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.
Memoir writing is dreaming backwards.
Eleven years ago, my father became one hundred years old. When Dad turned one hundred, my wife and I had no grandchildren yet. We hoped we might have grandchildren someday—after all, we had produced four children, so the prospect of grandchildren was bright. However, whenever our grandchildren did come along, they would not be able to sit with this man, my father, the poet, who was one hundred years old. Dad would be gone by then. Our grandchildren could read his poetry, they could view him in pictures, but they would not be able to know him as I knew him.
So I sat down at my desk, and I began writing stories about my dad, and about my mom, and about how it all was. In order to write these stories, I discovered, also I needed to write stories about Dad’s and Mom’s own parents, and about how it all was for them, too. The more stories I wrote down, the more stories I remembered, and the more stories I remembered, the more dangerous this process became. I was dreaming backwards, with emphasis on the word dreaming.
You see, I am a writing sort of a fellow. In order to understand my life as I live it, I objectify it. This is not a choice of mine; it’s the way I’m wired. My psyche places me outside my life, while I live my life fully. From outside, I observe the themes of my life, upon which I mull. And as I mull the themes, I order my memories so that they illustrate and they dramatize the themes. It’s a circle—it’s what I mean by dreaming backwards. When we dream, we are both receiving something from our outside and creating something from our inside at the same time. That’s why dreams fascinate, though they are not real.
As I wrote my stories down about my parents and about their parents, I was dreaming backwards. My father, the poet, was called “Dreamy Dick” when he was a boy, and the apple does not fall far from the tree.
Dreaming backwards is dangerous because it may fool the dreamer. It may make the dreamer believe that the created story of the past is the past. However, that is not so. The past is ungraspable—it is past. If you are writing a memoir, the people of the past are unable to tell you, now, if you are wrong in your memory. The people of the past are unable to chide you when you order your memories for the purpose of dramatizing your themes…at their expense.
To the casual observer, writing a memoir probably seems easy enough. After all, you know the stories—just write them down. But memoir writing is a razor-edged endeavor. The writer of a memoir has a responsibility which is weighty. If the writer fails to balance precisely between self-enhancement and self-abnegation there is a danger of falling and of being cut. A memoir—this is what I have concluded—a memoir should be a kind of prayer by which the writer expresses, highest among all things, humility.
As an example of my desire to live in a past which I did not possess myself, here’s a memory. I loved my father partly because of the past he had lived in before me. I could dream my way into his experiences when something of his experience touched mine; I was ten-years-old and a warrior.
Dad had been a naval officer during World War II. His principle responsibility was training young gunners on navy bombers the necessary marksmanship, with their .50-caliber double-barrel machine guns, to survive strafing attacks by Japanese Zeros, and to shoot the Zeros down instead. After the war was won, Dad kept his target kites.
Choose any summer day, when I was ten. Maybe on that day we’d take Dad’s elegant old cabin cruiser out onto the ocean in Maine, and we’d go to Pond Island, along with a swarm of smaller craft, some fifty of our closest friends and us. We’d have a boatload of clams, lobsters, and cod fish, also corn, potatoes, salads, pies. (I’d be especially proud if I’d caught the cod the day before while drop-lining near Saddleback Ledge.) The hour would be early, still cool, with a light air from the south, no fog. I’d handle the anchor at the island, following Dad’s directions. Several trips would be needed in the launch to ferry all our equipment to the shore.
Then, on the south side of the island, we’d dig a deep clambake pit in the sand, line it with stones, fill it with drift wood, and set a bonfire ablaze to heat the rocks. We kids would fill a dingy with fresh rockweed, torn from its roots below tide line. When the fire burned down to glowing coals, we’d layer the pit with the seaweed—instantly bright green on the seething rocks, and popping—and we’d toss on the food, layering it with seaweed and topping the whole bake with a thicker, final layer of seaweed. Finally, we’d cover everything with an old sail and bank the sand up around the sail’s edges to hold in the heat.
