by Jerry Waxler
In the memoir “Slant of Sun,” a mother notices her child is more withdrawn than other kids. He sits alone for hours arranging toy cars, and furiously resists new situations and people. Jeremy is Beth Kephart’s first child. She is madly in love with him, and thinks everything he does is wonderful, but soon she realizes he needs to move along.
Her journey to help her son enter the game of life abounds with courage, psychological sleuthing, and love. It is a warm coming of age story of two people: Jeremy’s development into childhood, and his mother’s maturity as the shepherd of her son. I learned so much from reading the book that I think it would make an excellent self-study or teacher-led training manual for memoir writers. In this and the following posts, I share 20 lessons I learned from the book, and offer suggestions about how you can apply these ideas to your own memoir.
Truth in memoirs, Part 1. Sincere voice
One of the reasons I dove so enthusiastically into Slant of Sun is because of Beth Kephart’s voice. All the components of her written voice, her choice of words, phrases, and sentences, make me feel like I’ve known her for years. If my best friend told me a story, I wouldn’t put up any walls of doubt. Nor would I resist this author’s story. Her ease and spontaneity draws me into her world.
An authentic, sincere voice is an important goal for any memoir writer. But voice is a subtle quality without specific rules. Here’s one exercise: write an anecdote as if you were telling a best friend. Or call a friend, and turn on the recorder while you tell them your anecdote. Then look for phrases in your speech that might add a sense of intimacy to the written version. Another exercise is to write the same anecdote in your journal as if it was only for you. Look for intimacies in your private version that might make the public version more personal and believable.
Truth in Memoirs Part 2: Messy Emotions and Self Reflection
Another way memoirs convince us of their authenticity is through a sort of organic messiness. When Beth Kephart shares her worries, confusions, thoughts and daydreams, she takes me deeper into her psyche than I would expect in a fictional character. Fictional characters are sometimes wonderful and deep, but I know they only go as far as the author’s imagination. Real characters go on and on, into the depth and breadth of real life. I want the memoir to let me see the lack of boundaries, to show me the infinitude of individuality. The entire book is one big example of this principle. Here are a couple of passages that show her humanity, sharing her motherly obsession about her son’s thinking process.
“when Jeremy stares at length at the pictures in books, at the fire trucks and, increasingly, at the cars on the floor, at the mix of light radiating in through the window, [I want to believe] it’s poetry he’s thinking about. Something too resplendent to share.” [Pg 51]
“Without an obsession he’s forlorn and empty. He gets tangled in his tasks at home. He forgets to look us in the eye. It doesn’t occur to him to start a conversation. He gives fewer lectures. He’s less engaged in what we’re saying.” [Pg 111]
Instead of trying to polish your emotions, reveal their rough edges. Consider times when you worried without basis, or did something that made you feel flaky. Share these errors with your readers. The imperfection or spontaneity of your inner reality helps readers relate to you. Counter-intuitive though it may be, your flaws can give your character more authority, rather than less.
Some astonishingly vivid, unique visual images,
Mother and son go shopping for a hat and Jeremy selects a big green one. He loves it so much he demands she buy it. Then he refuses to take it off. People comment on how inappropriate it looks. Someone points to the hat and makes a gesture pulling a knife across the throat indicating “kill it.” On the cover of the book, there is even a wonderful photo of a boy wearing a bright green hat. Another beautiful visual object in the book was a hand crafted wooden car. I can see its “buttery surfaces” in the palm of the kind man who made it for Jeremy.
Describe a particular object that had meaning for you.
In following blog posts I will continue the list of lessons that I drew from Slant of Sun and suggestions for you, as well.
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 short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.