I’m always reading about private lives. Since I conduct writing retreats, much of what I read when working with prospective writers is about their struggles to live satisfyingly and with meaning. I've never become cynical about these writings because every one of us is doing the same thing: trying to figure out how to get the most from our time on earth. We can learn from one another.
Mary Beth Baptiste’s Altitude Adjustment has joined my shelf of books I will recommend to writers who are trying to figure out just how to write about that divorce, that disastrous love affair, or that terrible loss. With courage, and a discerning eye, she has looked at her own past, at the way she left a bad marriage in suburban Massachusetts to become a woodswoman in the Rocky Mountains.
Have you got a difficult story to tell? Read this book for clues on how to do it.
How do you handle the reactions of relatives to your decisions? Mary Beth’s parents weren't happy about her divorce or her plan to move west. Sounding a lot like my mother, hers said, “No man would ever want you again.”
How do you handle swatches of your life that you don’t want to write about, because they were unsatisfactory or boring or nobody’s business? She tells us enough about the marriage she left to be convincing, but doesn't hammer at the subject, understanding readers don’t need every detail in order for us to understand. In a sentence or paragraph, she summarizes several events that aren't part of the quest of the subtitle.
What about love and sex? Mary Beth handles scenes of intimacy with relish but with restraint; your mother won’t be embarrassed to be caught reading this book.
Readers always ask writers of nonfiction, “Is this true? Did this really happen?” We've all become a little cynical after learning that writers we trusted made the whole thing up. Mary Beth has written an author’s note that clarifies the way she has handled the truth so well that I must quote the whole thing:
“I sincerely hope that those who recognize themselves in these pages will understand that I wrote this story from a place of love and gratitude for all of you who crossed paths with me during this magical time of my life. The events in the narrative did occur. Whether others will recall them as I have is debatable. To protect privacy, I changed some names, genders, physical identifiers, draft numbers and birthdates, radio call numbers, and other finger-pointing characteristics, and I created a character to take the heat. Some local place names have been changed.
A chronology of events does not a memoir make. To create narrative flow, I reconstructed dialogue, scrambled chronology, and compressed time. To keep the book to a manageable length, some people and events had to be left out.”
Besides all this, she writes with skill about her new home and the people in it; her prose is lyrical and strong. “Snow sheets over the ground and feathers up the mountainsides, lending a paradoxical softness to the landscape.”
Writing about your life? Mary Beth shows how to do it honestly and with grace. Mary Beth writes, ”The mountains called, and I came. I found my way home. . . . I finally feel the power of my life, and it matters. . . . I don’t pretend to understand it all, but this I know: Dreams won’t die, no matter how hard we try to slay them.”
She's not only provided a lesson in writing about your life, but the book will give you goose bumps too.
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For more information:
Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons,
by Mary Beth Baptiste
Helena, MT: TwoDot, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.
ISBN 978-0-9134-7. Paperback. 272 pp.
Visit the author’s website at: marybethbaptiste.com
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