Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #2: When A Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #2: When A Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir

Dear Lisa,

I began a memoir project with my dad four years ago.  It’s been an incredibly healing process to write together about his alcoholism and how it affected our family, as well as how his commitment to sobriety changed everything for the better.  There are moments in our writing sessions that helped my inner, hurt child to know that I was always loved, even within the shadow of his addiction.

Last year, our family received devastating news. My dad was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. Though the book is almost done, we are still working on some developmental edits which require his input.  As he loses his capacity to remember, the process of editing has been hard on both of us.  We meet together once a week, and often times he can’t remember the edits we made last week.  Or, he fights me on a change we already agreed upon months before.  As much as it frustrates me to rehash decisions, I know it’s even more frustrating for him.  When I press him for details about a particular scene, he can’t remember them.  You can see the pain in his eyes as he tries to pull sight, sound, texture and memory from some trapped vault inside him.  He’s beginning to cancel our weekly writing dates.

I want nothing more than to finish this book.  But I don’t want to do it for the sake of my ego.  I truly see this book as a spiritual journey that has the ability to help so many families beyond ours. How do I gently work with my dad to finish our book before this disease claims more of his mind?

Sincerely,
Clear Eyes, Broken Heart, I Don’t Wanna Lose Him

…..

Dear Clear Eyes, 

First, I’d like to say wow. Many stories have been written about the heartache and strife that abound in alcoholic family systems. Few provide a roadmap for forgiveness and reconciliation. The world needs your book. 

I’m deeply sorry your story has taken such a dramatic and difficult turn. I could offer you platitudes about the gifts inherent in chronic illness and the lessons you’ll learn, or how this very experience may become your next book. But let’s face it, Alzheimer’s disease sucks. It’s an unfair illness that strips away a person’s time and memory and robs the world of someone who’s deeply loved. 

Your letter includes questions about how to honor your father and the work you’ve done together. Co-authoring a book under optimal circumstances can be a trying experience, but add intermittent cognitive impairment or cognitive decline to the mix, and the challenges are monumental. It’s likely you developed a variety of effective processes and routines over your four-year book journey, but it’s clear they’re no longer working. You see the pain in your father’s eyes as he tries and fails to remember certain pastimes, and seeing that pain breaks your heart. That pain is stalling your writing process. The first step in bringing him back to the writing desk is to understand more about his experience so that you can help him regain some agency and control over the process.  

Unfortunately, I can’t give you a glimpse inside your father’s head, but I can share my personal experience of living with dementia-like symptoms. In 2012, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. At the peak of my illness, it felt like I had a combination of the flu, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. During the first two years of my recovery, I couldn’t read a book, not because I couldn’t read words, but because they made no sense. When speaking, I lost words, sentences, and conversation topics. Sometimes, they sat cruelly on the tip of my tongue—just a hairs-breadth beyond reach. I’d point to a plate and know I was looking at a plate, but I couldn’t say the word plate no matter how hard I tried. Once, I lost the concept of long division—every single part of it. Keys ended up in the refrigerator and the milk in my backpack. I’d stand in rooms unsure why I was there. Getting lost on my way to the store became the norm. 

I never knew when my symptoms would occur. Some days, I felt completely fine and I’d believe the worst was over. But oftentimes, the following day I would have no idea what was going on. To compensate, I faked my way through meetings and conversations by thoughtfully grabbing my chin and offering extra-long pauses or rambling in hopes that I sounded smart. But rambling made me lose focus and the pauses, well, they just amplified my panic. These symptoms were always worse in the evening, something referred to as sundowning. Some nights, all I could do was nod. Each loss reminded me that my body was failing, but what kept me up at night was wondering about all the things I didn’t know I had lost.   

Losing ideas and memories is maddening and terrifying. To compensate, I shrunk my life down to what felt like a manageable size. I quit my job, and not wanting friends and colleagues to witness my decline, avoided other people and situations that caused me stress (which was just about everything). In some ways, shrinking down my life minimized my symptoms, but it also made me feel powerless, incapable, and devoid of purpose.    

 We carry these identities inside us. Mother. Father. Teacher. Doctor. Smart Person. For me, intelligence was the one quality I could always count on. But the day I lost long division, my Smart Person identity vanished. In its wake, I felt a soul-crushing grief over what I had lost and what I anticipated losing. It’s likely your father is experiencing a similar identity crisis. Perhaps the one thing he always relied on is no longer dependable.

