From Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart:
Do you love? Are you still learning to love? How hard is this love thing, for you? It's not a question reserved for the young. It's a question for all of us, and it's a question we must repeatedly ask ourselves, especially when we're writing memoir. If we don't know what we love--if we're not yet capable of it; if we're stuck in a stingy, fisted-up place; if we're still too angry to name the color of the sun--it is probably too soon to start the sorting and stacking and shaping that is memoir. Maybe we haven't learned enough yet. Maybe we haven't sufficiently tempered our disappointment with grace. Maybe we haven't stopped hurting long enough to look up and see the others who hurt with us, who stand in our (it only seems invisible) community. Maybe we only have words right now for our mighty wounds and our percolating scars. And if that's the case, let's step aside, for those words alone are the stuff of litanies, screeds, judgments, and declamations; they're the stuff of long and lonely writing rides. You'll be looking at you, talking through you, talking about you, talking at me, and it'll all be bump and grind.
Call me sentimental; others have. Remind me that the world is dark and ugly, that people are cruel, that injustice reigns, that children suffer, that the wrong people win, the wrong people triumph. I know. I have been there. I have seen. I have lost to the infidels once or twice myself, and that woman--that woman with the short auburn hair and the bright red lipstick who laughed at how I danced and moved and talked, who called me old--she had no business making me feel like that, doubt like that, stop sleeping. Seriously, she didn't. But no memoir is worth reading if it is not leavened with beauty and love. And no memoirist should start her work until she can, with authority, write about the things she loves.
. . . By the way: If anyone calls you sentimental while you sit there locking language to love, remind him that love is the hardest thing we do, the most complicated, riddled, as it is, with guilt and forgiveness, anxiety and insecurity, our supremely human need for redemption. Tell him that hate, anger, retribution, and clenched jaws are going-nowhere stories, undirectional shouts. Tell him that love is where life stories start, no matter what one is writing about.
A great sigh escaped me right after I read those pages. I set the book down, its edges swollen and curled from its dunk in the bathtub fifteen minutes earlier, and picked up my glass of sauvignon blanc. I took a deep sip, feeling an exhilarated sort of relief ease the stiffness in my ever-straight shoulders. I reread the whole section out loud. Then I took photos of each page and group texted them to my team. The next day, I typed them out and emailed them individually to every one of our editorial staff, every one of our current authors.
Of course, I have to ask myself why this reading resonated with me so strongly. The simplest way I can explain it is that it gave me permission--one I didn’t even know I was seeking--to embrace the natural way I look at the world. I will always notice the flecks of gold in someone’s eyes before I notice the heavy bags beneath them. I will always encounter stories of gruesome choices, painful regrets, with attempts at understanding. I’ve joked before that if someone were to tell me he killed a person, my first response would be, “Why?”
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This does not mean that I blind myself, that I refuse to acknowledge suffering in my life or in my writing, that I don’t believe we are all capable of great wrong. I have suffered. I have caused suffering. We all have, and it’s crucial to admit it, explore it, sift through and challenge one another to talk about it. But I believe that beneath the split-second decisions that often separate us, before the experiences that often define us, despite the circumstances that differ between us, what binds us is love. Sometimes even in its absence.
“I could tell you about the woman I helped who had almost been beaten to death with a baseball bat by the man she ‘loved,’” said Mark Cripe, an LA County Deputy Sheriff, in response to this reading. I thought of the most faith-crushing story he did tell us, about an eighteen-month-old baby that had been tortured and killed, then disposed of, by the same people who had given that child life.
“The stories of evil are endless,” Mark said. “But as hard as it has been to see and witness the evil men do to men, it has shown me what life looks like when we have lost all essences of love. I do not want to dwell on such things. I’d rather dwell on creating an environment that allows love to bloom.”
For Doug Luffborough, a formerly homeless teen who found belonging first through breakdancing, then through a gang, and who was eventually invited to the White House and graduated from Harvard, love came in the form of his mother. A housekeeper who earned no more than $7,000 per year in his youth, Mama Luff, as Doug refers to her, maintained a constant conversation with Jesus. For her, Jesus was not a man who existed thousands of years ago, nor a figurehead of any religion, but a spirit walking beside her, an invested presence upon which she could rely.
“I realized through my mom’s example that he has never left me,” said Doug, who today is pursuing his PhD in leadership studies and is the chief managing consultant for the nonprofit organization Turning the Hearts Center. “He carried me when I could not carry myself. His love never fails, his love always heals. His love [simply] is.”
Scott Alan Miller reflected on the reading by returning to a pivotal moment in his life: his diagnosis of stage four cancer.
“I had never truly faced the possibility of the end-of-life,” said Scott, a successful serial entrepreneur. “I remember wanting to know what things felt like. I wanted to have a felt-sense of the beauty of our world that I so often overlooked. I decided to go outside and experience the world as if I had to explain it to someone who never had the opportunity to live.”
In the fall of 2009, Scott walked out to a small grassy area in the middle of downtown Columbus and stood with his eyes closed.
“The cars, the trucks, and the echo of the city were just atmosphere. I wanted to feel the wind. How would I describe something that cannot be seen, yet makes all plants and trees dance and gives birds lift and flight? How would I describe its different textures?”
With the rush of downtown traffic all around him, Scott continued walking until he spotted a retainer wall on the other side of the four-lane highway. He suddenly felt like a kid again, surrendering to pure desire as he dashed through traffic to jump up on the wall.
“With the forty-year-old’s balance and the eight-year-old’s heart, I began to walk. My first steps wobbled. My arms were stretched as far as I could reach. With each step, my years passed like a countdown from forty-eight. The cars flew by as I became a kid again. I can only imagine what people saw as they went by,” Scott said. “If they only knew.
“As that eight-year-old completed the journey and jumped off the end of the wall, I knew how I wanted to live the rest of my life, or whatever time I had left: I wanted to love. I wanted to play.”
Three men, three different reference points in response to the same reading, the same request from me to write about love. Yet, how different are they really? Regardless of the terrain each traveled to somehow arrive here, enriching my life, mightn’t we find these three men in a room together, bonded?
To write love, Roland Barthes said, is to “confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive and impoverished.”
I agree. It is easy to fall back on using the word love to describe itself, as if the word red tells you anything about a Fredericksburg peach or surprised blood or lust. It is easy to reach for old cliches, hoping an accumulation of the familiar will transcend itself. It is far more difficult to recognize that humans are bound by this emotion, this capacity, this instinct--by how it can both redeem and embroil, split the soul and tenderly reassemble it--and capture it in a way that is true. But it is not sentimental to try. It is essential.