by Jerry Waxler
I am reading two memoirs right now written by blacks about their journey through the 60’s. They are George Brummell’s Shades of Darkness, and Tommie Smith’s A Silent Gesture. They are two very different books, and reading them at the same time I can look for things that are different and things that are the same. Reading memoirs is a great way to learn about writing them.
Both of these books are about growing up poor and black in the segregated south. That’s proof that what was incredibly boring and mundane while you were living it as a child can years later become fascinating in your memoir. If the reader has never experienced that side of life, it gives a window into something they didn’t know. If the reader did experience those things, the book can evoke nostalgia, that fascinating emotion that transports us into our own memories. Since I’m not black, reading the history of these two black men during those times informs me of their individual struggles, and the eternal struggle that human beings have always fought against the oppressive confinement of a dominant culture. There is also a degree of nostalgia for me as I am transported back into that great swell of civil rights compassion that filled the boomers’ “first golden years” – the sixties.
The differences between the two books are also instructive. George Brummell’s book is written in scenes. You can visualize the events on every page, feeling the Vietnam battle scenes, and then feeling what it’s like to learn how to get around while blind. Like a work of fiction he brings you into the scene, but doesn’t comment on it, letting you walk in his shoes and draw your own conclusions. Tommie Smith’s book is almost the opposite, with relatively few scenes, and a great deal of discussion about what he was thinking and why he did things. The two different styles could help you see for yourself how to build (or not build) suspense and emotional intimacy with your reader.