I am very aware that while there may be some overlap in our experiences, there are some key differences. Though my experience felt like it would last forever, it didn’t. I got well. Your father is at a different stage in his life and has a different prognosis. If he’s willing to talk about his experience, try to find out about the pain you see behind his eyes, so he doesn’t have to carry this burden alone. The more you discuss it, the more you can find ways to cope. 

In your letter, Clear Eyes, you mention your father’s struggle to remember what you’ve agreed upon during prior writing sessions. The pain and frustration you are both experiencing hits me in the lungs so hard it stifles my breath. It’s terrible to forget and to have your ideas forgotten. I can see why this breaks your heart and why he may not be calling you back. Your writing sessions could be amplifying the grief he feels about his disease while it also causes feelings about old disappointments to resurface.  

Empowering your father will be the key to bringing him back to your writing desk. When I was sick, certain aspects of my brain worked better than others. I’ve never been good with auditory directions, but even during the periods when I couldn’t speak or read, I could still write down my thoughts. Signposts and visual aids helped me remember what I needed to do next.  My computer monitor was—and still is—a mosaic of Post-It notes. Some people use notecards or alarms. Other people work best when they can touch or manipulate textured objects like fuzzy sweaters or glass Coke bottles to stimulate memory. As you develop your new working relationship, identify and play to your father’s cognitive strengths. 

At the end of your writing session, record your plans for moving forward in your father’s strongest modality, be that a written plan, or an audio or video recording. Have him summarize and record the ideas in his own words. Because his disease is degenerative, he may need to create a script now that he can read before he begins to remind him that this is your mutually agreed upon plan. Encourage your father to review the plan either privately or with you before you start your next writing session so the content is fresh. 

As you revamp your writing process, consider the time of day that you write together. As best you’re able, schedule your meetings around your father’s best hours of the day. Your father may function best early in the morning, midday, or later in the afternoon. Follow his lead. It will minimize the frustrations you both feel as a result of his symptoms. 

All of this leads to the final question in your letter: how to access your father’s stories when he can’t remember. It’s likely some of your father’s memories are still stable, though he may need cues to prime his memory pump. You can do this with photographs and other visual stimuli from the time you’re trying to capture, but don’t underestimate the power of other senses. Songs from that time period, familiar foods, a family member’s cologne, and phone calls from old friends can serve as powerful memory triggers. If he’s willing and you’re able, consider video recording phone calls with people who knew him at that time you’re writing about. In a relaxed state, these conversations could help him access memories he couldn’t otherwise retrieve. As you watch the videos, pay attention to your father’s words and his body language. His expressions and gestures may give you insight into the flavor of that time period when his words cannot. These videos will be invaluable, especially if your revision process exceeds his capacity to help out. 

When he can’t remember, relaxation is key. If I forgot something I knew, forcing the issue was futile. Moving on or trying again later frequently helped me express myself. But I also learned another useful trick: talking around the subject. Instead of getting angry with myself because I couldn’t say the world plate, I’d say all the words around plate—round, eat, that thing you put food on. My non-sequiturs frequently made me laugh so hard I retrieved the word I was looking for.  

There’s a fist in my heart as I say this, but some of his memories may be lost, except as impressions. And yet, even these impressions may lead to something beautiful. I invite the two of you to create mandalas for key time periods in your book—ones that rely on shapes and colors instead of words. Perhaps you’ll find your father sees the time period as hazy blue with a trace of red while you see it as a dollop of green.  Maybe you both have a swipe of yellow. You can also create collages using old magazines or create playlists on Spotify for important time periods. Go to thrift shops or antique stores and see if he can create an outfit or a dinner setting that stands in for a memory. Perhaps there’s a menu for that time. Instead of fighting against Alzheimer’s and your father’s memory loss, make it part of the story. Exploring the significance of what he cannot remember may be just as useful as the memories you recover. I realize these suggestions may feel tangential to the project you are working on, Clear Eyes, but they may offer you a poetic entryway into those crucial chapters that may not otherwise exist.  

To work as a team requires enormous creativity and flexibility. You’ve spent four years practicing these skills and while the universe has given you a major detour, you have what it takes to pivot. As you continue to work on this book, remember that your father is still in there. While he may be struggling, he retains a vitality and purpose that are important to this book. 

Somebody I Used to Know is the Sunday Times bestselling memoir by Wendy Mitchell. Her memoir is proof that people living with dementia still have a story to tell. I spoke to her while crafting this post. She had this to say about her illness. “We all had talents before a diagnosis of dementia, we don’t suddenly lose them overnight. We simply need help and the support of those around us to outmaneuver the challenges dementia throws in our direction.”

