I am currently working on a quiet project that is pulling me back to my early days in the U.S. I am reluctant to use the term “memoir,” because in my opinion, only famous people or people who have lived an extraordinary event write memoirs. When the time has come for them to share their lives with us, they often deliver a beautiful hardcover book printed on exquisite paper with an artsy dust jacket.
I prefer saying that I’m working on a long “personal essay” or on a manuscript written in the “first person.”
Anyway, as I am revisiting memories and working on my third draft, I am still unsure of the voice through the whole manuscript. I feel like I’m almost there with parts, hesitant with others, and almost always in doubt. Every member of my writing group writes fiction for children. Only one writes biographies and also for young readers. Although they read and critique my work, I have embarked on a project that doesn’t perfectly fit in. While the narrative arc of my work is clearer, the quality begs for improvement. While I have developed secondary and even tertiary characters, I still need to make sure they stay alive through the whole manuscript. And emotional doesn’t mean sentimental, I keep reminding myself.
Yesterday afternoon as temperatures reached 80 F, I felt restless as if we had skipped spring and entered summer. I knew I would not accomplish anything worthy before the end of the school day. That’s why I decided to go to a used books shop where I had never been yet.
It was cool and dimmed inside, and the smell of paper, somehow more distinct when the books have previously lived in other homes, gave me an unexpected surge of energy. I walked directly to one aisle of the shop as if guided by an invisible hand.
I reached for a book stuck among dozens of other books and first thought it was accidental. But when I read the name of the author it sounded familiar. I had seen his name on a flier this winter at my local Whole Foods. But I hadn’t really paid attention. Now that I was holding this book between my hands, I realized that it had been written by David Mas Masumo, a third generation Japanese American who lives in Fresno, less than an hour from my home. I paid for my book and left.
And last night, long after I should have been in bed, I read Epitaph for a Peach.
David Mas Masumoto is a peach and grape farmer, a farm activist here in Central California, but above all a man who writes about nature and family as sparingly as a poet would.
The book follows Masumoto through a year as he tries, despite all odds, to keep his Sun Crest peaches alive and also to farm differently – with and not against nature. And since he is the descendant of Japanese who left their country for the United States, Masumoto shares his family heritage and immigration experience throughout the book.
Although I grow herbs in pots on the deck behind my kitchen, I’m a total stranger to farming. And yet I couldn’t put the book down. When I finally closed it I knew that I had to know before falling asleep if Masumoto had saved his peaches. He had not only shared his personal story but also managed to make me feel like it mattered to me as much as it did to him. He had made of his experience a universal human experience.
When I switched the light off at 1:30 a.m. I had read a writer who had successfully found and kept his voice through his entire story.
And that’s what you need to do, I told myself as I tossed and turned in my bed – fortunately for my husband he is away on business trip this week.
I woke up, tired and dreading the task awaiting me, but also energized. In only a few hours I had discovered a new writer who had done what I had been trying to do for the last months.
I found him and his book unexpectedly, but I like to think not accidentally.