How to Tell a True Story
Contributor
For the past few years, I've been immersed in writing true stories, first in my memoir, The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community and Coming Home to the Body (Ice Cube Press, 2009), and lately, in Needle in the Bone: The Uncommon Survival of a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance fighter. Particularly in writing this book, I'm facing new challenges in how to know the best way to tell this true story very much told by history also. This is one of the key questions flitting around my brain, occasionally landing on something solid and occasionally wondering where and how to land. In writing the stories of two people very much alive, and with their permission of course, and at the same time, blending into these stories historical research, difficult questions about human nature, and my own responses, I often feel like each page has been like juggling plates, balls, sticks with fire on the end, and a huge stack of books. At the same time, what I believe most about writing keeps showing its true nature. We learn how to write by writing. Annie Dillard has a quote I particularly love from her superb book, The Writing Life: “Who will teach me to write? A reader wanted to know. The page, the page, the eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page which will teach you to write. There is another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.” So I find myself letting fall onto the blank slate of the page all that I’m juggling, trusting that if I keep aiming for the best way to tell the truest story, the page will show me the way.

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