by Jerry Waxler
After you live for a few decades, you look back and find you have learned many lessons from your own School of Hard Knocks. When you read a memoir you have the privilege of attending someone else’s school, learning what they learned, gaining some of their wisdom. You can look back on their experience, too, and learn more from it in retrospect than you learned the first time.
In this post, I wrap up the last of the twenty lessons I found in Beth Kephart’s Slant of Sun. I have delved into this enjoyable, well-written book, a process I have grown accustomed to. After reading a memoir, I go back and consider it again. I hope you will do the same. By studying the lessons that other people learned in their School of Hard Knocks, you will gain the skill and courage to offer readers an insider look at your own.
Slant of Sun is a great example of a buddy book!
A mom loves her only son. They hang out together and share many, many hours. She is constantly trying to understand him. But this memoir is not a biography of him. It is about their relationship. He is important in relation to her and vice versa. They are buddies.
I notice certain, noteworthy features of books in which the protagonist is tightly focused on one other character. In addition to understanding each individual, you are also learning about the way they relate to each other. The relationship becomes a sort of third character. Look at how close these two are. He actually emerged from her body, and relies on her every minute, as intimate as a relationship can be. Slant of Sun focuses so tightly on this one other character, she subtitled the book One Child’s Courage.
Another example of a buddy book is Courage to Walk about Robert Waxler’s love and concern for his adult son. When I first read Courage to Walk I was surprised by the author’s attempt to get inside his son’s head. Now, after reading “Slant of Sun” I see the similarity. Obsessing on your child’s thoughts is part of being a parent.
Two more examples of buddy memoirs involve non-human friends: Alex and Me about Irene Pepperberg’s relationship with a parrot, and Marley and Me about John Grogan’s relationship with his dog.
Some relationship books show the dark side of interpersonal connections. Consider the destructive relationship between Leslie Morgan Steiner and her abusive husband in Crazy Love.
What individual in your life might make a strong character that would carry a chapter, or two, or an entire book? Try writing that person’s profile and a description of the relationship. What was your connection? How close were you? How did you treat each other? How much did you think about that person?
At the end of a story, the author’s job is to build a bridge to help the reader return from the world inside the book back out into the real world. This last segment is called the denouement. The end of memoirs can sometimes be a lesson learned, or a segue forward in time, taking the narrator from the younger life in the memoir out into the life of the memoir writer.
In Beth Kephart’s denouement, she shares her concern about the medical, family and community response to children in Jeremy’s situation, and the difficulties for a young mother of a child with special needs. Despite the fact that she isn’t an expert, I welcome her views. In my opinion, she has earned the right to speak authoritatively about the child mental health care system.
Many memoir authors take advantage of the denouement to offer lessons that have resulted from experience. At the beginning of the memoir, Here if You Need Me Kate Braestrup loses her husband in a freak auto accident. During the following years, she goes to school to become a minister, and then works for the Maine State Game Wardens, helping comfort survivors of deadly accidents and crimes. By the end of the book, Braestrup earns the right to draw conclusions about the most profound topics of good and evil, life and death.
In Three Little Words, Ashley Rhodes Courter describes her upbringing in the foster care system. By the end, she is speaking to groups to help raise awareness about improving the foster care system.
What conclusion have you drawn from the experiences in your memoir? Write a synopsis of these lessons, and consider if they might work at the end of your book, to share with readers things that they might be able to use. This “lessons learned” ending is especially relevant if you intend to give talks to audiences who might be interested in applying your experience in their own lives.
People age. Books don’t.
When I read Slant of Sun I was bonding with Beth and her son in an earlier time frame. Which is a strange bit of time travel, because it is 15 years later, and their lives have moved on. When I ask her questions about the book, in the interview which I will post next, I can feel her striving valiantly to return to that earlier time. Unlike a fiction writer, who can leave her characters behind, a memoir writer continues to live with her characters, forever.
Last year I read Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filopovic. She was 11 when she was catapulted to fame by the diary she kept of her experience in the war in Sarajevo. Ten years later, when I read the book, she was in college. I reached out to ask her a few questions and she politely declined. She wanted to grow up.
Even though we aspiring memoir writers cannot see the future, and don’t know what it will feel like to publish a book that captures a part of ourselves, these are good questions to ask yourself. Once a memoir is out in the world, you will have to live with it for a long time. As another memoir author, Bill Strickland, (Ten Points) told me in an interview, that someone came up to him and started talking about his past. The first time it happened he was horrified by the intrusion. Then he remembered, “No wonder they know. I told them.”
Write an imaginative story about what it will feel like in ten years when a reader asks you about a passage in your ten year-old memoir.
You’re neither too old nor too young
You don’t have to be old to write a memoir. Beth Kephart was in her thirties when she wrote hers. Another of my favorite memoirs, Publish This Book was written by 24 year old, Stephen Markeley. And don’t worry about being too old, either. The Invisible Wall was written by 93 year-old Harry Bernstein. Forget your age. Write the story.
Here are links to all the parts of my multi-part review of Slant of Sun by Beth Kephart and an interview with the author:
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.