Tag Archives: memoir

The Chronology of Water

book by Lidia Yuknavitch

annotation by Melissa Greenwood

I could write about Lidia Yuknavitch’s use of fragments, offset by long paragraphs without any punctuation, in The Chronology of Water. Or, I could write about her often colloquial language or self-professed “wise-ass voice” (291). Or how she sometimes addresses the reader directly and other times switches into the second person or the present tense, seemingly without warning. I could also write about her lyrical passages, a contrast to those more informal shorter-than-sentences. Or about how she does sex writing better than anyone else (cue to me racing to include her work in my MFA graduating presentation on How to “Do” Good Sex Writing). But I won’t write about the author’s fragments or point of view choices or tone or tense-shifting or mind-blowing sex scenes because I can’t not write about her reflections—so self-aware, so deep—they moved me to write “YES” in my margins, over and over, often with three or four underlines for emphasis.

Yuknavitch begins the memoir by telling us about her stillborn daughter and then flashing back to her own girlhood, which is equally as horrific as the opening hospital scene. We learn that the narrator’s father molests both Yuknavitch girls and that Lidia turns to swimming for salvation: “Anything in the water felt like home … In water, like in books—you can leave your life”, she writes (148, 152). Her mantra becomes “Hold your breath until you can leave” (73). And leave she does. For Texas. On a college swim scholarship. Which she promptly loses because she’s busy losing herself :

  • in drugs

“I would have put anything in my mouth … breathing in the white, breathing out comprehension and emotion” (64-65).

  • & in sex

“I’d become the kind of woman whose mouth was stuck in a permanent ‘yes’ shape … I was using my body as a sexual battering ram … All that euphoria filling up the hole of me” (64, 143, 69).

  • & in death wishes

“I didn’t know how wanting to die could be a bloodsong in your body that lives with you your whole life” (72).

  • & in marriages

like the one to “poor Phillip”, who was “never cut out for a woman like me with a rage in her bigger than Texas” and the second one to Devin—the “charismatic narcissistic tender hearted frighteningly attractive artistic drunk” whom “you divorced [eleven years later] because he slept with not one but about five gazillion different women” (59, 171, 207).

  • & in a flurry of self-destruction

like “a big blond DUI” (222). Like “count backwards from 100 with your eyes closed and with this stick up your ass and balancing an egg on your left tit …” (208). Like spinning out on the freeway and hitting a “5’ tall brown skinned pregnant woman who had no English” and then “blow[ing] a number out of orbit” because you drank that entire bottle of scotch, and now your car is totaled, like your life (212, 208).

But then Yuknavitch meets Andy Mingo. Her married student. I know. It sounds about as suspect as everything else she’s been up to. And she knows it too. “Yeah. Well. What did you expect? I’m still me, after all”, she muses (238). But as it turns out, Andy is the real deal. He becomes husband number three and number one dad to their live-born son, Miles. And while Yuknavitch jokes about her poor decision-making above in a self-deprecating manner, she speaks eloquently about her metaphorical rebirth. “[Even as we were] working out our childhood wounds at each other … He [Andy] treated th[ese] thing[s] I’d done – this DUI – the dead baby – the failed marriages – the rehab – the little scars at my collar bone – my vodka – my scarred as shit past and body – as chapters of a book he wanted to hold in his hands and finish” (259, 239). That is a sentence I not only wish that I’d written, but also that I were living. For the narrator, finding the kind of love that heals instead of hurts is a shift that borders on revolutionary. Yuknavitch has been to some pretty dark places in her life, but she assures us that “… beautiful things. Graceful things. Hopeful things can sometimes” illuminate the darkness and that “the simplicity of loving” can teach a girl how “to live on land” (293, 272). This is quite a remarkable notion when coming from a swimmer, who’s only ever flourished in pools, rivers, and oceans.

“It is not easy to leave one self and embrace another”, but Yuknavitch has done as much in her new roles as together wife (as opposed to the angry, intoxicated version she brought to her first marriages) and doting mother (as opposed to the grieving kind she was after her first child’s birth and death or even the kind she grew up with—“a numb drunk folded into her own pain” (190, 163).) With those dark hours behind her and nothing but trees in front of her in her magical Oregon home with the family she’s created, the narrator has made it out of the “the cold wet of [her] life” (151). Here, she needn’t worry that her father’s anger built the house (a refrain she repeats throughout the book). Here, she can take solace. Here, she can feel nestled and supported. Planted and rooted. “I felt safety … Something up until that point in my life I’d only felt in water” (256).

