Sheila Kohler is the author of six previous novels, including Crossways, The Perfect Place, Cracks, and Children of Pithiviers. A native of South Africa, she makes her home in New York City and teaches at Bennington College in Vermont. Her memoir, Once We Were Sisters, is now available.
When I came to write a memoir, I had already published thirteen books of fiction. I imagined I would not have too many problems writing about my life. It turned out to be much more difficult than I had thought and in the process I learned a few lessons which I will share with you here.
It is necessary to structure a memoir just as you would a piece of fiction. You cannot just write down the truth. This seems obvious, but somehow we feel, or I did anyway, that when writing about our lives we have to put it all down. Obviously you cannot. You have to find a beginning, a middle, an end. You have to decide where the story starts and where it will stop. You have to tell a story. There has to be a selection, a forward movement, a gradual process of revelation, which doesn’t mean you cannot flash back, but things have to change. People have to change or move toward a process of change. The reader cannot know all from the start. Basically you can use all the techniques of fiction: you can start at the end, foreshadow, reiterate, and use reversal just as one does in fiction. The use of the scene is always engaging and draws the reader into the plot of the story with a few lines of dialogue, a description of place, conflict.
It will probably be much harder and take longer than you think. What is difficult is handling material with heat, dangerous material, material one may have used on a slant in fiction but now must be stated as facts, which have to be faced straight on without flinching. This is often upsetting – though it may be cathartic. Fiction obviously avoids many legal pitfalls as well as awkwardness with relatives who may not like what one has to say. One has to be courageous but not foolish: small corrections can be used to disguise. I learned too that one can say anything about people who are no more! At least from a legal point of view.
The Right Distance
The most difficult thing is probably to find the right distance from the material. One cannot be too far from it nor can one be too close. It was only after years of writing about my sister’s life and death as fiction that I was finally able to confront writing a memoir. Finding the right distance from this difficult material is necessary to keep the interest of the reader but also to be able to use it as an author must in order to hold the interest of the reader.
I found that my family was not as shocked as I thought they might be. I had told them not to read the book if they feared they might be upset: I speak frankly of my own life as well as my sister’s and some secrets are necessarily divulged in the book, but when I left the galleys in a room where my grandson was sleeping he could not resist, he told me, and took up the book. He told me he had read it in one night with much interest. I asked if he was shocked. “It would require more than that to shock me,” he said smiling at me. I can only hope the rest of the family will react similarly!
Obviously there is no such thing as “one truth” when one looks back on a life. When I asked people (my sister’s children, mainly) for information about their mother and their father, they told me different things. I had to learn to trust my own judgement, faulty as it might be, to know that what I wrote would not ever be the whole truth, the only truth, but just one version of a life. In the end what was important to me was expressing my own truth about a tragic situation, telling the world what I had lived, what I had learned, and how I had felt ultimately how important my sister had been in my life. I can only hope that this effort at a certain emotional honesty will be of help to others who have confronted anything similar in their own lives.