I heard that when someone asked Michelangelo how he sculpted his stunning, larger-than-life statue of David, the artist replied, “I just looked at the marble block and cut away anything that didn’t look like David.”
A clear vision of the final product is crucial in most forms of art. In writing a memoir, you’re faced with myriads of details, precious or significant memories, people of impact. If you don’t know what your book is really about, you can lose track of the center and end up with a journal rather than a meaningful memoir. It’s up to you to read and edit your life, choosing what to include in order to create your case for your conclusion.
I mapped out seven volumes for my six generation memoir, the Eternal River series. It is roughly chronological and told in many voices and stories. I have to make each book stand on its own regardless if the reader has read any of the previous books. I also have to make each book pay off, but also leave room for the desire to know what comes in the next book. There’s a lot of weaving and a number of decades. I have to juggle it all in my head.
Some stories are very dear to me. I have been loathe to eliminate them. But as I have grown as a writer and human being, I’ve come to recognize that I don’t need to keep absolutely everything. I need to tell the story and be done with it. I’ve learned huge amounts from watching Bonus Features on movie DVDs—commentaries from directors and writers—especially Deleted Scenes. One thing that struck me was how fond the directors were of some of those scenes. I remember one saying, “The lighting, the writing, the acting were so perfect in this shot. I absolutely loved it, but it didn’t propel the story along. It actually made it about something else. So it ended up on the cutting room floor.” The director chose to “murder his children,” as one of my creative writing professor put it. It’s the health of the project, not your attachment to a turn of phrase or a treasured memory that determines whether you cut or keep.
As I edit Eternal River, Volume III-C, I will be cutting mercilessly, swinging my machete through the thick undergrowth of text I wrote two and three years ago when I started working on ER3. I actually had to divide it into two books—the one of my parents’ life after my sister and I left home, and the one I’ll be sharing here, which covers my life for thirty years starting with my time at college. I’ll be presenting deleted scenes for you along with commentary about the reasons for the elimination. I hope you will learn something valuable about the craft of writing while I will be enjoying being able to keep these special pieces of my past alive by sharing them with you.
This cut is from Chapter 3 of Eternal River, Volume III-C. This section sets up the need for me to take summer school. While Miss Percier was one of those who made an impression on my life, this much detail about our relationship slowed down the flow of the storyline. All the reader needs to know is why I was in Los Angeles when the Watts Riots happened.
If the book was about my increasing awareness of the value of relationships, it would have been appropriate to include it as one of the building blocks from my teenage years, but since Volume III is about finding my voice, I chose to cut it from the book. I’ve included the context. The part that is cut starts from the red asterisk. I present this vignette here in honor of this gentle lady whose little Catholic missal I still have.
A major in Comparative Literature required fluency in a second language. My second language was French. Was I fluent? No. The only thing I had going for me was an impeccable French accent which was due to the tireless efforts of Miss Percier, a little old French lady who drove her mother to my father’s L.A. office for treatment. Miss Percier and I would sit in a side office going over the proper pronunciation of the words. She insisted that I master the French “R” and the “U”—both like nothing I’d ever tried to make my mouth do before.* She also wrote me letters in French—her handwriting characteristically European and therefore difficult to decipher—and I was expected to respond intelligently, in French if possible.
Miss Percier was exacting, but so sweet that I could not be discouraged. She was easy to please but hard to satisfy. Any attempts were met with warm encouragement, but no approximation would do. In the hours of patient repetition, she never raised her voice or sighed in exasperation.
After she died years later, a small package was delivered to me. Inside the carved ivory covers was a Catholic missal, its gold-edged pages expressing the language of her faith in the language of her birth. I leafed through the color prints, each a small masterpiece. Such a treasure! I felt a pang of loss. She would have been a wonderful mother. I could have been more willing to share my life with her. She loved me as a daughter and I, young and absorbed with my own concerns, never appreciated how precious our friendship really was.
Ken ConeSeptember 11, 2011 - 11:29 AM
“She was easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” Those words speak volumes. Maybe you could put those words right before “She insisted that I master…”
Nice writing, all of it, but that phrase actually renewed a focus for me as my wife and I train our children.
I’m glad I found you again!
Nancy CardozaAugust 14, 2011 - 4:56 PM
Oh Carolyn, thank you for not leaving these precious stories on the cutting room floor.
This one generated a similar remembrance of a lost opportunity to return
love to my Aunt Margaret. Perhaps that is why God gives us precious
adults to shower extra love, attention, and education on us to help round
us out as fully as possible…and without expectations from a child…but out of the fullness of their hearts alone. All the more to love and be thankful we will one day be reunited again in God’s eternal Kingdom with renewed opportunity to share our appreciation.
Carolyn Wing GreenleeAugust 14, 2011 - 11:40 PM
I love your perspective on relationships we didn’t fully appreciate when we were younger. Redemption and grace—you remind me that what was lost years ago is not all there is. I shall see Miss Percier in heaven. She will meet me at the Gate. What a lovely thought!
Mary E. TrimbleAugust 14, 2011 - 6:28 AM
This is a lovely story, Carolyn. As a child I had a wonderful clarinet teacher, Hugo Schneider. I was his only student and would sometimes be at his home for 2 or 3 hours. He wrote music for me, we played duets, he was vitally interested in my progress. He was like a grandfather. I took lessons from him for many years. As a child I took Mr. Schneider for granted, though I was an enthusiastic student. As an adult, I look back at what a treasure he was. I hope I showed my appreciation to him.
Carolyn Wing GreenleeAugust 14, 2011 - 11:35 PM
Mary, your comment reminds me that one of the best reasons for writing memoirs is finding that they help others remember similar situations–dear people and experiences, life lessons still deepening us as human beings. Thank you for sharing.