In committing her story “about desire and language … About fathers and swimming and fucking and dead babies and drowning” to paper, Yuknavitch “rebuild[s] the wreckage of a life a word at a time”, and what a beautiful and reflective life her words make (141, 202).


The Confessions of an English Opium Eater

dequincybook by Thomas De Quincey

annotation by Kirsten Imani Kasai

Thomas De Quincey’s “Iliad of woes” serves as a forerunner to the contemporary trend of addiction memoirs about sex, drugs and alcohol. Seeking relief from stomach pains, De Quincey first takes opium (in the form of laudanum tincture) on the advice of a pharmacist. Like many addicts, he begins his spiral into pharmacopoeia through self-medication. Plagued by health troubles (he views his body as a “wretched structure”), there is limited medical aid available to him. A resourceless, homeless teen, impoverished and lacking higher education or vocational training, opium is his only steady friend. It quiets his hunger pangs, cushions his loneliness and smothers his grief.

Opium is a deranged and seductive lover to whom he returns again and again, despite the dangerous, vampiric nature of the relationship. His dance of indulgence and repentance continues for more than half his life. Again and again, he promises to quit the habit, only to slide back into use. He tinkers with his dosage and bargains with himself about where, when and how much he can safely take without risking negative health effects or reigniting an insatiable craving. The inevitable decline and descent into withdrawal fills his tumultuous sleep with hallucinations and terrors, dreams of vicious crocodiles, ancient “mystic ages” and “battlements [that] bore bright stars” (prophesying buildings lit with electric lights?) and “a greater influx of thoughts.”

Recovering alcoholic and Salon.com advice columnist Cary Tennis states that addiction is akin to “pressing the pause button” on your emotional processing, as De Quincey proves, ruminating the pains of unhealed emotional wounds and grieving the loss of his first love, Ann, a 15 year-old prostitute from his days on the streets. During yet another attempt to quit the habit, he writes, “It seems as though all the thoughts which had been frozen up for a decade of years by opium had now … been thawed at once–such a multitude stream in upon me from all quarters.”

“Confessions…” is a weak purgative. Written for money (financial troubles dogged De Quincey throughout his life), he openly acknowledges his audience’s salacious desire to rubberneck at the seedy side of life. His narrative wanders, less a chronological account than one given in spurts with gaps of time. Likewise does the story lack detail. De Quincey was married and had eight children with his wife but only two of the children are mentioned in passing (as an interruption in his opiated haze). The faceless wife remains unnamed.

A cathartic attempt to purge sin through public revelation, De Quincey does not deeply probe his motivations or the emotional subtext underlying them. This is telling of the era, however—Alcoholic Anonymous’12 Steps of recovery and the self-help movement was still a century and a half away. Addiction treatment and concepts of psychiatric analysis had yet to infiltrate popular culture. Or perhaps he felt he gave away enough of himself to satisfy his audience, readers who expected less of the memoir genre than we do today.

 De Quincey’s fantastic vocabulary and flowery prose take a moment to become accustomed to (along with his paragraph length sentences) but logophiles like myself will relish the breadth of his linguistic abilities. He unselfconsciously uses phrases like “limitary peripatetics,” “pecuniary emolument” and “shabby habiliments” along with a casual sprinkling of French and Latin, a testament to the rigors of his education (or at least those of 19th century merchant-class boys). His is the quintessential portrait of the melancholic writer, fearing a book he yearns to write to be a labor “too great for the architect.”

De Quincey shifts fluidly from a discussion of factual events and his emotional responses to philosophical, social and economic ruminations. By today’s publishing standards, his work feels both overwrought and experimental. Rejecting traditional linear storytelling for an elastic exploration of his topic, he fears no censure. “But my way of writing is rather to think aloud, and follow my own humours, than much to consider who is listening to me; and, if I stop to consider what is proper to be said to this or that person, I shall soon come to doubt whether any part at all is proper.” This is perhaps the greatest lesson for my own writing: to fearlessly apply the full palette of linguistic and stylistic techniques to a piece; to birth and nurture the work without regard to imagined future criticisms; and to hold on to the things I love and value–lyricism, musical phrasing, tiny details, complex, sink-your-teeth-in sentences and unwieldy yet perfect words.

