As memoirists, we know that writing a memoir can be fraught with all kinds of doubts and silencing, from “I’m not that great a writer” to “what will the family say?” We worry about how much to put in, whether to frame scenes with dialogue or not, or if we should name the people we grew up with. We worry about these things whether they are legal issues or not. We worry about them even if we are starting a first draft that no one else will see but our writer buddies or coach. Let’s face it—we worry!
For the most part, the memoir writers I know are not writing for revenge. Most of them are women who were silenced in various ways as they grew up—from family who wanted to present a certain face to the world to a society who often offered favoritism to more outspoken boys or men. Men and women both can feel silenced in societies where keeping to the standard roles of macho male and submissive women are the norm—there will always be aspects of personality and feelings that are unacceptable.
We internalize these “rules” and don’t want to break them—because we fear losing something in the bargain. Some of us will lose the approval of others, while there are those whose families are so rigid or judgmental they rightfully fear being shunned or disinherited. Honestly, some families really do react this way when they don’t approve of what is written or said that conflicts with the image the family prefers to present to the world.
Memoirists risk exposure when they write anything that goes beyond the agreed upon boundaries set by family, community, or church. As small children, we can feel where we “shouldn’t” speak, and few can bear breaking that rule. When we grow up, we manage these rules, but for the most part can slide by with our opinions kept to ourselves if we prefer—until we start writing a memoir! This genre is based on the writer presented the truth as accurately as possible—and I don’t just mean the facts—which are only one aspect of truth. I mean that the memoirist writes about being a young in a family that lived in a certain town, writes about what happened behind closed doors, writes about the good and the bad—with the faces of real people in their lives explored on the page—for others to read—someday.
This week at the National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar, we are going to talk with Linda Watanabe McFerrin about the skills of writing a memoir so that you can go home for the holidays, and at the same time tell a true story. Please join us for this rich discussion between two memoirists—and two Lindas!
Writers are in the midst of what can only be seen as a revolution. We are in a ground-breaking evolution of publishing from a process that required gatekeepers—agents, editors, and editorial boards—to an open market where you get to choose how and when your work is published. Third way publishing, hybrid publishing, and self-publishing “companies” open the way for you to publish your book. The eBook has revolutionized the definition of what a book is. Even die-hard book sniffers and book lovers will read on a Kindle or platform other than paper. If you want to publish a book, it has never been easier!
Where are you in this new publishing world? As you begin to think of all the choices, you may feel overwhelmed, but the Internet can deliver to you encyclopedic amounts of information about any of the topics that have to do with publishing. Just search, find, read, and digest the information available to you.
However, to self-publish in almost any format, you have to be able to pay for someone’s services. To present the best book you can write, you need editors, proofreaders, and designers for your interior and your cover—people DO judge a book by its cover. If you try to publish your work without extensive editing passes, you will not end up happy. People DO judge your book by the quality of the writing and the care you take to create a good “product.” The final package, the end game to all your writing is, after all, something to sell, something that you offer to someone else for a fee. And it must prove its value. Of course, you want to present your “baby”– your story and your book in the best way possible.
So, how to afford this new venture? Most people need to make a financial plan for their book, unless they are lucky enough to already have enough money to pay for the costs of production. By now, most of you have heard of “crowd-sourcing”—a way to involve the community in raising money for a project.
This month’s Roundtable Discussion at the National Association of Memoir Writers Free Teleseminar will address how Pubslush, a crowdfunding company especially for authors, can help you make your publishing and marketing a success.
Our guest is the VP of Pubslush, Amanda Barbara, along with two NAMW authors who successfully funded their books through Pubslush, Sonia Marsh and Kathy Pooler. Please join us for a lively and informative discussion about publishing, fund-raising, and marketing your book. Empower yourself to complete your book! join us for free! Click this link to sign up and receive the audio for free, to listen to if you can’t join us and to have as a resource later.
It’s an old story really, the girl who’s missing a father. Either he’s dead, or drunk, or doesn’t care. Or perhaps the parents are divorced and he’s gone or banished. Perhaps he’s an angry man, or neglectful. Hopefully he’s not mean or violent. Hopefully his hands don’t stray to his daughter, but it’s an old story.
