Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Wordcraft – So you think you want to write a memoir?

As is appropriate for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), posts at this site have explored several writing genres. And although memoirs are hardly considered novels, the artful memoirist will shape her narrative with the same care a novelist devotes to a story. So it was only appropriate that the recent meeting of the Writers Guild of Texas focused on prize-winning local writer Drema Hall Berkheimer and her debut memoir, Running on Red Dog Road: And Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood.

Drema Hall Berkheimer
“I am the child of a coal miner father who was killed in the mines, of a Rosie the Riveter mother. I’m a child of Appalachia,” Berkheimer told her audience at the Richardson, Texas, library.

Appalachia (pronounced by natives, ap-uh-LATCH-ah) isn’t a place that that gets much respect. It’s full of the blue-collar workers and out of work coal miners that establishment types overlooked in this year’s presidential election. “When people find out you’re from Appalachia,” Berkheimer said, “they subtract 100 points from your IQ. I don’t think that’s true – it’s probably just 75 points.”

Stretching from the mountainous, coal-rich regions from mid-Atlantic states to the upper South, Appalachia is a land of contrasts – “bone-deep poverty as well as places of haunting beauty,” a place Berkheimer thought she had left the region behind when her family moved in her adult years. Wanting her children and grandchildren to see its beauty, she enshrined it in words, but didn’t forget its rigors. The “red dog” of her memoir’s title isn’t a friendly pet – it’s the slag produced by the burning of waste coal and the shale scraped from the mines. In Berkheimer’s childhood in the 1940’s, “red dog” was used to top roads. Falls on the hard, sharp surface were so painful parents admonished their children not to run on it. Of course, they did.

“I keep a piece of red dog on my desk,” Berkheimer said. “It is my touchstone.”

Her childhood, she insists, was idyllic, so “why then was writing about it so soul-searing? It was the best thing I’ve ever done. It is also the hardest. So don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Berkheimer cautioned.

Of all literary genres, memoir is the one that most demands deep emotional truth. It’s also one of the hardest to sell, tending to get swamped in a morass of memoirs about the horrifying and grotesque. What can a writer do to make an ordinary life – although Berheimer believes no life is really ordinary – stand out?

One necessity is that emotional honesty she writes about, easier to say than to experience. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” she said, quoting poet Robert Frost’s dictum as she proclaimed writing memoir as “a form of self-torture.” It’s a journey of discovery that should surprise the writer as much as the reader. “I don’t think I really knew how I felt about (the people in my family) until I wrote about them. I write to know what I feel.”

That kind of emotional honesty demands the reader’s total immersion in the story, with details, please, and more details. But only those that really count. And where do the details come from?

Some writers (David Sedaris has noted that he is one) keep daily, detailed journals. But for those of use, like Berkheimer, who haven’t kept extensive diaries, how much detail is it possible to remember years, even decades after the events we write about? Fortunately, our minds are able to store information, even of scenes we didn’t consciously realize we remembered.

“I was surprised again and again as I dredged 70-year-old details up,” Berkheimer said, “sometimes of things I didn’t even know I remembered.”

Which brings up the age-old dilemma for memoirists – how much of what we write is “truth” in the most factual sense? Is it possible to accurately remember entire conversations years later?

“People have asked me – is that the truth or did you just make it up,” Berkheimer said. Her answer: both. “Every story happened, but the memories are . . . seen and remembered through my eyes as a child.”

She and her brother and sister went numerous times to the carnival that toured their town every year. Was the year her sister got sick on the Ferris wheel the same year Berkheimer had a shocking revelation on the midway? Both happened, but whether simultaneously or not is not the kind of truth she seeks to uncover.

Similar problems arose as she tried to reconstruct conversations. Were those the actual words Grandmother spoke on that occasion, or have they become fused with words spoken so often that their exact date has faded in memory? Berkheimer’s solution: “I didn’t (always) know what they said, but I knew what they likely would have said.” Although when she reports her Pentecostal grandmother saying, of a neighboring snake-handling sect, “The Bible says if you have enough faith, you can pick up serpents and not be harmed, but I don’t think God’s going to be offended if I don’t take him up on it,” the words ring true no matter what date they were uttered.

One thing Berkheimer modestly omitted mentioning as a necessity for memoir writing: the quality of the writing itself is essential. This doesn’t mean flowery or self-consciously poetic language. Berkheimer’s tends to be as spare as the people and places she writes about, writing honed by hard work.
For more about Berkheimer, her life and work, see her site. For my review of Running on Red Dog Road, see “A hardscrabble life, beautifully remembered” at this site, May 10, 2016.

No comments:

Post a Comment