I know you will outmaneuver the challenges you’re facing and complete this book. It will be a huge gift to you, your father, and your family. More importantly, your book will provide us with a desperately needed roadmap for broken families that wish to be whole. 

 

Warmly, 

Lisa Ellison 

Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.

Meet Our Memoirists: Reema Zaman

Meet Our Memoirists: Reema Zaman

This week, I Am Yours (Amberjack Publishing, 2019), Reema Zaman‘s dazzling debut memoir, launches into the world, and we couldn’t be more excited! With unwavering courage and lyrical precision, Reema offers readers her story of unshackling her voice from the binds of patriarchy, sexual assault, emotional abuse, and anorexia as a companion through trauma and an antidote to loneliness. Her book embodies the truism: to speak is a revolution, and in this unprecedented time when all voices must be heard, Reema’s is one leading the charge.

I recently sat down with Reema to hear about her memoir (and life) journey and what this lead-up to the release of I Am Yours has been like. I invite you to watch our author chat below, read the interview that follows, and then head over to the Ms. Q&A: How Reema Zaman Found Healing in Her Own Story at Ms. Magazine to learn more about her and her beautiful writing.

Melanie Brooks: In I Am Yours, you write out of your own personal trauma from growing up in a culture infused with misogyny, experiencing sexual assault and emotional abuse, and living with an eating disorder. I’ve heard you speak to other writers about the importance of “writing from the scar, not the wound.” Before you began committing words to the page for this book, had you achieved any kind of reckoning with these experiences that gave you clarity on how you wanted to write about them?

Reema Zaman: Yes, because before I started writing the book, I had written all of these essays just for my own integration and clarification of self. I spent such a long period of time not speaking my own words, so this outpour was the first time my inner child was being allowed to speak without the threat of physical danger. When you are in the weeds and you are writing your way out of the weeds, you’re writing your way out of the wound. I could tell that these essays were quintessential to the making of me and to the making of a larger project that perhaps would be a book one day. But I did all of this analysis and getting to the heart of things first. For example, what was my anorexia? Where did it come from? I realized that for me, it was a side effect of being raised as a girl in this world. So when I sat down to write I Am Yours, I had already come to this place of deep understanding of what my disease had been and the roots of that disease. The question now was, how do I talk about this? How do I explain this to people? That became the exercise: I wanted to find language that was so precise and help people say, “So that’s what it is.” I think finding clarity of something is 90% of being able to heal and release it.

MB: You are trained as an actress and you are also a talented artist—some of your stunning drawings are woven into the pages of I Am Yours. How did this creative background make itself felt in the writing of your memoir?

RZ: I had all of this acting training where the first two things we’re taught are: 1. Story above ego, and 2. Audience always knows. We’re taught to respect the emotional intelligence of the audience and trust that they know what is happening without needing it explained to them. I Am Yours is a long book, but it’s also very sparsely written. In acting, it’s also all about creating urgency. Everything is done in the present tense—the audience is watching the scene happen as it happens. So for me, it made sense from the very beginning to set my book in the present tense as an effective way for the audience to literally be there with me while I was going through it. That urgency helped me find the accurate language, where my job was to just paint what was happening. I’ve also been really fortunate, in a sense, that the characters and the experiences that have come into my life have been so vivid and enormous. The dialogue sections happened verbatim, and then my acting background lets me know what feels authentic.

I attached to art at the same time I attached to anorexia—age fifteen—because both of them help you to create beauty out of the wreckage, clarity from chaos. There had been so much trauma and chaos in my life that my brain attached to anorexia because this disease is all about precision and intention. I realized I had to figure out how to meet those needs of precision and deliberate action in a way that was not killing me. I had to replace it with a new set of habits. I developed this really precise drawing style and then I began creating this really precise language.

MB: In our Q&A for Ms. Magazine, you tell me: “The biggest goal and purpose of this book is to provide medicine.” I know your words have already been a balm to other women who have experienced trauma and a call to action for them to lift their voices with yours. What do you hope men will take from your book?

RZ: I wanted to write a book as an agent for empathy—where you start to experience that person’s life through their body and voice. I want men to be looking and feeling these experiences through my eyes. My entire life, as I’ve stood in front of the different men in my life while they’ve done the things they’ve done, I’ve thought, If you only knew the pain that was coursing through my body, I think you would not be doing what you are doing. The most effective attempt I can make of that is to write a book that guides men through what it is to live life in the body of a woman through these experiences. That’s why raw emotion and vivid language are such huge parts of what this book is. I wanted to create that cinematic exploration of a woman’s life—specifically for men. A lot of women are able to access the experiences so quickly because they have a memory that connects to my memory, but most men reading my book don’t have a parallel experience. My job was to paint it in the most evocative, 4D effect as possible so it becomes like virtual reality for them. If this doesn’t ignite someone’s empathy, they are lost.

