If you missed Part One, please click on the image below
and begin with Part One.
On the other hand, regarding my other writing project, I said my memoir is about me and about how I got this way.
One of the “ways” that I got to, scarcely anticipated, is the way of a Bible-believing, evangelical Christian.
Looking backwards in my memoir, naturally, I studied the family line which led to me and to that startling conversion.
The Lord was involved in my study. As I studied, He revealed things I needed to know, to say nothing of the revelation of the fact of Himself in the first place.
My memoir characterizes my father, who was a poet of lyric fire when it came to nature, God, mankind, death, and beauty. I know Dad’s religion. Dad is one generation back.
Dad was the middle of three children in a Minnesota family. Dad's father was a successful businessman in the meat packing industry at the beginning of the 20th century.
That successful business man, my grandfather, was two generations back. The third generation back was my great grandfather, who was a circuit-riding Methodist minister on the Great Plains during the late years of the 19th century.
As a Bible-believing, evangelical Christian writing about my family line, among other investigations, I desired to trace my family’s theological roots and its profession of Christian belief.
Of course, I know my father’s theological roots—one generation back—both from his talks with me and from his poetry. Also, I know about my great-grandfather’s theological roots—three generations back—partly by inference based on his profession, but partly also by my father’s stories about him.
But what about my grandfather—two generations back? The successful businessman: what was his religious awareness? His name was A.L. Eberhart.
One responsibility I had to the publisher of my memoir was to supply it with photographs, so—rather like an archivist—I pulled storage canisters from my barn in which my wife and I have placed family pictures, always with the thought that—soon enough—we should get around to the task of arranging them properly.
Now, if I really were my fictional archivist, instead of just feckless me, I should already have arranged the pictures properly. I should have studied their particularities, catalogued them, ordered them, preserved them, and made them available at a moment’s notice.
In one of the canisters, I came across a familiar item. I knew and liked this three-fold, leather, wallet-like holder of three lovely antique photographs.
The wallet is about four inches wide and six inches tall. When opened out flat, the three photographs are displayed side-by-side, each of them mounted on heavy cream-colored stock as was done in the early 20th century.
I have always liked the three photographs stored inside, which are skillfully done. On the right panel is a photograph of my father’s brother at about age two. On the left panel is a photograph of my father, also at about age two (though he is two years younger than his older brother).
The middle panel has the largest of the photographs. This is a profile picture of my father’s mother—my grandmother—who is revealed as a beautiful woman of about thirty. (It was in memory of my grandmother that my wife and I gave her name to our oldest daughter—Lena.)
After I had admired the photographs this one more time, I was about to put the wallet aside when I felt something odd.
The panel which displayed my uncle’s photograph was slightly thicker than the other two panels. Something was stuck inside the wallet behind the picture of my uncle. I prodded a bit, and out slid an envelope with a folded piece of paper inside.
I was amazed. This was eerie. My heart pounded. I had handled this wallet perhaps a dozen times during the past years. But now I was in precisely the same circumstance as my fictional archivist.
I examined the address on the envelope. I recognized the handwriting. It is the handwriting of my father’s father, of my grandfather, whose handwriting I had often seen in other documents.
The letter was sent from Austin, Minnesota, to my grandfather’s mother, who was at that time staying at Rosslyn Hotel in Los Angeles, on April 7, 1906…postmarked at 4:30 pm.
On the back of the envelope, a note is written in ink, also in my grandfather’s hand. The note says, “For Clara, September 13, 1929, A.L. Eberhart.”
My grandfather, the businessman, could not have known that the financial world would be rocked by cataclysm sixteen days later.
On that day in 1929, I surmise that my grandfather was filled with love and with commitment when he gave his important 1906 letter to Clara. Clara was the woman A.L. loved after he recovered from the sad death of his wife Lena, which had occurred in 1921.
I do not know how A.L. came to re-possess the letter he had sent to his mother in 1906, twenty-three years after he sent it originally, but he must have perceived the letter as precious, and perhaps Clara did so as well.
In those days, important family documents were tucked for safe keeping inside the family Bible. This important family document was similarly tucked away—though inside the icon of A.L.’s wife and his first two children and not the family Bible.
The text of the letter is treasure, as you will see. It is treasure to me—to A.L.’s memoir-writing, family-history imbibing, Christian grandson, into whose hand it would fall, in 2015, eighty-six years later.
With tender fingers, I extracted A.L.’s letter. It is written in pencil on heavy, cream-colored stock, seven inches by twelve inches, folded in half and then folded in four, in order to allow it to fit into the small envelope.
My grandfather wrote the words below when my father was two years old, and then he gave to Clara the words he had written, later, when my father was twenty-five.
The long-lost and then providentially revealed letter is a literary devise often employed by writers, myself included, for telescoping time--as I intend in The Pirate Book. In what is the actual way of the holy, God-filled universe in which I believe and today in which I thrive, A.L.’s words had been hidden away from view by everyone since sometime after he gave them to Clara--hidden away until it was time for them to be revealed to me, when my father would have been one hundred eleven.
April 15 – 1906
Dear Father & Mother:
This is Easter Sunday and this letter will relieve my conscience of one of its heaviest loads and I trust be the means of bringing much joy and happiness to you both. Ever since I backslid after my conversion in Chicago, I have feared that the death of one or both of you would deprive you of the joy of knowing before death that I again decided to serve Almighty God.
At a men’s meeting this afternoon Mr. Hormel and I went forward and publicly declared thereby to live a Christian life to the best of our ability in a meeting of [illegible] Sunday. There were 3000 men there and a number followed our example. I have attended almost every meeting for the past four weeks and have heard more sermons in that time than for the last fifteen years. It was either 1889 or 1890 that I was converted and since the termination of my short religious life of about a year I have never opened a bible or offered a prayer but on account of the early training you gave me, eternally branding on my conscience the difference between right and wrong and because of the simple, fearless presentation of God’s messages to man by Billy Sunday the Evangelist I will read from the bible tonight and pray to God to take me as I am.
You have waited long and patiently for me but now our family is a unit. I am going to begin at the bottom just as I did in business. I have been successful in business so I want you to give me some verses of scripture to read that will help me.
Lena has asked me to go forward with her and she is going tomorrow. Don’t expect too much of me at once for I have a big battle on for a while I am sure, but I have health and an iron will and will try and hold fast this time. Where is that verse “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ?” You have always prayed for me to keep on don’t quit I need them now.
With love from your son
The children are well--
Ah, my goodness!
Buried treasure indeed! Greater than pirate gold!
...and as you see, the photographs are not of pirates!
I’ve been writing a new novel, but very slowly. I haven’t published a novel for years. Considering the slowness with which I am writing this new novel, it won’t be published for years, either. Most likely, I'll publish more non-fiction first.
My working title for the new novel is The Pirate Book.
The protagonist of The Pirate Book is a present-day archivist who works at a 200-year-old seminary in Connecticut. The novel is structured as a story-within-a-story. Much of the action occurs among pirates in the late 17th century.
The story is kicked into action when the archivist finds an uncatalogued document hidden inside the binding of an antique, family memoir. The family memoir is an item stored in the seminary’s archives. The reason the memoir is stored in the seminary’s archives is that it recounts the history of a clan of 18th and 19th century missionaries, some of whom were graduates of the seminary many, many years before the present day.
The hidden document which the archivist finds is electrifying. It is electrifying because it casts a different light—and an unwelcome light—on the history of the missionary clan. It fundamentally re-characterizes the clan’s founding father.
As I said, I have not published a novel for years. On the other hand, a non-fiction book of mine—which is a memoir—was published recently.
In this new book of mine, obviously I am looking backward in time, it being a memoir. The book explores what happened during the first sixty years of my life, in order to establish a context for my introspection about how to anticipate my life’s remaining years.
My memoir is about how I got this way.
That being so, it does not surprise me that I began to write The Pirate Book at approximately the same time as I set down the first sentences of my memoir.
The two books—one fiction, one memoir—are powered by the same urgencies. The urgencies are, first, to uncover the truth of the past, and, second, to testify to the shadow which past truth casts upon the future.
My slowness at finishing The Pirate Book is due to the fact that, while I wrote both books concurrently for a short period of time, I needed to move back-and-forth between a fictional voice and my personal voice, at least to the extent that I allowed my personal voice to appear in my memoir.
Going back-and-forth was hard. In the end, I shelved The Pirate Book and finished my memoir.
Some pirates buried their treasure. One reason they sustain our interest, today, three hundred fifty years after their heyday, is their buried treasure.
It’s out there, even now, their treasure. What Caribbean beachcomber kicking up sand has not imagined the sudden glint of a doubloon, exposed after all these years by the flipping action of his toe?