It is almost comforting to read a firsthand account of De Quincey’s creative floundering and his daily battle to remain hopeful in the face of poverty, addiction and ill health. Writers endure many miseries, most of them silent. We are players in a vicious dodge ball game, and our fiercest opponent isn’t critical and public censure or ridicule, but our own knuckle-biting anxiety and self-doubt. Though we may labor through many a dark night of the soul, it’s reassuring to know that our words may resound through the years to deliver pleasure, camaraderie and inspiration to those who toil alone through the lonely hours, all the while dodging that cruel, ceaseless ball.

Despite the vast distances between us (centuries, continents, classes, gender), I closed the book feeling that I had met a kindred spirit. Light sleepers who adore winter, we both value wit and the flexibility of sound, meaning and function in language. Most importantly, De Quincey understands what is most important in life: a good cuppa. “Tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally coarse in their nervous sensibilities … will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual.”

Waiting for Snow in Havana, Confessions of a Cuban Boy

9780743246415book by Carlos Eire

annotation by Miriam González-Poe

“Desire proves itself most eloquently and painfully. Desire is God, and God is desire,” writes Carlos Eire in his memoir about growing up at the onset and during the turbulent times of the Cuban Revolution of the 1960s. Waiting for Snow in Havana, Confessions of a Cuban Boy recounts Mr. Eire’s genteel and privileged beginnings as a child of Cuba’s old aristocracy and continues cataloguing the chaotic halt to a way of life that ended with Fidel Castro’s take over of Batista’s regime in 1959, and, the author’s subsequent and unwilling experience as a child of the Peter Pan Project. Mr. Eire writes with great candor and honesty about his family and the people that peppered his life during these formative years. He spares not one of his characters the proper reckoning, the good and bad they represent to him, yet he finds a way to do it with grace, incredible believability and a conversational style of writing that keeps the reader turning the pages to find out what happens next.

Mr. Eire’s descriptions are at once humorous with the innocence of boyhood, and sad with the recollection of boyhood and innocence lost. Through the use of seamlessly flowing flashbacks he constructs a cohesive whole of a manuscript. Descriptions are stark, visceral, and beautifully visual, sometimes bordering on poetic. Mr. Eire has a special gift for the art of metaphor and hyperbole. In chapter after chapter the reader delights to find that what begins as a seemingly innocuous story about a boyhood recollection is really a collective statement of something of much deeper societal meaning and conflict. For example, in chapter 16, Eire relates his young-child fear of becoming “black” were he to eat dark foods that began after Nilda his African Nanny tells him innocently that if he just eats one more bite he will grow up to be “just like her.” Nilda is trying to encourage little Carlos to eat so that he will grow and become an adult, but he gets scared instead, and the fear that he will lose the privileges of his “white” upbringing and turn African become a vessel for the exposition of racism and prejudice. Carlos refuses for months to eat anything dark. Of the day he faced his fear of “dark foods” he writes, “I closed my eyes and took a bite from the chocolate-covered ice-cream bar thinking that this might be my last moment on Earth as a white boy. I savored the ice-cream in my mouth”…. “I had trouble opening my eyes after that first bite. But when I finally opened them, I immediately looked at my hand. I was white. White, as I’d always been. Whew!”…. “They’d been right after all, those that told me that dark food couldn’t turn you into an African.” He concludes the chapter with a powerful metaphor on the prejudice that every individual suffers when coming to a new country as a disenfranchised immigrant: “What they didn’t know was that it would take only one brief plane ride to turn me from a white boy into a spic. And I’m reminded of it every time I have to fill out a form that lists “Hispanic” as a race distinct from “white” or “Caucasian.” It wasn’t any food that stripped me of my whiteness. No just one forty-minute ride over the turquoise sea. Well let me correct myself. Since I flew out of Cuba at sunset, the water wasn’t turquoise at all. It was starting to turn dark blue, and the farther north we flew the darker the water became. By the time we had reached the lights of Key West, the sea was black. Pitch black.”