Another old, and much happier, story is the father who IS there. He protects his family, teaches and guides. He looks into the eyes of his children and sees through to their souls. He joyfully, most of the time, shares what he knows about life, and interprets and explains the confusion of right, wrong, good, bad, and how the world can be too overwhelming and challenging sometimes. He’s not perfect either. He gets angry at the wrong time, but he apologizes. He forgets the PTA meeting, but he takes you out for ice cream and listens as you talk about your new project. Even if it’s hard for him, he tries to listen and understand emotions, but maybe just trying is enough. Maybe he shows his love by sharing what HE loves so you tune into it the rest of your life, letting the memories wash over you.
I know some of what a good father does by the ones I adopted. My own father left by the time I was eight months old. I never spent a holiday with him, and saw him a few times in my life. His presence was huge though in the ongoing battle with my grandmother who raised me, a battle that lasted until they both died the same week. But luckily I had other “fathers” to look up to. I watched the neighborhood fathers go to work, come home, embrace their wives, play with their kids, spank their kids, go to the school programs, fix the car, barbecue once in a while. Mow the lawn. They were there every day.
But one of the most important figures in my life was my first cello teacher Mr. Brauninger. I write about my first encounter with him in my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, and you can read an excerpt here about our first meeting. For three years, he guided us fledgling musicians like the little birds we were into a love of music, especially Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn that we have never lost. I still know some of the “kids” I played music with so long ago, and we mist over when we talk about Mr. Brauninger. His third year teaching in the public schools in Enid, Oklahoma, Eva, a 5’2″ bass player and firebrand teacher, came to town, and together they became our musical mother and father. They fell in love and got married, and when I was 13 moved away. I lost track of them, but for 35 years, I dreamed I was looking for them.
Finally, I found them in Des Moines, Iowa, and I came to see them; we embraced each other as if no time had passed. They had silver hair, and I had grown up, but the time we had shared was still part of us. He told me something I would never forget as we talked about the shy, skinny insecure little girl I was. I said to him, “I always felt that you SAW me.” He said, “Linda Joy, when I looked into your eyes, I saw the face of God.”
That shocked me a bit–I knew he was religious but…God? Then I got it. One of my memories of him were how he’d look into my eyes and I could feel that he was there. Really there. No one else did that. Not my mother, not my father. It was a bolt of lightning and a great comfort all at once. I suppose now I’d call it an energetic connection. Or simply call it love.
We were on the best wavelength you can have in those moments, and there were many of them in the four years he was with me, back when I was a bit lost, but for him and the music. I know in some ways he helped to save me, and I have always loved him for it. Luckily for the next ten years, I got to thank him again and again, as I visited him several times before he died. On the last visit, as he was struggling with cancer, he held my hand and looked into my eyes once more. “I guess I have been like a father to you, haven’t I?”
Yes, Jim. You were there for me. Thank you and much love always. Happy Father’s Day.
PS in the photo I’m with my good friend Keith, three years older than me, and later the first boy I loved. I’m 11 here and he’s 14.
I look at this photo of my mother, age 30, as I lay somewhat untethered in her lap. It’s before everything happens, before my father leaves her, before she leaves me. It’s the beginning of our story. There we are, innocent of the future, and unknown to both of us, we are part of a pattern that will continue. When I’m four, she will leave me with her mother. My mother was left behind too, and this legacy will haunt us to the end of their lives.
One word. It’s just a word: “mother,” but it’s never a neutral word—it’s always imbued with emotional meaning. Each of us has a story about her, each of us is somewhere on a path of dealing with the person we know as mother.
As Mother’s Day approaches, pink flowery cards spring up like gardens in every store saying things like, “Who is the person who always listened to you, the one you could always count on—Mom! Celebrate her today.”
Some people feel that their mother is their best friend, with no doubts about her loyalty and her abiding love, and Mother’s Day can make some people feel celebratory while others feel sad, angry, and confused. I was one of those in the second group. My stomach would begin to ache as Mother’s Day approached, and despite my intentions to ignore it or find a neutral card, I’d remember things I wanted to forget: my mother leaving on the train after her once a year visit to me and my grandmother. Another part of me wanted her to leave, because the visits were fraught with conflict between her and her mother. Sometimes my heart would soften toward my mother as I thought of her being motherless. I knew how that felt.