In another iteration of the same wonder, what archivist has not imagined the corner of a lost, uncatalogued letter appearing from behind the illustrated plate in an old book, rarely taken from the shelf?
In me, regarding that last fantasy, the novelist’s imagination leaps into play—what does that letter say? Why was it hidden away? Who hid it? It must have been precious, that letter. Was it alarming as well? How does it affect the archivist—now, who reads it in our later day?
An archivist is a person who likes to read other people’s mail…but only at a comfortable distance in time.
Has the discovery of this letter compressed the 19th and the 21st centuries in some way, and how? What change of present historical understanding comes from that compression? Who among the characters of the novel, today, is hurt by the compression, and who is relieved? Which new walls are built up, and which old walls are torn down? Is there a revelation at hand?
Letters from the past affect people, down to the bone. The Pirate Book is about how the discovered letter affects both the missionary family and the archivist—and, this being fiction, about what happened next.
What of my memoir? Is there a parallel? Is there a blessing? Partially to quote an earlier post under the GOD heading, "Is there Someone on the other shore who will leap to fill me in?"
Learn more in Part Two.
By the way, just who are the people in the photographs?
I'll give you a hint.
They're not pirates!
To a non-writer, it might seem that writing a memoir is easy. You know what happened—just tell the truth.
Here’s a passage from a good writer that is on point.
The passage is on page thirty of the novel Lila by Marilynne Robinson. The protagonist of the novel is a young woman who scarcely ever talks, whom the reader does not yet know well. She is sitting, virtually silent, with an elderly minister in his kitchen, drinking coffee. He has just told her an event about angels.
She said, “I liked that story.”
He looked away from her and laughed. “It is a story, isn’t it? I’ve never really thought of it that way. And I suppose the next time I tell it, it will be a better story. Maybe a little less true. I might not tell it again. I hope I won’t. You’re right not to talk. It’s a sort of higher honesty, I think. Once you start talking, there’s no telling what you’ll say.
Read that last sentence again--Once you start talking, there’s no telling what you’ll say.
Most people don’t suffer under the burden of being writers. Truth in writing is more complicated than most people understand. Once we writers start talking—writing—there’s no telling what we’ll say.
What we writers say is for the good of the story we are telling. The good of the story we are telling becomes our motivation, which is paramount. Truth notwithstanding.
If the need of the story is for its protagonist to step off the porch and to trip over the cat, then that is what the protagonist does—even though the truth of the incident was that it was the bottom step of the inside staircase, and it was the dog.
Lila is a novel. Fiction is one thing; memoir is another. I write memoir. It’s harder.
For one thing, the people you write about in memoir are still alive, or they may be, and they have a right to privacy—which is true even if they’re dead. For another, you yourself have a right to privacy, even when you seem deliberately to have opened yourself up to scrutiny.
But the main difficulty about your memoir is that your memoir is not about you. Your memoir uses you to support its real subject. Its real subject is your theme for writing.
What are you writing about? Not you. Frankly, no one is much interested in you except a few friends and relations. It’s your theme that is of general interest—you hope.
Let’s say your memoir’s theme is how pet ownership has opened up your life to greater awareness of God. In that case, it really doesn’t matter if the accident was prompted by the porch and the cat or by the stairs and the dog. Either is relevant to the theme.
However, you know that it was the stairs and the dog, but you’re going to use the porch and the cat.
That’s the truth trouble, right there.
Why do you use the porch and the cat? You write that it was the porch and the cat because, later in your memoir, at the climax of your theme—when the awareness of God comes vividly upon you--that event actually did happen on the porch.
You decide you’ll use the porch and the cat for the accident so that your memoir, as a whole—rising as it does toward the God revelation—can occur on the porch, where it really did occur.
That’s the best way for the revelation scene to be literarily cohesive with the accident event.
It’s not easy.
How do you balance?
Or do you serve each of these needs at the same time by using techniques of fiction, without stepping across the line into fiction?
Readers of your book want to be excited by your memoir, not because it is about you, but—because of the gift you have made to them of your theme—it is about them.
Yes, you are providing detail about your life and your events, but their attraction to your memoir is that you have allowed them to think about themselves in new ways. Their lives and their events have been affirmed, or tested, or questioned, or balanced by what you have said about yours.
They are drawn into your memoir by this. But they stay inside your book because of what you have revealed to them about them.
Each draft of your story perfects your story, while each draft is a little less true. That’s because once you start to write your story, there’s no telling what you’ll say.