With a tongue-in-cheekness that belies the seriousness of the subject matter of which he writes, Mr. Eire anoints his characters with a personality that is meant to describe Who-they-really-are in metaphor. He gives each of his characters a loving pseudonym and refers to them as such throughout the manuscript. His father is Louis the XVI, King of France; his mother is Marie Antoinette the tragic and beautiful queen; his Aunt Lucia is the Woman Without Desires. In this manner, Mr. Eire adds to the description of his characters within their quasi-tragic settings without needing to spend time completing it in writing. By comparing his characters to the well-known gods of history, Mr. Eire allows his readers to do the job of completing the characterization of his own characters for him. His use of strategic metaphor continues as the author paints an even grander picture using historical comparisons by pairing French Revolution to Cuban and the falls of the civilized lives within each. Mr. Eire inserts enough personal details  to make it interesting yet allows his audience to fill in gaps left to the imagination.

Mr. Eire’s use of first person narrative is conversational and easy to follow, as well. He intersperses dialogue and captures the voice of the 10-year-old boyhood on an idyllic Caribbean island with true believability. His recounting of childhood adventure and feelings is universal and easily relatable. He uses Spanish terms and phrases liberally, but he also takes the time to explain and translate each and every one, and their context, which makes the reading of his narrative that much more enjoyable, evocative, understandable, but most importantly, relatable.

As a writer and a memoirist, there are stories that inspire me in life, and there are stories that inspire me to want to write the stories of my life; then there are those that somehow have the ability to do both. I am always drawn in to stories that tell you their tales with  universality of theme despite very personal and specific of topics. This is one of those books. As a writer and a first generation American, I chose this book to read because it was my desire to learn more about my own history.  My parents were part of that lost generation of Cuban-Americans who immigrated to the United States during the “Castrolandia” catastrophe that rendered their beloved old Cuba a thing of the past. And this book does tell it like it is (or was) from a first-hand point of view. But the true beauty of Carlos Eire’s writing is not only in that it tells the personal story so well of an often glossed over time in our modern history, it is also rather, in the manner that he incorporates the events of his personal life into universal themes of the human experience, themes of which we can all relate. He is believable, thus he is trustworthy. As writers, we are all striving for authenticity and believability in our writing, no matter what our subjects are. As writers, it is our ultimate goal to have the audience trust us as storytellers. Mr. Eire’s easy skill in this arena makes his work Waiting for Snow in Havana not just an entertaining informative story but a primer for any writer striving to learn the art of  creative, authentic memoir writing. His prose flows so easily and effortlessly, that the reader has to remember to pay attention to the art of the writing, lest she forgets herself caught up in the adventure of the reading.

Mr. Eire’s incorporation of Spanish terms and their explanations into the English prose also satisfies. This is a technique that is for many bi-lingual authors not an easy thing to fit into an English manuscript effectively and have it understood implicitly. His manipulation of style, rich with metaphors and similes driving subtle points home in both languages, is so brilliant and visceral at times the reader can almost feel her mouth water with the succulence of it! Mr. Eire’s prose is an all in one: learning tool, enjoyable story, and history lesson.

In Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire creates a satisfying story that is not just a memoir about exile, but about the universal themes of loss, change, adaptation, living life without closure, and the eternal constant of hope. He accomplishes the task of writing a story laced with the realism of tragedy, the mysticism of hope and the universal desire to understand the flow of life events when explanation for those events has become both incomprehensible and absurd. “Is it possible to have a life without desires?” the author writes in Chapter 18. “I refuse to believe it.” Indeed, it is obvious that this story is Mr. Eire’s desire, and his hope. It is a remembrance and tribute to a way of life now extinct, and the author accomplishes his desire, (as he so stated), “most eloquently and painfully,” and to the satisfaction of his audience.

The Things Between US


book by Lee Montgomery

annotation by Chris Geraci

Of all the memoirs I have read, The Things Between Us, is one of my favorites.  Beside the fact that I did an internship with Lee Montgomery at Tin House Books, her story is engaging without being preachy and at no point does Lee ask for sympathy or forgiveness, and Lee is just an all-round amazing person.  Her writing is just like her personality, no bullshit, the truth is the truth, take it or leave it.  As a result, Lee Montgomery the person and Lee Montgomery the author is real and believable.  To me she is a bit of a rock star.

