Beth Kephart, memoir about living and dying with untreated small cell lung cancer, memoir form, memoir-in-pieces form
My second book, our experience of my husband’s terminal small cell lung cancer, is on its final trajectory toward completion. I started it with his first warning sign that something was awry. And hope to have it published by the holidays.
In Part One, Refusing Treatment, I describe how the book is structured: “…my story continues with excerpts from personal notes, emails to family and friends, and blog posts–perspectives ranging from private to public, periodically on the same events–that I started on that January day in 2018.”
Even though not a conventional memoir form, I’ve never questioned the way I chose to organize the book. The structure came generically from my experience. For example, I’d jot down notes from a doctor’s visit, then convey the essence of that to family and friends in emails, and, at some point, summarize our experience to my blog readers in the form of blog posts. It was my way of keeping folks informed and also my way of processing our experience through different forms of writing and at different levels of intimacy.
So it may appear disjointed. Or with overlap. I did not see this as a serious problem. Think of how you personally experience a life-threatening experience. First, very privately. Then you venture out and share with a few family members or friends. And, if you have a public audience, you reframe your experience a bit more to what you want to share.
You can imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I received the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction (Issue 73, Fall 2020) and read an article titled “Honoring the Seams: The Memoir-in-Pieces.” Author Beth Kephart acknowledges that in writing memoir “we forget too much, and we’re overwhelmed by what we remember.” She says we work hard to remember our lives, but writing it all down can “seem less true when we present them as one breathless continuum.”
She asks, “But what if we allow our writing to reflect the fragmented nature of life itself?”
Kephart proceeds to give examples of several memoirs that use varying forms, each an example of being “assembled in pieces” and most still following chronological order. The advantages she cites include:
- Unnecessary things are absent from the pages.
- There are no forced transitions.
- It welcomes new versions, new interpretations.
- White spaces produce an effect that is greater than any continuous narrative line.
- It’s the “plasticity” of this form “that makes it difficult to define–and so very liberating to write.”
She summarizes what she teaches her students, some of which I share here:
- “Watch your white space and fretworks. Trust the unsaid things to remain unsaid. Trust the silence to speak through the seams.”
- Place scenes “in conversation with each other; make them refractive, reflective, and porous. Think of iterations and not additions.”
I wish, of course, I’d had this article before I started. But I see similarities with what I’ve done. Rather than see duplication of content when I tell my stories from the private to the public, I can see them as iterative, something I’m working through as I go along.
Kephart also gives encouragement to the would-be writer when she describes one of her examples as being simply “snatches of a grandmother’s history” or “shavings of memory and clippings of time.” So don’t be afraid to write!
She concludes with, “Write the truest thing in the most true way. That’s our job, as truth seekers.”
I believe I’ve done that. Stay tuned.
Can’t wait to read it, Lois!
Sent from my iPad
Lois Roelofs said:
Mary Mann said:
Congrats on your book. I’m happy for you.
Lois Roelofs said:
Thanks, Mary. It’s good to get the experience out of my head and into paper. I tried to comment (favorably) on your last post and WP wouldn’t let me! Will try again next time.
This helps. It’s such a personal process and it helps to have new pathways to explore.
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