“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?
– T. S. Eliot
In his article in the January/February 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine called “Project Empathy,” Lee Martin advises those writing memoirs to keep in mind that the words on the page will never be as real as the lives we have lived.
“We have to accept that fact and then forget it, so our subject matter won’t overwhelm us.” He goes on to suggest additional ways writers can approach difficult material…getting at emotionally charged issues through small details…letting the story tell itself without trying to say everything we feel about the horror of it or the joy of it.
In response to the quotation from Eliot, he says that “We should all feel as if we’re in over our heads when we write; that’s how we know we’re writing about something that really matters.”
If you have access to a library with a copy of Poets & Writers, I suggest reading this article whether you’re writing a memoir or writing a novel. I’ve often found the magazine available at Barnes & Noble stores.
When we think about how tall we are as writers, it doesn’t mean believing we’re taller than somebody famous. And when we think about writing about something that really matters, it doesn’t mean becoming full of ourselves because we are tackling an important subject of the day.
We do know what matters to us. We often avoid it, thinking who am I to write about this, thinking I can’t deal with this, thinking others have more dramatic stories to tell about this, and what this reminds me of are the lists of things we never want to talk about even with our loved ones or best friends. If you’ve known another person for a long time, you know what you cannot ask them because they refuse to discuss it. Maybe it’s something that happened in a war, the lost of a spouse or a child, a huge embarrassment at work.
If you have things you won’t talk about, they may be the stories you should be telling. Why? Because they’re important to you. Even in your silence, they have played a profound role in shaping your life. “Sooner or later,” writes Martin, “we have to face who we are in the world around us. We have to respond. We have to speak from the truest part of ourselves.”
When we respond–or, at least, try to respond–we find out how tall we are. A lot of us learn through the stories we read. We step into another person’s shoes and find out what it’s like to see what they have seen. What have you seen? Perhaps it will make a good story and perhaps it will resonate with the very people who need to hear it.
If you hurt while you’re writing it, you’re probably getting it right.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a story about racism and folk magic in northern Florida in the 1950s. The Kindle edition is on sale for 99 cents on January 6th.