Lee is extremely gifted in her use of descriptive language and concise storytelling.  She takes a story of alcoholism and family dysfunction, doesn’t trivialize it, but finds the humor in it.  Through tragedy and loss, her family comes together and bonds over the life and death of Lee’s father.  Although, it is clear her father is her hero and that she is her father’s daughter, her mother steals the show (the book), with her gregarious personality combined with her excessive drinking.

Clearly, there is a heavy dose of admiration for Mrs. Montgomery by the people who know her.  She reminded me of a 30s Hollywood Starlet: glamorous, commands attention, is adored by those around her, and a hopeless alcoholic. What is refreshing about Lee’s tale is that she is clearly aware of her mother’s personality and flaws, but there is no anger or blame, just acceptance that this woman does love her, but is severely flawed.  Lee writes, “I will never be able to explain my mother, but I will most likely spend my life trying.  She is the rock in the road that I navigate around.”

Lee also has respect for both her parents, especially her father, Monty.  Monty is the gatekeeper of Lee’s mother.  Despite countless drunken episodes, Monty stands by her unconditionally. Even when the focus should be on Monty’s health, Lee’s mother steals the show.  But courageously, Lee writes about the truth, the pain from her point of view and acknowledges that the memories and stories are hers and vary from her siblings take on the same set of events.  Lee epitomizes what we have learned about being true to your story, your characters, and the memories; stay committed to the truth and your story will be raw, emotional, and very real.   A memory or an event can inspire a variety of interpretations, which are still true, just your version of the truth.

What Lee does so well is her attention to the visceral details, combined with her talent for lessness.  Her narrative technique is sparse, Lee chooses each word carefully, and her talent as a frank storyteller is apparent – it is also a reflection of her personality, no sugar coating the truth.  Lee’s memoir contains an excellent example of interweaving stories, guiding the reader smoothly between past and present without losing her audience.  The result is one that compels the reader to turn the pages in order to see what happens to these beautifully flawed characters.  Not only does Lee command the craft memoir writing, she creates scenes that are so clear and concrete – as she walks through the fields with her father, you can see the morning steam arise from the grass.  Her mother’s constant accessory, a crystal glass with booze is so real that you can hear the ice clink when it it is dropped into the glass.  Although the heart of this story is about a sad dysfunction, Lee creates an acceptable distance that as a reader it does not feel sappy or overdramatic, it is just sad.  Through this journey of familial decline, Lee creates a picture of her mother that is gregarious and fun.  Despite the fact that Mrs. Montgomery is an alcoholic, you still like her.  It is a masterpiece filled with flawed, but likeable characters.  The Things Between Us is quilt of memories woven together in an exceptional memoir.



Embalming Mom: Essays on Life





book by Janet Burroway

annotation by Wendy Fontaine

The title piece in Janet Burroway’s collection of essays is an imagined discussion between the author and her deceased mother that says as much about how fiction writers strategically choose details and create dialogue as it does about how we, as human beings, process and reprocess our memories to fit the moment.

“I want to put you in a story,” Burroway writes in the opening of “Embalming Mom,” one of sixteen essays in her collection of the same name. “Apparently it’s a matter of some importance.”

The essay takes its place somewhere in the gray space between fiction and nonfiction. It is based on a real memory – Burroway watching her mother iron the puffed sleeves of a cotton dress – but it is thoroughly fictionalized in that the two women never encompassed the same space as the author describes it.

In the piece, Burroway is 45 years old, recently divorced and sitting in the breakfast nook of her childhood home. At first we think she is a grown daughter who has returned to her mother’s home after a bad breakup. As the story develops, we realize it is Burroway’s dramatization of a memory: she is watching her mother, a devoted 35-year-old housewife going through the domestic motion of ironing clothes. Burroway is imaginatively goading her mother into a mock conflict for the sake of a story she wants to write, while her mother is wrestling with an ulcer and admonishing Burroway for being indiscreet, in her life as well as in her fiction.

