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“The Mirror That Is Memoir” by Dace Mara Zacs-Koury

My father’s death and burial in 1994 in Latvia, and my subsequent discovery of a dark family secret dating back to the Second World War compelled me to write. I knew little of his or Latvia’s past, and so I set about talking to relatives, revisiting overseas, learning Latvian, and digging into historical research, finally turning up Father’s war records. Little did I know when I began that I was embarking on a twenty-year writing journey.

Last May, I enrolled in the Humber School for Writers with the express purpose of finishing my memoir. But for one reason or another, I struggled to draw the story to a close. In the eleventh hour of the seven-month-long program, though I finished my last chapter, the all-important resolution, the long-awaited “answer” to the questions posed in the first chapter, failed to satisfy. My instructor-mentor – I was fortunate to work with Joseph Kertes, founder and former director of the Humber program – knew it. And worse, I knew it. What had gone wrong?

I’d painstakingly recorded relatives’ recollections, ferreted out the facts, lined up all the pieces as accurately as I could. But so far I had failed to uncover my emotional truth – and my reason for writing: to know the man who was my father, and to know myself in relation to him.

I’d withheld from the reader the very appeal of nonfiction, which is (as Phillip Lopate sees it) the adventure of witnessing a writer’s mind grappling with a thorny problem. With all my striving after right sequence and correct detail, my memoir turned out to be the “tale of an unlived relationship” (Vivian Gornick). Research – and studying how-to – was my strong suit; self-disclosure on the page was not. 

Allyson Latta, my friend and writing guide, had told me this when first we met in summer of 2010. Sitting in her Introduction to Writing Memoir workshop at the North York Central Library, I had put a bold asterisk in my notebook beside Emotional truth of the event; the real story is how I felt about it. She taught that memoir is remembered truth, and, as such, is as much about the memoirist as the event(s).

Yet two months later, in commenting on my manuscript-in-progress, she described my narrative voice as distant (last thing you want in a memoir), despite that I had felt intense sadness, confusion, despair, and anger both on the journey to bury Father, and in writing about it. As well, my depiction of characters and myself in relationship to them – most notably my father – felt to her distant. She had faith that I could dig deeper.

Open-hearted positive support from my Lifers Ink writing group and generous encouragement from Allyson over the years lent me courage, gave me a safe space to test my story and to try my voice, despite fear of judgement for the unpopular history I was heir to. These dear women had applauded my decision to apply for entry to Humber.  And the program’s months of tough-love and extreme focus took me through an entire draft and nudged me to draw decades of tentative writing to a close. In the process, however, I would learn how thoroughly I mistrusted my self, and my ability to create, to boldly create.   

I was heartened by Joseph’s comments at the outset: “captivating chapters” and “promising memoir;” and, at the midway point, “conveying [my] family’s sad story vividly and clearly.” But soon enough, his feedback began to echo Allyson’s earlier take: my characters “aren’t entirely alive … including [me] the narrator.”

Believing that laying out the evidence of Latvia’s little-known history as the pawn of two giant imperialist powers, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, would tell the story more powerfully, I persisted with documented chronology. But by program end, Joseph had come to the overall conclusion that “the researched and reported approach to this memoir mutes the front-line tension bursting from beneath it.”

In hindsight, I see that we can take in and take on only what we are capable of at the time. The required reading for Humber prose writers was Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction – A Guide to Narrative Craft. The irony of a text with this title being assigned for my nonfiction project went straight over my head. What did fiction have to do with memoir? But Burroway distinguishes two words that had perennially confused me: “story” and “plot.” A story, she writes, is a series of events recorded in their chronological order; a plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. She had hit upon my long-standing Achilles’ heel.

Joseph suggested I place my intended closing chapter at the start of the story (earlier, Allyson had also posed such a hook, but I wasn’t brave enough). Program director Antanas Sileika had directed us not to argue with a mentor’s suggestion and rather try it on, so I went with the switch, in the process rewriting the chapter numerous times. The new opening, about a life-altering discovery, changed everything. 

Joseph put it thus: My “singular task” going forward would be winning readers’ empathy for a man they want to hate. A shadow was now cast over the story to come, giving the narrative “forward tilt” (a phrase borrowed from Tim O’Brien), an impetus, an inevitability that harnessed readers’ attention. Joseph had to reiterate and remind me to “keep refuelling” that propulsion with “dark glimmerings” of my father’s past and my search for the key. He likened my initial discovery to a ticking bomb. Once the reader knows it’s there, the storyteller’s art is to let the reader hear it ticking now and again. He wanted suspense, he wanted cinematic drama. I had collected the facts; now he wanted the art.

 I struggled with the crossover of fiction and memoir, the integrity of speculative truth meshing with factual truth. Allyson had long ago recommended Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. I regretted not opening it years sooner. To touch “the honest heart of the story” in memoir, some falsification is inevitable, she writes. And on integrity: “There is no more absolute truth in memoir than in life.”  

