The One-Way Mirror, by Carole Howard

Violinists sometimes claim they play the most difficult instrument. After all, there are no keys to press that automatically produce “C#.” Nor are there frets, as on a guitar neck, for guidance. You need to just know where to put your finger. For every single note – and there are so many of them. (Have you guessed I’m a violinist?)

I have to admit, though, that pianists have it rough, too, with two different lines of music, one for the left hand and one for the right. As if that weren’t enough, the two lines are written in different clefs. (Non-musicians: let’s just say that black dot on one of the five lines of a musical staff can mean different things depending on which clef it’s in.)

Each group has a point. Or, as my friend’s mother used to say, “There are pros and cons on both sides, and they’re all bad.”

Having been a fiction writer who dove, somewhat naively, into memoir-writing, I see that there are pros and cons in both genres. In this case, of course, they’re not all bad. But they sure are different.

My first novel was character-driven. I could use incidents from my own life, but got to pick and choose, and had the freedom to make up whatever I wanted. Having come from the corporate-writing world, it seemed heavenly to give free rein to my imagination, my creativity. Readers didn’t know which parts were fact-based and which were fictional. When people asked if the protagonist was really me, the short answer was no.

And yet, there was that intimidating blank-canvas thing.

The second novel was a murder mystery. Only a little was drawn from my life, and the canvas wasn’t so blank because mysteries have to be constructed in a certain way so they wind up being….. mysterious. Red herrings, false clues, buried truth. So the “rules” were comforting. But they were difficult, very difficult, to follow.

Like I said, pros and cons.

My most recent book is a travel memoir about five volunteer trips, each two months long, to the developing world. It’s not a travelogue: no recommendations for hotels or restaurants. Yes, it recounts experiences I had while traveling – some funny, some inspiring, some surprising, some sad. There was the time I was twenty feet from a silverback mountain gorilla with nothing between us except trees. Or the time I coached sex workers on their presentations to colleagues about the correct use of condoms. We used wooden props – use your imagination!

But the point of telling about these moments in the memoir is not necessarily, “This is great – you should do it too.” There’s a lot more. Character. Reflections. Truth. Certainly, the tools for writing fiction were also crucial for memoir: setting the scene with physical description, creating tension, using punchy dialogue. But making it all into a story was quite a hill to climb.

The strangest thing about having written a memoir, though, is realizing there are a whole lot of people out there who know some pretty intimate stuff about me. Not only do I not know intimate details about them, I don’t even know who they are!

When I’m speaking at a book store or library, this asymmetry is particularly disorienting. And there’s irony, too: People in the audience, if they’ve read the book, know how uncomfortable I feel about public speaking, and yet here I am, speaking publicly. Through the looking glass, or should I say the one-way mirror?

I guess it’s like being naked when everyone else is clothed, aka EVERYONE’S WORST NIGHTMARE!!

  •     *     *     *

Carole Howard wrote Deadly Adagio, a mystery with a musical undertone set in West Africa, published by Indigo Sea Press.


Filed under fiction, music, musings, Travel, writing

5 responses to “The One-Way Mirror, by Carole Howard

  1. Interesting take on speaking about one’s work, Carole. I never really thought of my expressed vulnerability in a talk as, “…being naked when everyone else is clothed, aka everyone’s worst nightmare.” I’ve always found that people can relate better to an author if they can see something in them that is “human” and maybe even vulnerable. So what you may believe is weakness or a trait not so desirable, to others, often is something to be admired or something that would cause your readers to root for you. I can remember early on when I gave a talk, I was so nervous, I could hear my voice quiver. I was embarrassed and humiliated, but I kept going. Afterward, lots of people rushed to my side to congratulate me for hanging in there, to support me and compliment me. I was so shocked by this, my fear left me, and I’ve been able to give talks since then that I’ve enjoyed immensely. I imagine you are a wonderful speaker, you just may not know it yet.

    • Thanks for the moral support, Coco. I’ve done a lot of public speaking and am confident I do a good job (well, after the first 10 minutes, anyway), and yet I’m not comfortable with it. Same with flying: I’ve done a whole lot, and still don’t like it. But it’s not talking about my book that makes me feel naked, it’s that some of the people to whom I’m talking have already read the book — and they’re the ones who know a whole lot about me.

  2. I loved reading this. I’m sure I’d love listening too. And the memoir sounds really cool.

  3. Great viewpoint indeed! I appreciate you sharing your wisdom and comparison to music – especially the violin and piano and I certainly agree with how complicated weaving a musical tale can be.

    Congratulations on finding your voice and merging it with your strengths!

    Thanks for writing and reading,

    Sarah Butland

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