle with the truth, at our own peril.
And so, I remind myself: Write on. Proceed with caution.
Magical Journey, An Apprenticeship in Contentment, an excerpt
She’s been gone three months, but I’m still not used to the world without Marie in it. Missing her, I sift through memories, as if by recalling the details that made her who she was, I might somehow keep my friend close. I can almost summon her: the warmth of her voice, her quick smile and lively brown eyes, her slim, competent hands and her peony-pink pedicured toes, the way she danced with joyous abandon to “Love Shack” on New Year’s Eve, drove fearlessly through Boston traffic, stretched her fingers to the sky in triangle pose.
But no matter how hard I try to conjure the essence of Marie, I can’t fill in all the empty spaces. The stark, absolute absence of her—of her life, her face, her hello on the other end of the phone, her name popping up in my e-mail box, her presence here on earth—has begun to grow, as Sylvia Plath put it, “beside me like a tree.” I live in the dark shadow of that loss, the shape and color of my own life changed by the too-early end of hers. And I know now, in a way I never quite did before, that time is contingent and that anything can happen.
A little over a year before Marie died, we went hiking in the White Mountains. The trip was her idea; she wanted a change of scenery and, as she said, to spend a couple of days “where the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning isn’t the fact that I have cancer.” That wasn’t easy anywhere, but a remote hut on the top of a mountain with four women friends for company seemed like a good place to try.
“Bruce is pissed,” she told us as she adjusted her backpack in the parking lot, dismissing her husband’s objection to her adventure as a bit of unnecessary fuss. “But there was no way I wasn’t going to do this. He’s worried about what could happen if I have some reaction to this new drug. Well, if I do, I’ll turn around.” Then she said, with typical matter-of-factness, as if willing it to be so, “I’ll be fine.” And she was.
Although we were prepared to take it slow on the way up, there was no need. Marie never did want anyone waiting around or changing a plan on her account. She’d been in the hospital that morning, had had her blood drawn for tests and received the first round of yet another experimental treatment. No longer holding out an expectation for a cure, she wasn’t about to abandon all hope either, and so she’d become a willing pioneer in uncharted medical territory, game to sign on for any clinical trial willing to admit an advanced stage-four ovarian cancer patient. If some untested drug held the possibility of stalling the disease for a while longer and buying her so much as another season of life—another child’s birthday, or a walk on the beach, or a trip to the farmers’ market—she was there.
On this day, she’d put in her time at the doctor’s office; now, she didn’t want to be treated like an invalid, or to think about her husband’s fears, or to consider the fact that this might be the last hike she ever took. She just wanted to climb a mountain and enjoy the scenery and laugh with her friends.
About Katrina Kenison
I let the writers compose their own bios. Here’s hers:
I am a wife, a mother, a friend, a life-long reader, a list maker, a recovering perfectionist, an inveterate seeker. When my two sons were small, I constantly had to remind myself: if I raced through my life, I’d miss it. I wanted time to enjoy my children as children, time to play games on the floor, daydream, and read aloud at bedtime. Writing became a way to stay in touch with my wiser self, a chance to pause each day and make sure I was fully present to the right here, right now of my own fleeting, precious, imperfect, everyday life. I’ve traced the seasons of family life through three books: Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry, The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother’s Memoir, and Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment. And in the process I’ve learned to celebrate the beauty of ordinary days and to savor the pleasure of small moments well lived. Like most of us, I still spend too much time regretting past mistakes and worrying about things that are out of my hands, but I’ve also found solace and contentment in life’s simple pleasures: stillness, friendship, good books, time with family, a walk in the woods. I write each week about life, reading and writing, and parenting at http://www.katrinakenison.com
HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, in each installment the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons, this week with the great Kate Richards.
The winner of the Katrina Kenison book is Deborah West. Congratulations, Deborah! I’ll be in touch to send your book.