As an adult, after my mother made it clear that she wanted no one to know I was her daughter—my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness is the story of the mothers in my family—I was left with two feelings: to change her mind and PROVE that I was worthy for my mother to love and claim me—thus the need to find the “right” card. Or perhaps that year I’d feel like expressing my anger at her abandonments refusing to send her a card. Which was right? Was it being a small-minded person to refuse to send my own mother a card? After all, she had birthed me, she was indeed my mother, even if she felt conflicted about it. I knew that in every day life, her mother was my “mother” in the sense of she was the one who took me to the doctor, tucked me in, got me to do my homework, bought my clothes, and encouraged my development. So I had two mothers, really. When my grandmother was alive, and we were speaking—things were complicated between us as well—I would send her a Mother’s Day card, as I did an aunt who mothered me, and a friend who had taken the role of mother for many years. So the motherless me adopted several mothers.
I’ve been a therapist for over thirty-five years, and during this time I’ve encountered many emotional “orphans.” Some people feel motherless because they grow up with very distant mothers, mothers who are distracted or sick, mothers who have too many children, or who start off well with mothering but then become overwhelmed or have other interests, or have a stressful marriage, or no marriage at all. There are so many stories about mothers—and each mother has her own story as well about who her model of mothering was and the challenges she faced as a person.
It seems to me the best way we can manage the complexities about “mother” is not to remain in judgment of our mothers, no matter how hard that is. If we can find a way to stand in her shoes, and to learn who she was before she was a mother, we may find ourselves seeing her as a whole person, someone who had her own life, her own struggles and problems to solve.
It doesn’t work in the deep mining of memories and the past to pass over the true feelings we may have, even if they are dark. I had to learn this over and over again. First, we may need to speak out or write out the raw truth of how we feel—now and in the past, the good and the bad. We may need to scream or cry or write poetry, stomp around or simply sit still with a range of insights and feelings we discover on our journey to healing.
There may come a time when we can look into the face of the girl or young woman “mother” was long before she knew of us, when she was simply herself. You may visit her, or simply look at a photograph—and pause to get to know her, thinking of the possibilities and hopes she might have had for her life, how she wanted her life to turn out. You may have this information, or you might need to imagine it based on what you know.
As a memoirist, I encourage people to write the stories that beckon, the untold stories, the secret stories. And yes, you can write a story through your mother’s eyes, become her, and see her world. Think of the era she grew up in, the clothes she wore, the political and historical demands on her life and write from her point of view. Look at the photographs and write TO her, share what you think and understand now. And write about that word, “mother.” See how it speaks to you.
In honor of Mother’s day, my eBook Don’t Call Me Mother is on sale for .99–just for today!
Video: Judy Mandel and I talk about Discovering our Mothers through Writing Memoir.
I love talking with writers, finding out how they work their magic. I was so pleased to get to know Joy Castro-first through her books, her inspiring memoir The Truth Book and her collection of essays Island of Bones. I was thrilled to meet her in person at the AWP conference in Seattle this year where she presented two workshops–my favorite was about Family Trouble, based on the book she edited with the subtitle “Memoirists on the Hazards and Reward of Revealing Family.” I asked if she would be my guest at the National Association of Memoir Writers teleseminar series and she agreed! We titled the seminar Family Trouble–the Hazards and Rewards of Writing about Family.
A generous teacher and guide to the journey of memoir writing, I asked her if she would also agree to an interview. I hope you enjoy what she has to say about memoir writing, and that her wisdom can help you with your memoir.
LJM: Joy—you so skillfully and poetically dig deep into the ethics, shame, and struggles of writing about family in your essays in Island of Bones, and in your introduction to Family Trouble—Memoirist on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. Your speeches at the AWP conference rocked my world. They were so inspiring to those of us who struggle with voice, with permission, and with finding our stride with our material. I’m so pleased you were our guest at the NAMW member teleconference in April!
JC: Thank you so much, Linda Joy! It was great to meet you at AWP!
LJM: In reading over again your books, I found some themes I hope you can address for us as we prepare for the teleseminar.
One of my favorite essays is “An Angle of Vision” in your collection Island of Bones. Here you talk about class, suffering, being an outsider, and how you had to find a way to confront what you felt were the ugly and shameful parts of your past to write your memoir.
“To put my art into the world as memoir, I had to be willing to stand as the living visible representative of the text, the body at the front of the room.”
Wow—you articulate what we all have to do if we are drawn to this work. How did you allow, invite, force—yourself to confront the many painful memories you write about. Did you feel this struggle in your body? Tell us whatever you can about how you wrestled with this kind of writing.
