The beauty of memoirs “about us”
Memoirist and chaplain Kate Braestrup is the author of Here If You Need Me, a beloved memoir about losing a loved one and life after tragedy: Braestrup was a young mother of four when her husband, a Maine state trooper, was killed in a car accident.
Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, her second memoir, is another BookPage favorite; when it came out in January, reviewer Linda Stankard called it a “richly enlightening first-person narrative . . . And what a story it is!”
In a feature exclusive to BookPageXTRA, Braestrup answers questions about her favorite memoirs, the popularity of the genre and Beginner’s Grace, her new book out in November.
What qualities do you believe make a successful memoir?
The easiest answer is that interesting lives make for interesting memoirs, but that isn’t really true. When bad things happen to good writers, any writer can recognize a story even in the midst of her suffering, and the temptation is to write the book too soon. Writing about one’s unusual, bizarre or traumatic experience may be therapeutic, but it won’t necessarily yield a work that satisfies a reader.
In a memoir (as in any other form of creative literature) the task of the writer is to tell an individual tale with such precision, clarity and specificity that the reader can experience the universal through it. A memoir is, by definition, “about me,” but the best memoirs succeed by being about us.
What are your favorite memoirs?
I first read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives when I was nine. He combined a passion for animals and the natural world with an obvious affection for the rich (and funny!) possibilities of the English language, and I found his books irresistible. Hugues de Montalembert’s 2009 Invisible is a wonder: It is the brief, spare, compelling story of an artist attacked in a random crime and permanently blinded: de Montalembert’s story is, in itself, sufficiently sensational but was, thankfully, written by one who allowed time to pass before he shared it.
What is it about writing memoirs that you find compelling? Your first book, the novel Onion, was followed by two memoirs. Do you think you’ll ever return to writing fiction?
My first memoir, Here If You Need Me, is subtitled “A True Story,” but in it, a reader will not be told all the facts of my life. No genealogical data, no date or place of birth, few of the sorts of hard facts considered obligatory in an autobiography. The fascinating challenge of a memoir lies in the form’s demand for complete honesty without complete, exhaustive (and exhausting!) detail.
Oddly enough, it’s easy to describe evil in a novel. Even really outrageous evil strikes the modern reader as entirely believable. It is genuine virtue that seems to us implausible, and thus requires an explicit assertion of factuality: “Yes,” I find myself saying. “People really are generous, brave, routinely compassionate!”
I don’t come across a lot of genuine evil in my personal life, which is the only life I am authorized to really thoroughly exploit. I see the deluded, ignorant and pathetic at times, but seldom the wicked. When writing fiction, I don’t have to stick to real life: In fiction, one is allowed and even encouraged to lie as lavishly as the tale demands, which can be a great deal of fun even if, in the end, the untrue story asserts its own, dour demand for both truthfulness and careful editing. So I’m looking forward to getting back to fiction once I’ve finished with the present set of projects.
Why do you think it is so fascinating to read about other people’s relationships?
We’re all a bunch of voyeurs and gossips . . . or perhaps I should say that we are instinctively driven to try to extract wisdom from the successes and failures of others. In the dark, Darwinian struggles we call our “relationships,” the genes of the nosy must surely prevail over those of the uninquisitive. How inefficient would it be, after all, if every single soul was required to re-invent every single emotional wheel? We construct what we know of life and love not only from our relatives and friends, but from the grander tribulations of Abraham and Sarah, Bill and Hilary or—what the heck—from Brangelina.
Has the process of writing about your own life, relationships and beliefs changed the way you think about any of them?
My husband, a teacher for many years, claims you always teach best what you need to learn most. If nothing else, writing compels the formal organization, composition and consideration of ideas that might otherwise disguise themselves prettily as my personal intuition or unique cleverness. Pinned and humbled on the page, these are either revealed as half-baked foolishness or as the same reasonable conclusions that other human souls have arrived at, again and again, since the days when we were scratching in the dust with sticks. As a reader, I love the feeling I get when a familiar but elusive thought has been named, at last, by an author, and my favorite comments from readers describe the same communion.
Both of your memoirs are as much about the Maine game wardens you work with as about yourself. What have been the wardens’ reactions to being written about?
They have been very encouraging and generous all the way around. I think some good things have happened as a result of my writing: More people now know and understand what game wardens do, and are moved to express gratitude when they encounter a warden in the woods or—quite often—in the grocery store or diner! Since law enforcement officers often feel misunderstood and unappreciated by the communities they serve, this has been a good and healthy thing. The hardest part of having an author for a chaplain is simply that my responsibilities to my publisher and readers take me away from Maine, so I am 'Not Here If You Need Me' more often than before.
Tell us about your new book, Beginner’s Grace, out in November. What’s it about? Why did you decide to write it?
Beginner’s Grace was first imagined as a practical guide to prayer for people who were drawn to the idea of prayer, but didn’t really know how to go about doing it. As I worked on the book, however, I realized that the first question I had to answer (for myself, if for no one else) was “why pray at all? What’s the point?” Funnily enough, I realized that I had never been given an adequate answer to this question. I grew up in a secular family that did not pray, and went to Seminary with people who presumed I already knew not only why and how, but what to expect in the way of an answer. Beginner’s Grace turned out to be a much more interesting book than the one I thought I was going to write! It’s still a practical guide to prayer (theory is fine, but I need action!) but it also offers anecdotes, jokes and meditations that illustrate why and how a sane, reasonably rational, 21st century person can include the ancient practice of prayer in her life.
Author photo by Kelly Campbell.