The author has put herself in a fictitious scene with her mother in an effort to recall and capture her as a character. As the narrative moves through time and place, Burroway sets the stage and creates dialogue between herself and her mother. She chooses the items to place in the scene, such as a fishbowl for an ash tray, and even goes so far as to chide herself when the details of the scene fall short. Burroway revises until it feels authentic. She writes:

She turns again, one eyebrow raised and a mocking smile, “What, then, am I the most unforgettable character you’ve met?” Not like her, neither the eyebrow nor the words, which have the cadence of a British education. I’m the one with the British education. I try again. She turns back like the film run backward…and turns again robotlike, profile gashed with a smile. “Honey, write for the masses. People need to escape. They need to laugh. (39)

The essay is similar to the way we replay personal conversations and experiences of the past and how we try to recast them in a more favorable light. At the end of the piece, Burroway acknowledges that the morticians have done what she was not able to do herself. “Everybody says they have done a splendid job,” she writes. “They have caught her exactly, everybody says.”

As a writer of memoir, I am fascinated by the process of how we recollect. I enjoy reading how other writers stumble across their memories, and how hard they work to pull the fragments of remembrance together to create a more cohesive picture in their mind – and then, of course, how they render that memory to the page. Each of the essays in Burroway’s collection focuses on a certain trigger of memory. Whether it is a photograph, a picture frame or the electrical stove in the first apartment she rented after her first divorce (“the paraphernalia of an ongoing life,” she calls it), Burroway allows these triggers to open the narrative to a time when she was able to make meaning of some aspect of her life. Using objects to activate memory is a good practice not only for memoir writers, but for writers of any genre. Because memories themselves are prone to distortion, the lines between genres are slightly blurred when one writes about memory – as Burroway shows us in her collection of essays.

In “Dad Scattered,” she remembers her father by going through his things – not substantial things like clothes or tools, but the seemingly insignificant things, like tie tacks, old keys and foreign coins. By swapping a photo out of a frame in “Freeze Frame,” she reflects on the ways in which we frame our lives. “We Eat the Earth” is a reminiscent piece about the English garden she never could quite manage. And in “Soldier Son,” she draws distinctions between her two children, who are very different but similar in how passionately they embrace their divergent lifestyles.

I admire Burroway’s expertise at getting under the skin of her subject, and her writing reminds me of what makes an essay great: the ability to connect the small moment (installing a pool in the backyard) to the bigger question (how do we bury our past?).  Each of her essays contains an element of doubt, followed by evidence to the reader that she is doing the difficult work of examining her life in order to find meaning in her chosen subject. Therein lies the value of memoir, and Embalming Mom is an example of why readers gravitate to the genre.

As Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and The Story, “truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand.” Burroway fully engages with her experiences. Her essays reveal confessions, convey transparencies and offer readers some wonderful surprises.


The Boys of My Youth

book by Jo Ann Beard

annotation by Wendy Fontaine

The Boys of My Youth is an elegant collection of twelve narrative essays that focus on the author’s Midwestern childhood and the relationships that carried into her adulthood. To show readers how she came to be the person she is, Jo Ann Beard uses a combination of present tense narration, simple yet meaningful motifs, and a layering of scenes from childhood and adulthood to create a collage of pieces that evoke emotion without being overly sentimental.

One essay in particular illustrates this narrative structure. In the title essay, which comes last in the collection, Beard writes about the pursuit of childhood crushes. Throughout the piece, Beard shifts from her childhood neighborhood, where she prank-called boys with her best friend, Elizabeth, into her adulthood, where she is an editor in Iowa and Elizabeth is an editor in Chicago. Throughout the essay, the two share a telephone conversation discussing past relationships and they way they met.

In one paragraph they are in junior high school French class, horrified when the teacher tells a classmate she enunciates like Porky the Pig. Immediately, the narrative shifts to present time, as they are reminiscing over the phone and Elizabeth is correcting the author’s memory about the first time they met:

“That was ninth grade, not seventh,” Elizabeth says. “We were already friends when that happened.” She is at her office in downtown Chicago, talking to me on the WATS line. “You wouldn’t’ believe what my desk looks like right now.” I would because I’ve witnessed it. She’s an editor, and there are manuscripts stacked everywhere and yellow notes with Urgent scrawled across them stuck to the carpet. (156)

One of Beard’s many talents is melding the funny with the sad, and creating beautiful sentences that evoke certain feelings within the reader. Her subject matter is not particularly sentimental, since many of her essays are about the smaller moments in life, but her prose is so sparse and well crafted that it resonates with emotion.

