Tag Archives: Bernard Cooper

The Debt I Owe Bernard Cooper

Last summer I wrote a post about a memoir that had a positive effect on my book project: Bernard Cooper‘s The Bill from My Father

The title, The Bill from My Father, serves as a reminder throughout the book that there is a reason Cooper keeps his father at arm’s length most of the time–sometimes even farther, such as when he let a period of several years ago by without communication. The title refers to the father sending his son a bill for the cost of bringing him up. The father is a “character,” in the sense my mother means–somebody I would call a “piece of work.” His son tries to make sense of the man and of his own feelings about his father in this remarkable memoir.

Although I’ve learned something about writing my book from every memoir I’ve read, this book has probably been the most important to me–at least in pulling the book together into a narrative.

Let me break a big rule of writing and quote myself (from that post):

 [Cooper] sets the story in a very limited present-day, which covers his father’s aging and eventual death.  Then he goes on excursions into the past through flashbacks, which are in some cases very lengthy.

His structure is a far cry from what my first memoir instructor insisted upon–complete chronology without flashback.  And while I can understand that a story focused upon childhood or a coming-of-age story makes the most sense told chronologically, for my story it wasn’t working.

What I plan to do is use “a present-day framework that moves to the past and then comes back to the present again.” Again and again. A weaving together of various time periods. Let’s hope it works.

Back to Cooper, the father seems to get progressively crazier as he ages. It eventually becomes clear that he has Alzheimer’s, but Cooper doesn’t have this context for his father’s nutty or dangerous antics until he comes to this realization. Since the father has always been a difficult person and the onset is so gradual, it seems as if his odd behavior is just part of who he is/was.

There is a scene where the old man attacks the DWP man with a potato peeler.  Twenty pages later, after his father has died and Cooper wants to open the packaging of a video (it’s a Christian video about Hell and was given by the father’s caregiver/girlfriend–the Cooper family is Jewish), Cooper accidentally picks up a potato peeler.  In this passage, we see him re-thinking his views on his father.  I love the way the action functions as a metaphor of sorts.  We are used to “things” being metaphors or symbols, but it’s Bernard’s absentminded grasping of the potato peeler that seems more potent because it echoes his father’s earlier action which was viewed as nutty.

If you have had a difficult parent, this book is a must-read. If you have a parent with Alzheimer’s or have struggled with conflicted feelings about an aging parent or a parent who has died, this book is a must-read. Even if none of those applies to you, the book is a must-read.

 

 

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Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

My Biggest Writing Problem

When I started writing my memoir, I floundered for the longest time.  I had the memories, the writing style, and just enough grammar.  But I could not figure out how to structure my story. Part of my story is the “child’s survival story” memoir like Mary Karr‘s The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life. But another part of my story takes place in the present day and also involves family history which took place before I was born.

Cover of "The Bill from My Father"

Cover of The Bill from My Father

Then I read a memoir which showed me a new possibility. Bernard Cooper‘s The Bill from My Father.  In Cooper’s book, he sets the story in a very limited present-day, which covers his father’s aging and eventual death.  Then he goes on excursions into the past through flashbacks, which are in some cases very lengthy.

His structure is a far cry from what my first memoir instructor insisted upon–complete chronology without flashback.  And while I can understand that a story focused upon childhood or a coming-of-age story makes the most sense told chronologically, for my story it wasn’t working.

So I am trying to structure using a present-day framework which moves to the past and then comes back to the present again.  It works a lot better than telling the story chronologically.

Nevertheless, I still have problems with my structure. That’s because I have to deal with excursions into the far past.  Mine have to come near the end of my book.  Frank McCourt’s family info is provided at the beginning of the book, and to me it’s the one structural flaw in Angela’s Ashes: the stylistically different section where we meet the parents before the narrator was born.

What creates the biggest problem for you in your writing?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

The List You Need to Write a Memoir

I started working on my memoir an embarrassingly long time ago. When I started I thought I knew what a memoir was–after all, I’d read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It’s the story of Maya Angelou’s childhood.  OK, I could do that.  I didn’t have a similar experience–not even close–but I had my own events to write about.

What I didn’t realize when I started was that a memoir isn’t just telling what happened to me in chronological order.  The story is all in how you slice it, according to Tristine Rainer (I’ve written about her great advice several times).

In order to write a memoir I had to figure these things out:

  1. Exactly what story I wanted to tell.  After all, I have had a full life and could probably mine several books out of it.  To focus on one particular story, I took the advice of an instructor and wrote a one sentence description of my story.  It wasn’t a Faulknerian sentence either.  Just one concise sentence that sums up what my book is about.
  2. What scenes belong in the book and which ones don’t.  I wrote quite a few scenes that don’t belong in the book.  But what the heck, they make good fodder to write blog posts from ;).  Or I can save them for a second book.  Writing the scenes was valuable, though, because they primed the pump of memory.  The more I wrote, the more I remembered.
  3. How to structure the story.  The problem with real life is it isn’t well-paced.  It comes in long stretches–childhood, adolescence, young adult life, etc.  There are threads which reach back and forth across your life, further complicating the process of ordering the book.  I found structure to be the most difficult part of writing my memoir so far.
  4. What to do with advice that doesn’t fit.  I’ve gotten a lot of it.  My first memoir instructor said something like NO FLASHBACKS EVER.  That drove me nuts. It took me four years to read Bernard Cooper’s The Bill From My Father and get his tacit endorsement of flashbacks to move forward with my structure.  That instructor also told me to write my book in the present tense.  While I have a couple of sections which are in present tense for effect, I discovered that it’s too difficult to tell a book-length story of any complexity in the present tense.  So I eventually chucked both pieces of advice.
  5. What to do about backstory.  I’m still figuring this out.  I’ve been weaving past and present together, and this is helping, but there is a lot of information that is getting shoved aside that has to be conveyed to the reader.  And yet by moving between scene and summary in rhythm, there still isn’t much room to cover summary, especially when even very tangible concrete descriptive (whatever you want to call it) summary takes up a lot of room, albeit not nearly as much room as scene.
  • What do or did you need to figure out for your own writing?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory