Some things are too close to write about

In recent years, authors have written memoirs or memoir-style novels based on the crimes and conditions the authors suffered while growing up. I think of Natasha Trethewey’s 2020 book Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, for example.  The country needs to hear these words, especially from marginalized people.

I have no such words, nothing personal to say that impacts the national discourse en route to the equality of all people. I’ve thought about writing a novel about my uncle who was murdered in Fort Collins in 1919. But the moment is at once too close and too far away.

And in the end, assuming I could ever research it, I would probably see another inept police force that made assumptions about what happened and let the case go cold. (I contacted that police force years ago and they have no records of anything.) Usually, these kinds of cases are handled by having the courthouse burned down, providing plausible deniability for everyone.

And, I certainly wasn’t going to interview my father and his two remaining siblings to learn, as reporters ask, “how did it feel to hear your older brother had been shot to death while walking to church?” I was trained as a journalist, but that’s one unforgivable question I don’t ask anyone.

I may have, over the years, allowed a bit of spite to get into some of my books, things said with the names changed about people who wronged me in various ways. They wronged me in such creative ways, I couldn’t resist including what they said and did. If I had James Patterson’s readership, those people might have found themselves in my work. I don’t, so they didn’t. There’s an old joke: “Don’t mess with me or I’ll put you in my next book.” That’s true enough, though libel laws force us to cover up the perpetrators so they don’t even recognize themselves in the plotlines.

Most authors, who have personal stories less interesting and important than Natasha Trethewey’s are tempted to “speak out” in print. But are stories, while often universal, are often “too usual” (spurned lovers, schoolhouse bullying, the ills of military service, etc.) to make a compelling novel. So, there’s much we cannot share. To this day, I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

Yet, our lives become tangled with our novels in many ways, so discerning readers can probably find us if they read between the lines. Who we are is “large in our works” as Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando. We can’t hide even though we think we can hide because the truth will out. As we grow older, we accumulate a  lot of memories that are bitter-sweet.  To write about them or to keep quiet, that is the question.

Will it serve a purpose if we write about ourselves under the guise of fiction? I think most writers are doing that without realizing it. But intentionally, like a tell-all story sold at grocery stores. That seems kind of sordid and probably has no overarching redeeming value.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Book Bits: Writing tip, the other ‘Fire and Fury,’ Frankenstein, Natasha Trethewey, Rae Paris

There’s so much writing advice on the Internet that I’m often cynical about it, viewing much of it as being like those bottles of patent medicine that used to be sold from the backs of wagons years ago. But sometimes I find something worthy passing along. (See item 1.)

  1. Writing Tip: How to Grow as a Writer, by Eva Deverell – “I firmly believe that as long as you’re willing to put in the work and play the long game, you can improve your writing – just like you can improve any other skill – and grow into a great writer. Here are some areas you might want to focus on…” Eva Deverell
  2. NewsAuthor Of The Other ‘Fire And Fury’ Book Says Business Is Booming, by Ari Shapiro and Kelley McEvers – “Hansen’s book is Fire And Fury: The Allied Bombing Of Germany 1942-1945. The beginning of that title “Fire and Fury” is the same as that of journalist and author Michael Wolff’s new exposé about the Trump administration, Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House.” (Suddenly, it’s selling well.) NPR
  3. EssayMan As God: ‘Frankenstein’ Turns 200, by Marcello Gleiser – “Perhaps Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary should be celebrated with a worldwide effort to build safeguards so that scientific research that attempts to create new life, or to modify existing life in fundamental ways, gets regulated and controlled. This includes CRISPR, a new technology capable of editing and modifying genomes. As with so many scientific developments, it has great promise and the potential for good and evil. At the most extreme, it offers the possibility of modifying the human species as a whole, a sort of final Frankenstein take over.” – NPR
  4. Wikipedia photo

    Interview: Natasha Trethewey: Say It, Say It Again, with Rob Weinert-Kendt – “Poet Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer-winning 2007 collection Native Guard, which partly memorialized an African-American Civil War soldier protecting a Union-captured fort on Ship Island, Miss., was first turned into a stage work in 2014 at the Alliance Theatre. It returns Jan. 13-Feb. 4. Trethewey was U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2014.” American Theater

  5. Quotation: “But to speak strictly as a writer, I wouldn’t be where I am if not for independent bookstores. My first book, Drown, stayed alive, and in turn kept my career alive, because independent booksellers continued to put the book in people’s hands long after everyone else had forgotten it. For 11 years, I had no other book and yet indie booksellers kept their faith in me. To them, I owe very much. I’ll definitely be in a lot of indie bookstores on this tour, as many as will have me.” – Junot Díaz in Shelf Awareness
  6. ReviewTHE ALICE NETWORK: The story of a spy, by Kate Quinn, reviewed by Matthew Jackson – “Historical fiction is all about blending the original with the familiar, about those delicate new stitches woven into the tapestry. The best practitioners of this often subtle art can sew those new threads without ever breaking the pattern, until the new and the old, the real and the fictional, are one and the same. With her latest novel, Kate Quinn announces herself as one of the best artists of the genre.” Book Page
  7. Essay: Has Ann Quin’s time come at last? by Jonathan Coe – “The experimental writer, who committed suicide aged 37, was disregarded in her lifetime. But her strange staccato style now seems quite in vogue.” The Spectator
  8. ReviewThe Forgetting Tree: A Rememory, by Rae Paris, Reviewed by Bruce Jacobs – avored with both vulnerable hesitation and uncompromising resolution, poet and essayist Rae Paris’s debut, The Forgetting Tree, is the memoir of a young black woman’s search to understand her personal and racial past. In a journey of backwards migration, Paris leaves her past in the Los Angeles streets south of Compton on a road trip into her family’s roots in New Orleans. From there she crisscrosses the South to uncover the raw truth of slavery, segregation and racism at former plantations, cemeteries, Klan meeting houses, civil rights battlegrounds, lynching trees and graves of both famous and unnamed black ancestors.”  Shelf Awareness

Book Bits is compiled randomly by author Malcolm R. Campbell