“Cousins” is an example of this. A collage-like essay that begins with two pregnant sisters fishing from a boat, it moves into the lives of sisters’ boy-crazy, free-spirited daughters: Beard and her cousin, Wendell. The essay is comprised of nonlinear snapshots – Beard and Wendell as girls playing Dirty Barbies in the backyard or getting stoned at an Eric Clapton concert, juxtaposed with scenes of Beard’s mother lying in a hospital bed, coming in and out of consciousness because of morphine and illness.

She writes,

“They [Beard’s mother and aunt] swim through her lake, gray-eyed sisters, thin-legged and mouthy. They fight and hold hands, trade shoes and dresses, marry beautiful tall men, and have daughters together, two dark-eyed cousins, thin-legged and mouthy.” (44)

Beard’s essays work together as a collection because they address similar themes and include similar descriptions or motifs. “Cousins,” which is my favorite piece in the collection, includes a motif of a silver baton in a way that is hauntingly beautiful. A few of the author’s pieces feature the same phrases and similes, such as swimming or rowing a boat as metaphor for dreaming. Several essays begin with and include short, matter-of-fact sentences that immediately place the reader into the story, such as “Here is a scene” or “This is daytime.”

Beard’s twelve essays also vary in certain ways. Some are very short. “In The Current,” which is about three teenagers who get caught in a river current, is barely two pages. Others, like “The Boys of My Youth,” are much longer. A few are written in past tense, but most are in present tense (which Beard said in an interview with The Fiddleback, an online magazine, is something she does unintentionally).

Writing in present tense closes the narrative distance between reader and writer and lends immediacy to the story. What the writer surrenders with present tense, though, is a measure of reflection, which is a key element of memoir. If the narrator is speaking in the moment, hindsight is not an option. Beard’s essays tend to run short on reflection, perhaps because of her use of present tense.

Another interesting element of this book is how Beard writes about her childhood. She seems to inhabit the space between remembering and imagining. Readers see this best in the essay, “Bulldozing the Baby,” in which Beard is a three-year-old separated for the first time from her favorite doll, Hal. The essay conveys her toddler thoughts in a humorous, adult-like manner. Since it is unlikely anyone would remember events from when they were three years old, the piece reads as though it was meant more for entertainment than for recollecting the past. If readers accept that the author has taken creative license, the effect is a funny take on what happens when Beard’s aunt decides to take away her beloved Hal.

I most admire Beard’s use of motif, particularly in her essay “Cousins.” The repeating images of fish, silver flashes, swimming and rowing a boat add a beautiful depth and connectivity to the work, which is something I would like to add to my own personal essays.

Truth Serum: Memoirs

book by Bernard Cooper

annotation by Lee Stoops


“There were nights I fell into a fitful sleep trying to sex the world correctly.”         ~ Bernard Cooper, in the essay Burl’s, from Truth Serum (19)

There is something special about the accessibility of Bernard Cooper’s words in Truth Serum. He remembers so clearly the experiences of his coming to adulthood, the thoughts he endured as a boy, the way his family dynamics shaped his world. Writing his memories through a mix of reflection and scene, Cooper offers the reader a near cinematic experience, windows of voyeurism into his formative past and the lives of those with whom he shared his struggles, his identity, and his conflicted sexual maturation. Amy Tan said, “Cooper is a master of the language of memory and truth,” and quite possibly no one could have described his memoirs with more accuracy. Cooper’s language and control gives his writing its power, his recall gives his essays their integrity, and his transparency gives his readers access to his truth.

Cooper does more than write: he speaks on the page. His prose might, at times, be identified as lyrical, but I would argue that he generally does not intend lyricism. Given the overall presentation of his memoirs, I would wager that he writes as he speaks – with sharp articulation and strong arcs. The words he uses, the sentences he strings, the essays he crafts exude natural power, even flow, and they display enviable command. Writers of nonfiction aspire to the kind of control with which Cooper writes, especially when it comes to writing such difficult, exposing personal truths about sexuality, family, love and loss.

