by Jerry Waxler
Beth Kephart has a knack for generously sharing the way she sees the world, not only observing what goes on outside, but also letting us in to her inner world, as well. In fact, a good deal of the power of her memoir “Slant of Sun” lies in her obsession to know as much about what goes on inside her son’s mind as her own. Learning about inner worlds is a good reason to read “Slant of Sun,” and might be a good reason for someone to read your memoir. Here are two more lessons, from my series on things you can learn about memoir writing from “Slant of Sun.”
Emergence of Language and Self-awareness
Beth is worried about her son’s incessant pacing. In fact, she is terrified. Psychologists warn her that if she lets him have his way, the obsessions will take deep root and will control him forever. But when she tries to stop him from pacing he panics, fights, and struggles, desperate to continue. She doesn’t know whether to trust the experts or listen to her love. Later, when he is old enough to speak, he says to her, “I need to pace long enough to finish the movie that is playing in my mind.” His explanation relieves some profound desire to understand him. The first wave of relief is hers, but in the process, she gives the same gift to the reader. I am so grateful to him (and her) for helping me understand how such a compulsion could be explained in simple terms. It is a stunning example of the birth of a child’s language, the birth of introspective explanation.
Jeremy was using his words to explain his actions, and that’s what memoir writers do, too. Your whole memoir is an attempt to describe how your life works, from inside your point of view. Go deep and stay fresh and amaze your readers with descriptions of your inner life the way Jeremy explained his actions to his mom.
Spirituality of a child
Jeremy wants to see God, and cries and begs his mother to explain how this will ever happen. Then he realizes that he has upset her, and he switches from concern about himself to concern about her. The scene ends with him trying to console her, telling her that it’s okay if she doesn’t know the answer yet.
This scene made me wonder if children might be closer to God. After all, they did recently emerge into the world. Perhaps they remember a little about what it’s like over there. And if they do, then perhaps occasionally their mothers open up to that awareness, as well. In a beautifully written scene, Beth Kephart lets us participate in just such an event. When Jeremy shares his fantasy world with his mother, she leans in closer and closer, until for a moment she pops over into an altered consciousness. It’s a compelling instance of that transcendent state described in religious and spiritual accounts and in some memoirs.
Another glimpse of a mystical experience with a child is in Martha Beck’s “Expecting Adam” about her Down Syndrome son. In Matthew Polly’s memoir, “American Shaolin,” he explores the possibility that transported moments are more common than we realize. Memoirs could open a door to these hidden moments.
Write about an imaginative or transcendent experience, for example when you were a child or with a child. Such a scene might be hard to remember, since I believe most of us file them away in dark corners, with the label “never tell this to anyone.” Following Kephart’s example, retrieve one of those silent memories, and turn it into words.
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 step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.