The Pleasures and Perils of Writing a Revealing Memoir

If you're not telling the whole truth, why write?

Posted Sep 12, 2016

Aline Dassel/FreeImages
Source: Aline Dassel/FreeImages

It's Merrill Joan Gerber's sense of humor that makes her books so readable and so memorable. Her novels and nonfiction nonetheless often feature dark subjects. (See her biography at the end.)

Her newest book is the forthright and quirky Beauty and the Breast: A Tale of Breast Cancer, Love, and Friendship (Coffeetown Press). What follows is my interview with Gerber about her writing, her life, and her plans for the future.

Q&A with Merrill Joan Gerber

Q: When did you decide it was important to get this unusually intimate memoir out into the world?

One night, perhaps a year after I had been in treatment for breast cancer, my husband and I went to a church concert of all of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. As I watched the many women filing in and taking their seats, and then the women musicians taking their seats on stage, I realized that all the women had breasts! Astonishing!  All of them, every one of the women, came walking in with breasts.

The lights dimmed and Bach’s magnificent music began to fill the church. I sank back in my seat, thrilled by both the music and the epiphany I had just experienced. I thought about my girlhood in Brooklyn, when I first discovered my own growing breasts, and about the well-endowed Italian sisters, our neighbors, who helped sew my eighth grade graduation dress.

I suddenly began to write on the program in my lap: “Breasts are everywhere in Brooklyn.” I began to write more furiously—I had found the opening lines of the first chapter for my book, though I did not realize it at that moment.

I wrote further about my feeling of humiliation that my breasts did not fill my graduation dress to the points of the darts cleverly stitched into it. I wrote about how I had stuffed tissues into my dress before going up on stage to receive my diploma and how they had slid down to the floor! 

My recognition about how breasts inform our lives, affect our dreams, and impact our love-lives and our days of motherhood should not have been news to me at my age, but something had struck me, perhaps guided by Bach’s soul-shaking music.

I went home and thought about the enormous experience I had had during my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, about my chilling fears, about the compassionate doctors and nurses I had had, about my friends who rallied round and reassured me, how those who had survived cancer gave me their scarves and wigs. I saw that I must write the story.

Q: Thoughts about mortality keep poking their nose into your narrative, don't they?

My book is about life and death, joy and fear, loving living and fear of dying. As I say in the book, when the TSA agent at the airport insisted that I discard my three little slices of peaches in a plastic container ("more than three ounces!")—I thought, I am not the terrorist here, cancer is the terrorist!

Q: What would you tell other writers and would-be memoirists are the most important things to keep in mind while writing about their own lives? Pitfalls?

There is always a danger in telling the truth, but there is no other way to write. You must be willing to be ruthless at your desk (just as in real life you try to be kind and caring to those you love.) There would be no literature worth reading if writers feared they might hurt the feelings of someone they knew. You are not writing for or about specific people, you are writing to share your insights with humanity.

Q: Why did you write that the time you spend with your three daughters and five grandchildren are filled with ecstasy?

Being in a space (in real time, in a real place) with my daughters and their children is a kind of sacred experience for me. We are enclosed in a thrilling dome of wholeness when this happens. I know my husband experiences this, and my daughters feel it, as well. Their children, the cousins, have connected deeply over the years when we gather together, even for a short time. They know they will share these irrevocable bonds all their lives.

Q: You've experienced depression. You meant to give up writing, but you continued to write. Why?

I am never far from depression, and it comes, I believe, from the constant awareness of change, coming loss, and the enormity of certain knowledge of death. Serious writers cannot look away for long from these truths and realities. Saul Bellow said that the essence of writing is "news from existence" and the writer gets this news in constant waves of incoming and overwhelming messages. We are here, one day we and those we love will be gone. We look away from these truths in the activities of daily living, but to some of us they constantly call for our attention to remind us of what is coming.

Q: What's next in your writing life?

Perhaps my next subject will make itself known—though I often feel the muse will never return again. I'm looking now at surgery for a new knee. Perhaps my next book will be called "The Bee's Knees."

I've also recently begun to write essays (or blog posts) and posting them on my website. It's inviting to look at individual moments and write about them without the need to weave them into a story, novel, or memoir.

  • Merrill Joan Gerber has had a long, varied, and prolific writing career. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Mademoiselle, Redbook, Commentary, The Sewanee Review, and elsewhere. She was a Wallace Stegner fiction fellow at Stanford and the winner of an O. Henry Prize. Among her 30 books are The Kingdom of Brooklyn, winner of the Ribalow Award from Hadassah Magazine for "the best English-language book of fiction on a Jewish theme," as well as six volumes of short stories and three books of nonfiction. Her most recent novel was The Hysterectomy Waltz. She teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology.
  • Read her essay, "A Life in Letters," about her 40-year friendship with the writer Arturo Vivante. It's in The American Scholar, here.
  • Most of Gerber's books are available as ebooks, including, for example, The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn. For more, see Dzanc Books

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