In the lyrical and evocative coming-of-age memoir Kaufman’s Hill, John C. Hampsey recalls his boyhood in Pittsburgh in the mid-1960s: dealing with bullies, coping with a cold and distant father, and escaping to the refuge of a wooded hillside. In this behind-the-book essay, Hampsey explains how capturing the “truth” of what happened in the past presents a special set of challenges for a memoirist.
Before writing Kaufman’s Hill, it was my meditative essays that often veered toward the personal; my fiction was about stories I made up. Then in 1996, on a whim, I wrote a story about when I was seven, based on an image I had in my head for years—late afternoon, playing down at the creek with the Creely brothers who were often cruel to me, and one of them finds a dead rat.
That image led me to a “true” story—“Rat Stick at Twilight.” My writer’s group thought it was the best “fiction” I had ever written. One member said it offered a perspective on childhood he hadn’t seen before. That was all I needed. The story became Chapter One and I was on my way toward writing Kaufman’s Hill, my boyhood memoir set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania between the years 1961 and 1968.
In the early stages, the writing was an aesthetic quest. I had made the instinctive decision to write the book from the perspective of the boy, rather than that of a man looking back. I believed that the boy’s point of view would result in a greater intensity and sense of presence. But it also meant that I was restricted to the language and vocabulary of a boy. And I wanted the writing to be lyrical and fresh. My struggle, then, was to maintain the boy’s voice, but also to keep the writing aesthetically charged. It could be done, I decided, but it was slow going.
"Unconsciously, we construct the specific stories of our lives to coincide with timeless universal patterns already seared into the ganglia of our brains."
Meanwhile, the issue of “truth” persisted. Some of my early readers wanted me to fabricate plot lines in certain places for a different result in the action. And I kept saying, without totally understanding why, “I can’t. Everything in the book is true, as I remember it.”
Yet I still didn’t consider what I was writing to be memoir, because the book, consisting largely of vignettes, was woven together in the form of a novel. When someone asked, I referred to Kaufman’s Hill as an “autobiographical novel.”
In my struggle to write truth and not fiction, I didn’t realize, at first, how much we mythologize ourselves when we write about our pasts. Unconsciously, we construct the specific stories of our lives to coincide with timeless universal patterns already seared into the ganglia of our brains. And every time we look back, we re-weave the fabric of the past in keeping with a new understanding of these universal human patterns.
For instance, in the third chapter of Kaufman’s Hill, Taddy Keegan, a Huck Finn-like character, arrives out of nowhere, and his presence in my life seems to suddenly free me from the tyranny of the Creelys. Amidst my admiration for Taddy’s carefreeness and courage, and my desire to be like him, the Creelys seem to no longer matter; they almost seem to no longer exist. But whether Taddy Keegan’s actual arrival in my actual life was as well-timed and organic as it appears in the book, I’ll never know. Perhaps I just remembered it that way because the story of my life would then make more sense in a mythical and universal way.
And it is not just the character of our past selves that is part of the myth-making; the person looking back, the writer, is also inside the myth. And even the person who later writes an essay about himself as a memoirist who recorded a story about himself as a boy is part of the expanding myth―a myth about a boy that both the memoirist and essayist want to believe is true.
Marshall McLuhan once said that myth is simply information that’s speeded up lightning-fast. I believe that when we write memoir, we are trying to catch up to that speeding myth. And sometimes we succeed. We capture a glimpse of it and record it as our true myth of self, despite the fact that time moves on “swift as the weaver’s shuttle.”
John C. Hampsey’s boyhood memoir, Kaufman’s Hill, was published this month by Bancroft Press. He is professor of romantic and classical literature at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.