In “The Truth About Lying,” an article Joseph wrote for The Walrus in September 2012, he discusses invented truth, saying that readers presume invention in fiction, but expect only truth and fact in nonfiction. But is memory accurate? Do facts tell the truth? He reminds us that all great authors lie, no matter the genre. By way of illustration, he said, while Henry David Thoreau was writing his classic Walden, he slept inside in a plush bed, and not, as the reader might suppose, outside under the stars. Joseph Kertes writes: “The reality is that every writer grapples with the wish to tell the truth and the need to bend it for a higher purpose.”

What turned the tide for me was Joseph saying, “The mere selection of some facts and omission of others is a form of fiction based on bias and limited perspective.”

Back in 1999, as a novice writer at age forty-nine, I had enrolled in the Taddle Creek Summer Writers’ Workshop at University of Toronto. Barry Callaghan was the writer-in-residence and had an interest in the cause of “three disappearing peoples”: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. His first words to me were “So you’re the Latvian.”

Barry gave me a profound gift: he handed me a Latvian book of poetry he’d recently translated, Flowers of Ice by Imants Ziedonis, and along with it, he introduced me to the ancient culture of my forebears, the dainas, Latvian folksongs sung by the peasants. For centuries, ruling German Barons had deemed these “nonsense songs.” But a spirit of “perpetual renewal” runs through them, Barry writes in his translator’s notes. “The lyrical ‘I’ of the songs is not an individual’s voice but the voice of the people, singing in the eternal present of different lives all following the same archetypal pattern.”

I began to see my story, my family’s story, belonging and embedded in a larger whole. The dainas became a touchstone, inspiring courage and resilience, sustaining me through rewrites.

How many rewrites? Since my initial foray into writing, a dozen and counting.

In a consult with Allyson some fifteen years later, discussing where I was going with the final third of my manuscript, she said: “You’re so close now. You must finish this … for your mother … for Latvia.” My tears started to flow.

Why was I writing? Father’s silence went with him to the grave, and Mother’s memory was stolen by Alzheimer’s.  

What kept me at it? A story that needs telling, a generation (mine) that needs to tell it.

Three quarters of the way through Janet Burroway’s book, and the writing of mine, I read in her Writing Fiction “…a major reason my characters were having trouble opening up was that each had failed to deal with a significant person in the past … each had to dig up the past and get it properly buried again.” The author speaks of twice deciding to give up writing her novel, and once deciding to give up writing altogether. 

Yes, (trashing my memoir), and yes, (throwing in the towel).  

By the spring of 2014, I had written drafts of Parts I and II of my memoir. When new research arrived, I felt my long journey to bury Father was almost over. How hard could it be to write Part III? I thought.

Then Mother fell, and had to move. Her Alzheimer’s grew worse and displaced my writing.

The Humber commitment last year was a desperate measure to rescue my writing life. (I know now why so many authors dedicate their books to family members – writing is all-consuming.) The program took me through yet another review of Parts I and II, a first draft of Part III, and my closing chapters. End of story? No, not quite yet. But Joseph had pushed me further, toward something infinitely more important, toward emotional closure.

He had me revisit Part I, rewriting my parents’ separation and divorce (I was twelve) chapter over and over. Each time, I failed to convince and convey to the reader the tragic drama of a marriage “careening toward destruction,” and the painful impact of the loss of a parent on the child. This narrative impasse mirrored my inability, as an adult daughter, to “let go,” to bury and rebury the loss of Father. And my guarded holding on came across as emotional distance in writing.

The truth of memoir is that it mirrors the memoirist.

I graduated Humber in December with pride of accomplishment but without a finished manuscript.

Joseph has assigned me “homework”: a rewrite of the war years sections of Part III, in creative nonfiction, giving just enough historical background for context. He pointed out that real-life memories evolve in the writing and can “commandeer the plot,” just as created characters do. He suggested I (re)tell these chapters as imagined through my father’s eyes.

The emotional insights that came forward in the writing process were a bonus, and though my manuscript needs yet another rewrite, such insights made the Humber experience worthwhile. My challenge now is to trust my creativity.

In doing so, I hope, finally, to touch the “honest heart” of my story. 

About Dace Zacs-Koury 

Dace Mara Zacs-Koury is of Baltic heritage, a late-comer to the writing life, a lover of memoir. She worked in Multicultural workplace training in Toronto, Scarborough, and Durham Boards of Education, and was private tutor to families from Japan and Taiwan in Canada on Business. A turning point – the death of her father in Latvia in 1994 – began a quest for her roots that entailed making trips overseas, immersing herself in the Latvian language, and documenting her family history. Dace is a member of the writing group Life Writers Ink. She is currently finishing her first book, The Other Side of the Sun: A Daughter’s Search for the Heart of Latvia.