During the years I was writing Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister's Memoir, I had a quote by Virginia Woolf pinned above my desk: "If you don't tell the truth about yourself, you can't tell it about anyone else." My goal was to excavate my truth not just as I remembered it, but also as I discovered it to be in the process, finding deeper truths I didn't know existed. In doing so, I hoped to reveal some universal truths about what it takes to overcome the obstacles of illness, fear, grief, and anger and become a warrior on behalf of your own life. I also hoped to illuminate the courage, faith, and joy that each of us has at our disposal, even when life conspires to diminish those essential elements. At the same time, I wanted to write more than just a dark confessional; I wanted to craft the story like a good novel.
Memoir is not autobiography. It is not the facts of an entire life, only a window into a life — it focuses on a specific place, time, or relationship, and requires both a narrative and reflective voice. It uses the elements of imagery and metaphor. It is a life not merely reported on, but distilled, like a good poem.
Writing memoir takes guts, patience, emotion, craft, and, I believe, a huge dose of compassion. It takes discipline and resilience. Sometimes you will sit at your desk despairing, asking the empty room, "Why would anyone else care about this?" The question, however, is why do you care? A memoirist must have passionate thoughts about the consequences of her own life. She must take responsibility for her own experience, make peace with the facts, and tell the story for the story's sake, without a hidden plea for help or sympathy. Writing memoir requires integrity, yet even as you write your way towards the truth, memory can prove unreliable. A memoirist must decide where that integrity — the honest heart of the story — rests, while at the same time giving respect to events as they are remembered. Inevitably, the story lies somewhere between memory and truth.
The heart of Sixtyfive Roses rests with my sister Pam and her fight for life as she battled cystic fibrosis. This does not mean it's a story about a disease, death, or dying, although these are some of its components. One reader wrote to me that she saw in it "the clarity of human travel over very rough territory." Another wrote that it is "for all of us on our own hero's journey, no matter what we are up against." Ultimately, Sixtyfive Roses is a story about the cost of living fully, loving deeply, and being deep in a hell each moment of which was a miracle.
"Read this book. Your life will never be the same." —Story Circle Network
Books mentioned in this post
Heather Summerhayes Cariou is the author of Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister's Memoir