JC: Thank you, and I have to thank Lorraine López, too, who initially invited that essay for the book that became An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots (U of Michigan, 2009). An award-winning author herself, Lorraine is terrifically kind, compassionate, and smart, with a shrewd, funny, and precise mind, and knowing that she’d be reading and editing it helped me to say the hard things.Writing has always been a very physical process for me. Like many people, I tend to physicalize stress and trauma, and so writing memoir—imaginatively re-experiencing difficult events—has often resulted in physical and psychological symptoms: stomach pain, headaches, nightmares, and cathartic crying jags. And also, at times, a kind of ecstasy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not hard, hard work. But worth it. Always worth it. It helps to have privacy, a safe space, because sometimes you fear you’ll look crazy to others. You don’t want to scare your friends or family. When I wrote my first memoir The Truth Book, I was fortunate to have a small studio to myself at Norcroft, a (now sadly defunct) writers’ retreat on the northern shore of Lake Superior, for three weeks. I cried, raged, threw the thesaurus at the wall.
But then I had my manuscript, and I could go back to real life and don my professorial persona. It also helps to have at least one person who truly sees and accepts you, who loves you unconditionally. Truly unconditionally. That’s rarer than we like to think, and it’s one of the most healing gifts we can be given. I didn’t have that growing up, but in adulthood, I’ve been very lucky.Readers have sometimes called me brave, but it’s important to emphasize that I have never felt brave. I have felt afraid, always afraid. Terrified, sometimes. But more powerful than the fear was the compulsion to make art, to make a shape out of the chaos. I wrote through the fear, with the fear. Anger at being stuck in my damn self was often the fuel. Use what you’ve got.
LJM: In your memoir The Truth Book you weave from present to past, you weave from your present self to your past, younger and lost self. It was a fluid experience for me the reader to encounter past and present that way. Can you talk about how it was to create that weaving, did you outline it or was it organic? How did you keep the different time frames straight? For many of us, that would be nearly impossible!
JC: I’m so glad you mentioned that aspect of The Truth Book, and that its movements in time were clear for you. A little backstory: The manuscript was rejected by one major New York publisher because of that very element; the editor claimed that the chronological play would confuse “little old ladies in Iowa with their glasses on upside down,” and offered to reconsider it if I’d reorder everything in a linear structure. I declined. My own thought was that little old ladies in Iowa were a damn sight smarter than he knew. Earlier in my writing process, I’d workshopped part of the manuscript with a very well known nonfiction writer. He hated it, and he gave the same suggestion: to reorder it in a strictly linear fashion. His comment: “People don’t read Virginia Woolf anymore.” I’d beg to differ. I stuck to my guns.A more adventurous publisher, the independent New York house Arcade Press, eventually took the book. Casey Ebro was my editor there, and I’ll always be grateful to her for taking a chance on my debut. After the 2008 financial crisis, unfortunately, Arcade was one of the publishing houses that went under. In 2012, the University of Nebraska Press brought out a new, paperback version of the book with a foreword by Dorothy Allison, and I’m grateful that it’s still in print. The structure of The Truth Book emerged organically as I drafted. It was very natural, very unforced.
My favorite memoirs are those that not only tell an interesting story but also capture a mind in motion, so that’s the way I let The Truth Book unfold. I like leaps, risks. I trusted the sophistication of the reader. The text records the way my own mind works: by association, by linked images, by reverie, moving freely back and forth across time. A traumatic past, unfortunately, often intrudes into one’s present, and that was the case for me. How the damage of the past continued to live and breathe in my adult life is one of the themes of the narrative, and the form of The Truth Book tells that story as much as the content does.
A memoir I’m reading right now that does a beautiful job with this is Megan Hustad’s More Than Conquerors (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Hustad shifts fluidly among time periods, and there’s never a moment’s confusion. The writing is gorgeous, too. I’ve only finished the first chapter, but I’m hooked.
You’ve started on your memoir, and even though you’ve made an outline, you find your family and childhood taking over your story. You began to see your family through new lenses, and then your writing veered off way off course—or so you thought. The “writing warrior” inside us “knows” what we need to write, and leads us unplanned directions. This can alarm your inner critic!
