Break-Your-Heart Books

Write a book that breaks your own heart. That’s one of the reminders I wrote myself before outlining my novel. (The other was don’t rescue your characters—a reminder not to fall so in love with them that I couldn’t bear having them in pain.

Whether or not a book digs deep and delivers the bones of an author’s truth—through memoirs revealing facts or novels delivering emotional authenticity—is apparent upon the reading. These are the books that pop me in the heart or provide moment of reality mirrored back.

I thought about this when I read Darin Strauss’s memoir, Half A Life, which explores his examination of living with the guilt of having accidently killed a high school classmate in a driving accident. Strauss goes that extra step, providing the squirmy details that take us into his experience and have us reflect on our own:

The accident had also turned me squishily obliging. I always cozied up to people—so that if they ever learned the story they’d say: “He seems so decent and kind. How awful that such a thing would happen to him!

Jesse, A Mother’s Story was written by Marianne Leone, a mother who loved her son with ferocity—the ferocity parents of disabled children need more than others parents. Jesse Cooper had severe cerebral palsy, was unable to speak, and was quadriplegic and wracked by severe seizures. He was also stunningly bright, funny, and loving. His parents, Marianne Leone and Chris Cooper, needed both rage and ferocious love if Jesse’s light was to come out in full.

Leone wrote her book so close that I felt the cigarette she held as I read how she:

Our session with the physical therapist was a disaster. She roughly stripped Jesse of his outside clothes, and he began to howl. “Well, I can’t work with him if he’s going to cry all the time,” she said . . . Jesse was failing physical therapy. Or was the therapist failing Jesse? To watch your child handled roughly is to have a piece of your soul crumple into ash.

In the opening of Tayari Jones’ novel Silver Sparrow the narrator’s direct candor took me deep faster than any string of fancified words could:

My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the gift-wrap counter at Davison’s downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn’t right between a man and woman when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them.

Right from the start I knew I was getting truth straight up.

Truthiness in books delivers windows on the world that help us understand; it also delivers those oh-so-important I’m not alone moments which get can get you through everyday pain—and isn’t it the everyday pain that often breaks our hearts? Jennifer Weiner’s Good In Bed explores the aftermath of a young woman reading her ex’s description of her in a national magazine, a dramatization of how so many of us fear being called out for being fat:

I could hear the blood roaring in my ears as I read the first line of the article: ”I’ll never forget the day I found out my girlfriend weighed more than I did . . . I never thought of myself as a chubby chaser”’ I read.

Dani Shapiro’s memoir Slow Motion provides understanding of the ways in which a complicated childhood can lead to a self-loathing-inducing affair (hers only struck down because of a family tragedy.)

I cannot face dinner with Lenny without a vial of cocaine in my handbag. My friend buzzed me in, and I run five flights up to her loft, skimming my hand along the chipped wood banister. I ring her doorbell, and she opens it, holding a paper bag. I know what will be inside without even looking, and I hand her a check for one hundred dollars. She trusts me and always takes my checks—a nifty trait in a drug dealer.

Depth of truth is not limited to particular genres—it resonates from the author’s willingness to reveal the squirmy details, the inside-thoughts, and the unheroic. It can be exposed with humor, straight on, or with chilling particulars (though self-pity generally sinks the impact of candor.)

Writing and reading books that hit the bone isn’t to everyone’s taste (some have told me my book is too dark,) but they help me. Even as a kid, I was never one for the happily-ever-after. Opening my eyes to the wounds of others helps me understand my own transgressions and spreads an empathy that balms my tender spots. Other times, I am given the gift of appreciating what I haven’t had to endure.

Writing towards the worst makes me braver—a trait I dearly need to employ more often. In my family, my sister and I are known for doing our ‘death watches’—always waiting for people to disappear and disaster to strike. Reading and writing about the dark side seems to be one of the ways in which I can lighten up.

Lord knows it’s better than whiskey,

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3 Comments

  1. Posted September 13, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    What a wonderful set of examples to drive the point home. Great reminder for my own writing life. And the perfect handout for my writing workshop. Dive in deep, so deep you squirm.

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Thank you, Ann. Imagining it being handed out in a workshop warms my heart immeasurably.

  2. Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    I, too, am saving this to hand out to our Writer’s Weekend Retreat in April when I’ll be hosting this with novelist, Jacqueline Sheehan. Thank you for writing such an enlightening piece. Perfect.

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