He broke his glass and his hearing aid in the fall, and when I first stepped into the hospital room for a visit, I was struck by the way my father – head cocked to hear, squinting to see – looked so much older and more remote, a prisoner of his failing senses (162).

These lines are part of the second paragraph of an essay titled Picking Plums. While Cooper’s father exists in the background of many of his stories, this is one of the only ones where Cooper’s spotlight illuminates the man and eventually Cooper’s feelings for him. The language is simple; there are no enormous words, no contrived construction techniques, nothing unsaid or enigmatic. And yet, the control, the exacting choices Cooper makes, give the reader a very, very clear window through which to immediately understand his father and where his father is in life and in self. The words also communicate exactly how much Cooper sees and understands in those times.

Cooper’s memories are not just images or smells or emotions; they’re short films. Cooper details precisely the settings, the characters, even the quality of the air, and then allows the reader to fully experience his memories from his place in each sequence. His essays are not limited to the brief scenes he uses to thread his narrative – he steps around, as if on exposed rocks crossing a creek, exploring the many curious thoughts and connective tissues that are first or difficult experiences in anyone’s life. The second essay in the collection, titled Burl’s, like the rest of his essays, exhibits this exceptional recall in such a way that I could not help but fall back into my own similar boyhood memories of greasy spoon diners, trying on my parents’ clothes, being forced to take gymnastics, or first meeting male transvestites.

When the day of the first gymnastics class arrived, my mother gave me money and a gym bag…and sent me to the corner of Hollywood and Western to wait for the bus…While I sat there, an argument raged inside my head, the familiar, battering debate between the wish to be like other boys and the wish to be like myself. Why shouldn’t I simply get up and go back home, where I’d be left alone to read and think? On the other hand, wouldn’t life be easier if I liked athletics, or learned to like them (23)?

While the setting and the scenes catalyzed my memories, it was Cooper’s recalled interior monologue that offered me the promise of Cooper’s integrity, that he was not just writing stories from his boyhood but that he was sharing his development as it happened.

In fact, it is Cooper’s unguarded transparency that separates his memoirs from those of other aspiring memoirists. One of the reasons I read memoir is for the permission the genre can give me as a writer to access my own mysterious interior, to confront the truths of my life that I don’t understand or don’t want to accept. In a world of memoirs that entertain for their salaciousness, Cooper’s forgives without apologizing. And this is how writers can change the world – by changing minds one at a time, by softening hearts and opening doors.

Touching a match to the first [homosexual pornographic] magazine, I felt a sense of profound relief that I wouldn’t know again until years later when I actually touched a man (72).

Dr. Sward believed that my desire for men could be broken down into a set of constituent griefs: lack of paternal love; envy toward other men for their sexual certainty; a need for identification confused with a drive for physical contact. And then, one day, the blare of light still ringing in my ears, I asked the doctor if heterosexual desire wasn’t also a muddled, complex matter, fraught with the very same helplessness and hurt he attributed to my particular case (107).

If I thought about AIDS while we made love, for the most part those thoughts were fleeting, as remote and muffled as sounds from the street. Sex became an empirical matter: I concentrated on the things I could see – Brian’s ribs, the small of his back, the arch of his ass as he lay on his stomach – instead of on the things I couldn’t – platelets, bacteria, virus. While our hearts were racing, skin hot to the touch, the visible world of weight and shape took precedence over the realm of minutiae. For a few blessed seconds we tensed in release, hurling away from worry (210).

It is surprising to me that this collection of memoirs and personal essays has not garnered more attention outside of MFA and creative writing programs. As an aspiring writer of both fiction and nonfiction, this book has everything I need to study. At the same time, it reads so brilliantly, so personally, that I want everyone I know to read it. The truths in Cooper’s life and his writing are difficult and moving and have the power to help heal current societal rifts. Yet, the book is out of print and now more than fifteen years old. Not only should this book be revived for current readers not steeped in academia, but writers being vetted now need to take Cooper’s lessons to heart: memoir (and every other form of creative writing) needs exceptional linguistic control, absolute accuracy, and blatant transparency.