Post #69 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Arranging a Visit
As you may know, I am spending a month in Hawaii. This is the perfect place to go when you want to get a lot of writing done, when you want to take long walks each day, and when you have had enough of Oregon rain to last you for the winter. We’re well settled into a condo overlooking the Pacific Ocean where we have our computers set up and where we fix most of our meals. We even have fireworks each Friday evening easily visible from our tiny balcony. Talk about perfect.
As a friend said to me yesterday in an email responding to my news of being in Hawaii: “Matilda, I don’t want to hear any whining out of you for a loooong time.” And indeed she won’t.
Since I’ve lived on the West coast for 40-plus years, I think of Hawaii as a luxury, but one that I can indulge in with some frequency. It’s my version of a dark chocolate bar — good for you but not to be taken in excess. Meanwhile, we have good friends who live on the East coast. They visit us once a year and we’ve done some grand travels together. Last year, I learned that my friend has never been to Hawaii. I just couldn’t imagine it since Hawaii is my all-time favorite place to be. At first, I thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. I began hounding her husband that he should take her to Hawaii for her 80th birthday. I talked about it so much when we were together last July that I think I finally spoiled the surprise. They celebrated in January (her actual birthday month) in Maryland, but will join us in a few days to continue the celebration of her 80th year in Hawaii.
This means we’ve been thinking about all the places we want to take them. But it is more than just a list of places, it is also how we will arrive at those places. For example, our condo is near a beautiful, expansive park with crashing Pacific surf on one side and graceful swaying palm trees on the other. We know that they will enjoy walking there with us. But if we walk there from our condo, as we always do, she will have to walk past a lot of trash in a vacant lot as well as a couple of homeless men. Instead, we think we’ll drive them to the park and then take a long stroll.
There is a great local coffee house that serves only Hawaiian grown coffee and carries locally made chocolate. This is definitely something we want to do with our friends. We have figured out a shortcut to get there but it takes us through two alleys with overfilled garage bins and across a street at such an angle that we have to climb over a lava stone wall to arrive at the front door. We have decided to take them the long way that lets us approach from the beach side and even see a sculpture out front — a massive granite stone carved into a ring of fire.
Of course, these are just small approaches to be managed as if they were floral arrangements -fussing with each flower until it faces just the perfect way and angle. But the same is true for our bigger adventures outside Honolulu — the Polynesian Cultural Center, Dole Plantation, North Shore, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, and more. One road we used to take to the east side of the island was in poor condition. Should we take it and hope for the best or should we take the H1 until we can pick up the H3 (a highway we’d never used before) even though that is a longer way? Yesterday was our day to drive the possible routes and see which would give our friend the best memories of her first trip to Hawaii.
Arranging Your Life Story
As we drove yesterday, I got to thinking about memoir writing and how it is similar to our planning efforts. A life is full of events just as Hawaii is full of spectacular adventures. A life needs to be shaped to fit into a memoir and it occurred to me that the approach to the life also needed to be carefully considered.
Look at the memoir you want to write or are in the midst of writing. Consider your approach to the story. You may be using memory shortcuts that make perfect sense to you. But does that leave the reader standing at the backdoor with no idea what the front looks like? This idea of the approach to your life will take on different meanings depending on what your life has been like and where you already are in your writing.
This idea of the approach to your life is easy to ignore because it requires some deep thinking not about the writing part but about the receiving part. Remember that if you are writing for an audience broader than one (and many people rightfully write just for themselves as a form of healing), then you need to spend time seeing how readers approach. You want to layout your story in a way that the reader can easily follow the path and make sense of the roadsigns.
This does not mean that you should “pretty-up” your memoir. It does mean that you should include in the approach to your life only the details that make a difference and that show your reader what your life was like. Have plenty of details, just make them ones that build the image you hope to share with your reader. Think of your life as the destination for your reader. How do you want her to get there?
And One More Thing
You can’t control everything. A reader may skip a chapter or jump to the end. Or the reader may start your book in one month, get distracted or busy, and not finish it until six months later. You have no control over those factors just as I can’t control all the experiences that my friend will have on her first visit to Hawaii. For example, I’d love to arrange a double rainbow on her first morning here just as we had a double rainbow visible outside our balcony on our first morning this time. But I can’t. And so it is with your readers. All you can do is try to set up the telling of your life story in a way that invites the visitor to your life to see your experiences with as much clarity as possible.