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!
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.
Facing the Truth as Your Write Your Memoir
I didn’t want to know what that small voice murmuring in my left ear had to tell me. I’d noticed it for several months, the sense there was something dark waiting that I needed to discover about me, something in the past. I tried to prepare myself, meditating to be ready for whatever might come forth. Finally, through several traumatic circumstances in my life, I was forced to face the knowledge that I’d grown up with a grandmother who’d had psychotic episodes. I had known that much of my time with her was dark and frightening, but the realization that I had to put that name to it was terrifying. What did it mean about me? Was I doomed to be crazy too?
I was stricken with both despair and relief. Because I’d faced one of my worst fears, I became less afraid, stronger, and more able to continue healing. The voice in my left ear stopped. I integrated the knowledge that came to me, and eventually realized I was not my grandmother; I was not doomed to her fate. It took many years to trust this, and to develop more strength and fewer fears.
In my coaching, writers tell me they are afraid the past will come rushing out without permission–and soon find out that what they intend to write is not always what emerges. Sometimes our writing takes us past the barred gates unwelcome memories come rushing out. How can we cope with new knowledge? How can we face our truths, no matter how unwanted?
Recently, as I watched a Harry Potter movie, I noticed a technique that helped Harry confront terror. His mentor told him to hold in his mind the best memory of his life while he cast a spell on a terrifying apparition that represented his deepest fears. If the positive image was not strong enough, the spell would not work. He remembered his parents with love, and the power he gained from that image helped him to conquer the demon he feared. Pretty impressive!
I have suggested a similar technique with my students, though we have had to make do without a magic wand or a spell! I talk with them about light and dark stories. “Light” stories bring light and healing, happiness and hope, love and forgiveness. Dark stories are about wounds that are still unhealed, pain, loss, grief, and fear. Jung talks about the repressed shadow in human psyche, the parts of us we don’t want to know about. However, when we face the shadow side of ourselves, we become more integrated and free to be whole.
- Make a list of the dark topics or stories that you know are there, but you aren’t ready to write. List them by title or theme.
- Make a list of the light stories, stories that bring you a feeling of well being, happiness, contentment, and safety. They may include love, spiritual experiences, and miracles.
- When you are ready, choose from the “light” list to write your first story.
- As needed, write one of the dark stories.
- Rebalance by writing another light one, and so forth.
One thing is certain: facing our truths, whether major upheavals in our lives or smaller day to day events, helps us to grow. Each time we face ourselves, who we are and who we have been, we build strength for the present and the future.
Begin with lists. Begin with “no” to move into “yes.”
Begin with your light stories. Tell the stories of your life in a safe way that inspires you to move forward in your writing. Know that what you are doing is brave, it’s a path to healing. That your voice and your truths are powerful!
Image from Wikipedia.
Linda Joy Myers and Beth Kephart–in conversation about Truth, Life, Memoir, Remembering–and the magic of capturing a moment.
This week at our National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar, Beth Kephart and I will continue a conversation in public that we have been having in bits and pieces through emails, phone conversations, and a five minute in-person meeting last week at Book Passage. It’s interesting how the Internet creates the opportunity to “meet” new people that we might not know—thanks to networking, Twitter, and our love of things we hold in common. Beth and I hold in common the allure, and challenge, of writing–and teaching–memoir.
Beth’s lovely new book Handling the Truth–On the Writing of Memoir is a poetic yet incisive look into writing memoir–and viewing “truth” through a different lens that it’s often viewed. Beth speaks to the detail, the verisimilitude, the felt moment of our lived experience–and helps us look at that, at the truth of experience, reflection, memory–as far as it can be determined to be true–however you define “truth.” Her book is a series of explorations of self, of the liminal spaces of consciousness, and for that reason I love it. It’s a book that asks us to make room for ideas and reflections we might otherwise miss.
I asked her to write a blog post and she wrote what I consider nearly a prose poem on our budding relationship and our upcoming discussion on Friday. I introduce you to Beth–and ask you to join us on Friday!
On Friday of this week I’ll be having a conversation with someone who is very special in the memoir world—someone all of you know well. Linda Joy Myers didn’t just open her heart to me when she heard I’d written a book about the making of memoir, she opened this NAMW world—inviting me into a dialogue, talking with me about stories and how they get made, arranging for our teleconference, and turning anticipatory tweets in the art of haiku. In just a few short days, we will take that conversational leap of faith and talk to each other about the many things that preoccupy us both in the making of memoir. How we capture what we love. How we protect those whom we cherish. Why we cannot write if we do not read, and read widely. What happens when the truth is bruised, when trust is shattered.
Linda has been teaching memoir for a very long time to a wide range of people. I have been teaching to small classrooms of undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. We have so much we’re eager to share, and we hope you will join us.
Not long ago, I was standing near Fulton Street in New York City, watching the sun go down on the Brooklyn Bridge. Not far from me were these trapeze artists—or beginning trapeze artists—daring themselves to take a leap, trusting another to catch them. That, I thought, is how writing feels. No matter how many books in, no matter how much we think we know.