Then, finally, there’d be nothing to do but to wait while the bake baked, to stroll, to run, to explore, to lie in the strengthening sun, to philosophize vigorously—or meanderingly, as the mood suited. Perry and Craig would lead us all in singing The Sinking of the Titanic, and we would all take a delicious, ghoulish pleasure in the line “husbands and wives, little children lost their lives….” Beer and wine for the grown-ups; orange Nehi for us kids.
Then it would be early afternoon, and the breeze would have come up. It would be a good, strong, summer sou’wester—good sailing weather…kite sailing.
Dad and I would rig a kite. It was an act of shared and minute technical specificity that I adored since it was so uncharacteristic of my father; Dad was not a tool guy. But kites, I realized at age ten, were really poems, and therefore they deserved his intensity of attention to their every nuance. Sometimes Dad would agree to fly the huge 10-foot-high kite, but usually it would be one of the 6s or the 8s, which are plenty big enough when you are yourself about four-and-a-half feet high.
Dad and I would work for half an hour, threading the lines, re-screwing a thimble, guying the rudder straighter. Then it would be time, and I’d carry the kite sixty or seventy feet downwind along the beach, carefully playing out the four lines it took to control these monsters, while Dad made final adjustments to his reels and his control arms and his harness. He’d attach the controls to his chest, a “front pack” of great drums of line controlled by hurdy-gurdy handles, with arms that stuck out two-and-a-half feet from each shoulder, through which the lines ran before heading for the kite. Distance was controlled by grinding the drums with the handles; yaw and lift and plane were controlled by the rudder, which in turn was controlled by shifting one’s shoulders backwards and forwards, thus pulling the rudder one way or the other.
It was my job to hold the kite upright, buffeted by its weightiness in the wind, and to await Dad’s command to thrust it into the sky. Before I thrust the kite into the air, knowing the fun we were about to have, I would stare at the silhouette of a Zero that was painted on the kite with the big red target circles over the gas tanks in its wings. So that was where to hit ‘em! And especially I would stare at the carefully stitched .50-caliber bullet holes in the kite that riddled those very wings. How close I was then, dreaming backwards, in that numinous moment, to the howl of the bullets themselves!
As hard as I could, I’d launch the kite up into the wind. In a second the kite would catch the wind and zoom high. In my mind, the stream of bullets would follow it, and the thudding of the guns would buffet me, and the hot brass would rain all around.
In a steady wind, Dad could fly the kite up to three hundred feet, make it hover there for the longest time, and then make it dive straight down into the sea—straight down into the sea!—only to pull back on his controls at the very last instant so that the kite tore through the top of a wave and rose again, streaming shining droplets from its wings and from its lines, like some raptor on a string!
This was jam at a clambake.
The past was mythic. My father was mythic. I was mythic—and ten.
I dreamed backwards of the Golden Time—when lived the Old Ones, who fleeted among the ancient trees, and knew.
By Dikkon Eberhart
One man could sail around the world and not hold a single reader with his memoir. E.B. White could describe a row across Central Park Lake and hold a reader breathless.
It’s not the events of your story. It’s the story of your events--in you.
Location: a party at a house by the harbor.
The conversation: it might go something like this.
One of the men turns to me—about my age, getting grey—we’ve been chatting boats. “You’re the one who’s just published that memoir.”
“Yes. I enjoyed doing the book. But I only had the time after retiring. Lot of work. I suppose not everyone could do it.”
"You know, I’ve tried to write a memoir. People say my life is amazing. Can’t seem to make it into a book though. I could use your advice.”
“You’ve sailed across the Atlantic, right?”
“Three crossings. Once solo in a 28-foot sloop. France—Azores—Cape Verdes—then downwind to the Caribbean.”
“So what’s the point of your memoir?”
He looks puzzled. “I just said.”
“I don’t mean to be argumentative, but no, you didn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve told me what happened, not what the point is.”
“People say I tell what happened very well.”
“I expect you do. There’s a lot to tell about. All that sailing. I’m sure you’ve done a good job at what is not the job.”
He looks, perhaps, offended. “What do you mean it’s not the job?”
“What I mean is you’ve begun the job—to tell the story—but that’s not the real job. You’ve got your story so one event flows into the next event. That’s good.”