It starts saying, “Oh, why do you insist on staying stuck in the past, why do you write about the same damn thing over and over again, can’t you just forget this writing jag and live a little?” You know, the inner nagging voice of doubt. It goes on about the fact that you’re writing about your family—again—and that you haven’t “gotten over all that yet,” have you?
We grow up thinking that the way we lived in our family was “just the way it was,” unaware of the many different ways families live and cope with life the positive and the stressful events and disappointments. As we write a memoir, we come to have new insights about how our family shaped us. It’s important to understand how psychological it is to write a memoir. If you are writing a story you hope will offer a new understanding of your family, let’s look for a moment at family psychology.
“Family” is defined in many ways. It once referred to a nuclear family of parents and children, but now of course there are so many different kinds of families: extended family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, great-grandparents. Close friends, alternative families, gay and lesbian couples, and mixed race families all sharing a multitude of cultures. People who were orphaned or grew up in an atypical family have a complex history that can be hard to write about. They had parents, yet they felt something else too, a sense of being on the outside looking in. Children can feel abandoned even when they live in the same house with their parents if the parents neglectful or abusive. Mental or physical illness in a family can create a feeling of abandonment too.
There are healthy families, and perhaps less healthy families—but everyone in the family is trying to survive, to find a way to live. Each family is unique, with strengths that balance the negative traits. In some families, it can be difficult to see these points of light early in the healing process because of the emotional pain that interferes with finding compassion for those who were unkind or selfish. The writing process may or may not create a new point of view, but it will allow you to see your family from different angles, and you may also find stories coming out that you didn’t realize you wanted to tell. New memories may arise, which offers another lens.
I grew up with my grandmother and lived far away from my divorced parents, so I always felt odd, different, and “less than” other people. My grandmother acted superior to others, putting on airs to cover her own low self-esteem, but I didn’t know that then. I hated filling out forms in school where we had to write our mother’s and father’s names. I had to fill in “guardian” while trying not to see the questioning looks from the other kids. I imagined they were thinking, “What’s wrong with your family, why aren’t you normal?”
It didn’t help that I held the secrets of my mother and grandmother’s bizarre behaviors— screaming, throwing dishes, rushing dramatically to and from trains, and crying during each visit my mother made from Chicago to Oklahoma. I didn’t realize that my grandmother had left my mother when she was young too. I could see their pain, but I just wanted us to be normal. When my mother was on her deathbed, a psychiatrist told me she was manic-depressive, bi-polar, naming the struggle that had affected our family for generations. That helped me to understand my mother and grandmother, to realize that they had an illness that guided their actions. I wrote about their childhoods and wrote stories through their point of view, trying to stand in their shoes, seeing if I could find compassion and learn how to forgive them. I write about this search in my book Don’t Call me Mother, and in Power of Memoir, I guide writers to use writing to help them on the journey from sorrow to joy, from dark to light.
My early healing work convinced me that in order to find myself, I had to confront the buried feelings of anger and sorrow I’d carried for so long and had tried to deny. Through therapy and writing, I learned to better understand the forces that drove my grandmother, mother, and even myself, to do things that weren’t healthy, and through story writing, I gradually found the threads of compassion and understanding. When I began my own healing process over thirty years ago, my goal was to break the pattern that had passed through the generations of my family—three generations of mothers who had emotionally and physically abandoned their daughters. I can say that I succeeded in that goal, and one of the major ways for this healing was through writing.
It’s a great exercise to write from the point of view of others in the family, to learn to “see” them through new eyes. And keep writing your own stories–digging deep into the truths that live in your body and soul. It’s freeing, even though at times painful, to explore these inner riches, to explore how you came to be who you are now!
Write about the history of your family—who married whom, who stayed in the family, and who might have left or died. Where did you learn these stories?
What family patterns confused you in your family? List them and sketch out some moments you remember best. Combine “dark” and “light” moments in your memory sketch.
Write about the positive traits in your family that you feel that you have inherited, and show how these traits give you happiness or pleasure now.
How did you feel during family conflicts–in your body and in your mind? Write from the place in your body where you feel these conflicts live–either through sickness or tension in your body. Try to release the “story” living there.
What generational patterns do you want to change and why? Track the patterns you know about, and write about how you are changing them and offering a different legacy to your own family.
Do you feel you need to forgive someone for an injury they caused you? Write truthfully about this person and the injuries. Write these several time, and later, when you are in the mood, write about the incidents from the point of view of the other person. Then reflect on this exercise. What did you learn?