We’ll talk about that, too, come Friday.
When we talk about “essential Truth” what do we mean as memoirists? How much room do we have to create scenes, dialogue, and “characters” from the flotsam of memories? What are the “rules” of memoir anyway?
Memoirists are always on the firing line it seems, in danger of being accused of making things up or “fictionalizing,” and there is a whole history that many of you have heard about that make memoirists leery of even writing their memoir. There’s the whole James Frey and Oprah controversy, and several cases of false memoirs that hit the public hard.
Everyone needs to understand that when people write a “false memoir” they know they are faking the story. They aren’t “accidently” writing something that another family member might disagree with. The fake memoir people set out to write something that will gain notoriety and buzz, and will sell books. It’s too bad, but only a few people seem to take this route. Yet as you know if you are a memoirist, their actions appear to tarnish the reputation of all memoirists.
While the media seems to enjoy targeting memoirists of playing fast and loose with the truth, the people I meet with and coach are the opposite—they are so worried about being “correct” with their memories that they find it hard to write at all.
Memoir is a genre that uses the tools of fiction—writing scenes and creating dialogue to craft a story that brings people into the world of the memoirist, and the memoirist must find the elements of that story in their memory banks, and/or do research to share the truth of their experience—which brings up the question: how valid is my memoir as my own experience? Will I be sued or accused of lying when others don’t agree with my story?
I’m looking forward to a discussion this Friday with Betsy Graziani Fasbinder during our NAMW Member Teleseminar about truth telling, fictionalizing, and essential truth for memoirists. And we are going to delve into the question: when is it best to write your life story as fiction—to stand behind what I call the “fictional wall.”
We are going to talk about these topics, and more. Be sure to tune in!
- Avoiding the big memoir no-no: Using fictional writing techniques as differentiated from “fictionalizing.”
- Is there a difference between “fact” and “truth” in memoir? When does using fictional elements go too far? When is alteration appropriate and ethical?
- Do you want—or need—to stand behind the “fictional wall” with your memoir story? (Really, it’s okay if you do.)
- Becoming the best kind of thief: Robbing your real life experiences to inform or inspire your fiction.
- Avoiding the Oprah Confessional as well as law suits: Learning from the errors of others.
- What am I writing here? Examining your goals for writing your story as memoir or fiction.
Not every memoir writer worries about being on the outs with their family when they write a memoir, but it is something I hear countless writers discussing, and it often casts a shadow on their forward progress. They worry about how much to reveal, and how stories that perhaps are new to family—whether they’re secrets or private stories, or inner worlds that were never shared before—will affect family and friends. In the process of writing a memoir, new insights, memories, and details are revealed that might be unknown to other people—but they also might be issues that the writer wasn’t aware of which become clearer during the writing process.
If you feel stuck, first you need to diagnose your problem. What is it that you are afraid to share? Why—what are you afraid will happen? It’s useful to journal about your fears and worries, to get these bees buzzing in your head out into the light of day where you can objectively read and assess them.
Perhaps some of your fears are realistic. Memoir writers reveal such things as sexual abuse, abortions, arrests, relationships, babies born out of wedlock, emotional and physical abuse, alcoholism and drug abuse to name a few. The more “confessional” the memoir, the more that writers may flinch when they imagine the family reading it. If this happens consistently, the memoir project comes to a halt.
There seems to be a continuum about people’s attitudes when it comes to judgment about what is revealed in a memoir—from “Oh, what the heck—I don’t care what people think,” to “As long as my family is alive, I can’t write a memoir.” And there are a lot of people in the middle who say, “I can’t wait for everyone to die to write my book, but I’m just not sure how much to reveal.”
Recently, I talked about these issues with Laura Davis, author of The Courage to Heal, at the National Association of Memoir Writers Roundtable discussion “The Choices we Make—Writing about Others.”
You can listen to our discussion at the National Association of Memoir Writers Website, free Roundtable Discussions, under Writing Resources.
We explored the ethical, practical and emotional issues memoir writers face when we write about real people in our lives, all of whom are bound to have strong feelings about the way they are depicted on the page. There are realistic questions to ask yourself, and choices that you have to make as you proceed with your memoir. But the main thing is to keep writing! Your first draft will not be read by anyone–if you don’t share it with them. You have a right to keep things private in your memoir–and it’s still true. Leaving things out does not make your memoir false.
I’ve written about issues of family, truth and privacy in my book The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story.
Tips to keep your memoir—and you—safe:
Don’t tell your family all about your memoir. Just write for a while and see what needs to come out.
- Don’t share your memoir with family and friends until you’ve completed it and are sure what you want to reveal and how. This takes time.
- Create a “safe, sacred space” where your writing can unfold. Protect your emotional self.
- Realize that when you write about others, you are putting a real person into your book. Alive or dead, there are ethical issues to consider when it comes to publication. Do your research when you get to your final drafts about your rights and theirs.
- Write your first draft as a healing draft. Get out what you need to say. Make it bold and real. Then stand back and think about how you want to revise it for publication.