“Thanks.” And then, “I think.”
“But the real job is harder.”
“Because the real job is answering my question—what’s the point?”
“Why can’t I just tell the story and be done?”
“Because no one wants to read a sequence of your events. ”
“I don’t understand. Why do I do this then?”
“What someone wants to read is what that person needs to read.”
“How am I supposed to know what that person needs to read?”
“One thing everyone needs to read is the truth.”
“The truth about what?”
“About you, and about the point.”
“But the truth about me is what I wrote down already.”
“No, it isn’t. What you wrote down is a sequence of events, which you have ordered so they flow. That’s not the truth. That’s a sequence. And nobody wants to read a sequence of your events.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“Tell the point.”
“What is the point?”
“Ah, that’s the big question, is it not?”
“Oh, come on. We’re going around in circles.” He steps aside and pours himself another drink. I think he may have left the conversation, but he circles back. “Anyway, the truth right now is that I hate my boat as much as I love her. Maybe I’m too old.”
I pause, thinking there's truth right there if he developed it, but I ask, “What’s the point of your nautical life—of this sequence you have written down?”
“The point? I’m just trying to tell my story here. People say my life is amazing. That’s what I’m trying to tell about.”
“You really want my advice?”
“Take the sequence, each chapter, just as it flows now, and go back and rewrite it again. By the third or the fourth chapter I'll bet a new conception of your story will begin to emerge in your writing. Your concept of your story will have matured. That new concept is the point. Or at least it will be a new step toward the real point."
“Ah, that point thing….
“Yes. That point thing. Then, when you're all done, you'll need to go back to the beginning and do what I just said all over again another time."
"Eventually, you'll know what the actual point actually is. And that's what leads to the truth about you. The truth is the reason why people will need to read your book. So they can have truth in their lives. They need to have truth in their lives, and your book gives it to them.”
He muses. “It’ll take a lot of pages to write it again and again.”
“It takes a lot of days to cross the Atlantic. What’s the point of doing that? Just to get to the other side?”
"No." He pauses. “It’s being out there on the ocean and in tune with the ocean—for me, that’s in tune with God—and even more so when I’m alone.”
“So that’s the truth you need to talk about. Your focus needs to be on the truth, not on successive positions at noon. People will read your book, if it contains the truth about you and about your soul, so they can have the truth in their lives.”
“But what do I do with this mass of paper? By now, I’ve got maybe a thousand pages on my desk!”
“Yes, you do have lots of pages. Now cut every sentence from the thousand pages that does not reveal the truth.”
“But what if I love those sentences by now?”
“You will love them. But your love is self-indulgent. You’re in love with your love of your sentences. Cut anyway.”
“In the Caribbean, did you ever take on board a huge bunch of green bananas and hang them in the rigging and, when they ripened, need to eat them as fast as you possibly could before they rotted?”
“What happened when they rotted?”
“Threw them overboard.”
“See? Even though you loved them?”
“Even though.” He smiles. “Okay, I cut.”
“That’s what you’ll do if you want someone else to read your story.”
“I thought I wanted that.”
"Don’t back away now. Now people will read your story—and will value it—because now you are telling the truth.”
“Yeah, one more thing. Just go through and make every paragraph a pleasure to read—vivid, humorous, whatever it takes to make each paragraph a pleasure to read.”
He rolls his eyes. “Then am I done?”
“Oh, sure,” I smile. “Then you’re done.”
We shake hands.
As he turns away, I say, “But when an editor gets a hold of it, you’ll have three or four more rewrites yet to do.”
Birthday number 100. Dad was pleased. Lots of people came to see him.
I thought, I’d better write down my life with him now—how it was. Before we forget.
Tyndale House Publishers bought what I wrote, and its editors made a book of my writing, a memoir. We needed a title. They found a good one. The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told--eye catching. Everyone was happy.
We needed a cover design. I had no ideas. I’m a word guy, not a design guy. Left on my own, I would have put up a photo of Dad and written a perfunctory title across the top.
That book might flop.
