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How do you write about it? How do you read it?

Reading Cheryl Strayed’s emotional review of Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir, Wave, about the loss of her husband, sons, and parents in the 2004 tsunami that claimed more than a quarter of a million lives, I had an immediate set of antipodal impulses I’ve experienced many times before: Rush to the nearest book store to buy the book and start reading right now! Put my hands over my ears, stare unseeingly at a point in the horizon, and mutter to myself to drown out all sound.

I’ve always been drawn to dark literature about unimaginable suffering—I remember reading Night by Elie Wiesel when I was probably too young to fully comprehend the scale of the horror he depicted, but the starkness of the images has stayed with me across the decades.  Periodically, because life is full of breathtaking tragedy, a writer is skilled enough to present his or her experience of his or her own unimaginable suffering in a way that sheds light on our sorrows and losses and the process by which we cope (well or badly) with them.

The most successful of these narratives tend to be lean and unvarnished and the authors of these books are unsparing of themselves and their readers.  They tend to be short books and completely engrossing—playing on that thing that compels human beings to stop and watch a train wreck even if we will have nightmares forever after.  So, why am I as loath to pick up a copy of Wave as I am compelled to read it?  And, which impulse should I give in to.

How do you guys feel about this kind of grief narrative?  Do you find that you force yourselves to read these books or do you pass them by on the bookshelves out of an instinct for self-preservation (emotional, that is)?

7 Responses to How do you write about it? How do you read it?

  1. EDWARD says:

    I am always glad to know somebody else has it worse off than I do. I am also glad to see that somebody, like Anne Frank, handles it a whole lot better than I could ever hope to. Too close to the bone, though, can be agonizing. Padding a grim story with humor and pathos not only makes the story more accessible to timid imaginations such as mine, it also makes the story more real. There is an open invitation to look beyond the bleakness and stare at the grief, head on, in a grim kind of way William Burroughs could not even do himself. There is also a strange type of competition going on among these books, though unintended, where the writer is saying My grief is more unbearable than your grief. It takes some measure of talent for the writer to hold the reader’s interest while at the same time holding the reader’s revulsion.

  2. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    While I’m not in the grief memoir side of this, I’m kind of one street over in the YA “pretend memoir” area, which can be a lot trickier, especially when you’re sailing about midway beteween Slaughterhouse Five and Code Name Verity in subject matter and ambience. I’ve tried to juxapose dark, ominous past events with the silliness of the present day to create a shock absorber for the reader so they don’t fuse the motherboard, as it were. Oddly enough, the two agents who’ve had the nerve to give this thing a spin have had equally enthusiastic reasons for hiding on the fire escape and calling 9-1-1. One fell in love with the two teenage sisters hearing about the WWII narrative and wanted me to drop the whole Berlin air-raid angle and just have them having quirky adventures and banter over the weekend. (He was cool with a safely remote dystopia, but 1943 Berlin…) The other one wanted to drop the whole comic family subplot and turn it into the kind of grim, one-dimensional reportage that so many YA attempts at this time period end up as, and I of course refused. I know Nazi Germany is everyone’s least favorite vacation spot… Maybe I could set the whole thing on a Carnival Cruise! Excuse me, gotta go write this down…

    • D.C. DaCosta says:

      Sounds to me as though you’ve actually written TWO books.

      How about splitting them apart?

      • Kevin A. Lewis says:

        Hey, there, D.C… While on the surface it does rather sound like that, that would be an answer if I’d storyboarded the idea of two narratives welded together before I started it. It’s an interwoven narrative which would be impossible to distance from itself; (I always do my constructional analysis post-finitis) and it really couldn’t work any other way, although from this distance I can see why it might appear so. The agents I referred to (not from DGLM) are both great fellows in their different way, of course, but stylistically one’s a dedicated miniaturist who’s stays way clear of large explosions, and the other’s a savvy market player who never sails out of sight of the lowest common denominator. (I don’t mean that as an insult-if you put a Wimpy Kid knockoff on the NYT list, that’s big numbers and wothry of respect) So, while Prince Charming’s cooling his heels in the penalty box, my wartime heroine marches on… And no, I very much doubt if she would’ve been a “belieber” in better times!

  3. David says:

    I read those books because my life resonates with what the person experienced. I suspect that this is true for most people who are drawn to books like “Night.” Prehaps by reading their experiences, I will learn something, or have some hope for dealing with my own past. For people who have led very blessed lives and have not experienced loss, suffering, or injustice, then prehpas they would have trouble relating to the content of the story. However, I believe that for the reader who has experienced some of the horrors of surviving something worse than death, then there is healing found within the pages of those stories. Exstreme trauma often results in isolation, but by sharing and reading these stories, that isolation can be replaced by some sense of community. Ultimately, it can help the person move past the story of the trauma.

  4. “Night” is my favorite memoir, and I’ve read a good many. As you say, it is sparse and unsparing but illuminates its subject(s). This is what I strive for in my own writing. I feel that speaking one’s fear dispels it and shines a light on our humanity and our connection to one-another.

    Excuse me, I’m off to the bookstore now…

  5. D.C. DaCosta says:

    I know two people who have written this kind of memoire. I don’t intend to read them — because the books function primarily as therapy for the writer. They leave us no lessons.

    A family is swept away in a tsunami…okay. What are we supposed to do about it? It’s not like a family being killed because they failed to do a background check on the nanny, or because they ignored the smoke coming from the left rear wheel of the minivan.

    Unless the writer can pair his experiences with a story about growth (in knowledge? in charity? in foresight?) or reformation (religious conversion? personality change? reconciliation with enemies?) then the story is all about him, with nothing for me, the reader.

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