That’s because my cover probably would not cause a shopper to pick the book up, to turn it over, and to read the back cover copy. The back cover copy, in its turn, is designed to make the customer open the book and to read the first two pages.
So the design we needed must be powerful enough, in sequence, to bring the shopper inside the book—to where the writing is. That is, to where the author is—to me.
As my editor and I emailed back and forth about title and cover suggestions, frequently she chided me for my stodgy ideas. “Dikkon,” she would say, “we’re creating a billboard, not a book report.”
The point is suggestiveness and mood. Look at the cover of my memoir. The cover does not tell the story—it’s not a book report—but it does convey a mood. And the mood is the first element of the billboard.
The front cover of my memoir provides suggestiveness and mood. There’s no story there. But all the elements of the front cover suggest that stories can be found inside—here’s what it says.
“Shoppers! You who like stories, pick this book up!”
Here are some of those elements. The typewriter typeface, that helps. The paper on which the title is written is faded and wrinkled, sepia colored (with some acid-based aging along the edges of the paper—showing that this manuscript and its stories are from an earlier time). And then there are the objects on the bureau.
The old typewriter. Where this manuscript was banged out. Stories are in here!
There’s the lamp—too close to the typewriter for writer convenience, but close enough to light the page as it rolls up on the platen. I suppose that the writer was so hot with his words he needed to pull the lamp over closer, so he could see the words.
And it’s hot of another kind where the author is banging out his story—thank goodness for the fan, rackety as it is. There’s the phone—imagine, with a dial!—in case he needs to call a friend to check a quick fact. The camera—snapshots, in black and white.
And what’s that other thing, farthest to the left? A Dictaphone? Perhaps the author once felt a spasm of eagerness to be modern, so he bought the thing because it’s what all the other writers were using, but he really didn’t know how to make the thing go, and, really, he didn’t care.
His life is the typewriter. The typewriter is the old standard of writing—always faithful. The typewriter is like his dog, never changing and always ready to be used. He trusts his typewriter. When he leaves off writing for the night, next morning his typewriter will be where he left it, and his last sentence will be right there, too.
What else is on my book’s cover? The tools sit on a bureau, not on a desk—its top surface is too shallow to be a desk. So perhaps this author stands up to write, the way Hemingway did, when he was hot in Key West or in Cuba. Typing as this guy Eberhart does, standing up, his face is only a foot or two from a blank wall—which is like his blank page. There’s no view before him, no window through which to watch the day’s stories out there in the world. His view is what is there in his memory.
This is a memoir, after all.
Hope it’s funny.
So—I’m the shopper—I turn the book over. Feels good in my hand. What does the back cover say at the top? “He was predestined for literary greatness, if only his father hadn’t used up all the words.”
Now, that’s funny!
I don’t know what the sentence means exactly, but I like the cheerfulness of it. I like a memoir when it has something funny—maybe some funny stories.
Lotta names here—poets. The heavy key strokes of the commas and periods—the stamps of the old typewriter font—they draw my eye to the names. Coupla names I’m not quite sure of, but I know Robert Frost and Allen Ginsberg. This author grew up with these people? That’s not every day. Wonder what that was like? I bet he has some interesting stories to tell.
And—yeah—I understand in the next paragraph, what is says about his needing to escape from his father’s shadow. I know a lot of men like that. You might even say it’s a basic experience of many young men, sons of successful fathers.
If this book’s any good, I can think of two men I could give it to. No, three! Four, really—well, maybe not, I’d need to think about him. So, three.
Wonder if the book’s any good. Can this guy tell a story?
Who is he anyway? Educated guy—a PhD! Hope he can tell a story despite that PhD, and the book’s not some dull thing. Married, children, grandchildren—he looks like a friendly guy in his picture. Maine. He lives in Maine. I’ve always wanted to go to Maine. And a deacon—so he must be a believer—and Special Olympics. Good people. Good people.
Here’s what I’ll do. What I’ll do is--
I’ll carry this book over to that comfortable chair and read two pages. If I read two pages, and if I like what I see, I’ll hang my hat on that coatrack, so to speak, and I’ll take this book home.
Wait! And his mother met Hitler?
What’s that all about?