MB: In the past year, you have exploded onto the literary scene as a noteworthy writer and sought-after speaker. Your work has been widely published, and you’ve gained a global following in anticipation of your book’s release because of the undeniable power of your voice. Did you imagine this level of success?

RZ: I say this with complete, unaffected humility. The greatest surprise has been me—the presence of my intelligence. My degrees in college were theater and women’s studies. I began my career as an actress and model where my identity was based on sex appeal. I had never written personal essays, or thought of myself as a writer. It never occurred to any of us that I had any talent. I stepped into this voice only four years ago. Had you met me in my twenties, you’d say, “Oh, what a sweet little girl.” My voice was literally an entire octave higher, my energy was like that of a glass bird. Writing this book was an unpeeling of who I’ve always been. The first draft came out in such a flow that I wasn’t conscious of it and I wasn’t reading it while writing it. It was only when I was creating the second draft and doing a read-through and going through the process as an editor versus the author that I was able to objectively view this manuscript. That was the first time in my life that I started filling with a deep sense of genuine self-appreciation and self-respect because I started recognizing there was something there. I had a voice. The transformation was a revelation. And maybe as women, our transformation is the revelation. To peel back, to unlearn everything that was taught to us so that we can reveal ourselves to be the mighty women warriors we actually are.   

MB: Thank you so much for sharing these pieces of your writing journey, Reema. I’m holding my breath along with so many other grateful readers in anticipation of what comes next!

To celebrate the release of I Am Yours into the world, the women of Moving Forewords read the poem “I Am Woman” by Reema Zaman from the book’s opening pages.

Love Letters from Reema Zaman

Love Letters from Reema Zaman

I wrote I Am Yours as a love letter of comfort and strength for survivors of trauma of any kind, and as a call to action to our allies, an invitation for their empathy, so that we may join together to heal and evolve as a human family. I wrote I Am Yours to provide the words of love and solidarity I wish others had known to give me when I was bullied as a brown kid in school, when I was battling anorexia as a teenager, when I was stalked by a predator at age 18, when I immigrated to the States by myself, when I was raped at 23 or going through an abusive marriage at 26. I wrote I Am Yours so that years from now, my daughters and granddaughters and great granddaughters will not have to weep over the same wounds that made my mother and I cry. I wrote I Am Yours because every time I publish or speak a word, another human being hears that their story matters. That they too deserve love, kindness. and respect. That they too, you too, me too, we too, we are all vital voices in a connective, collective roar.

 

I created Love Letter Mondays for the identical reasons. I Am Yours is a book-length offering of love. Love Letter Mondays are written with the same voice and intentions. After Trump was elected and the #MeToo movement came into our lives, in early 2018, I began feeling that it was necessary to create a soft space for us all to rest our hearts, remember our power, and rejuvenate our energy before a long week. I knew I Am Yours was going to be published in early 2019 but the call for love and the call to love requires immediate action. Thus, in spring 2018, Love Letter Mondays was born. The weekly series has created an astonishing online community of kindred souls. We are proof that radical vulnerability and authenticity are empowering and invigorating. In a world full of corrupt politics, systemic wounds, and growing disconnection, I wanted to create something pure yet fiery and audacious. A riotous roar of love. It appears that these love letters are a balm and a community that so many of us have been craving. I’m daily humbled by the depth of connection and conversation the letters have brought to life. We are love in motion.

1.28.2019  Love Letter Monday

I’m moving out of my apartment. I’ve whittled down my belongings to a few boxes of books and two suitcases of clothes, and am donating the rest to the Veterans Center and to Raphael House (a home for women who have survived intimate partner violence.) I’m storing my books and clothes at my parents’ place and will go off into the world to travel with I Am Yours. I did the exact same thing five years ago: I kept a few things, gave most things to those who needed them, and moved from New York to Oregon with the firm resolve to write and publish one specific book. Many friends have asked me if I’m anxious about releasing I Am Yours into the world. The sincere truth is No, not at all. I’m so excited and at peace. The book has given me so much. It helped heal my anorexia and mended the gashes of the past. It brought a new depth of closeness into my family. It introduced me to the power of my voice. The book is complete; it no longer needs me, and I no longer need it. It now belongs to the world, free to travel to whomever needs it next.

I love moving and the growth that moving brings. I’ve learned that my voice and my body are my home. As long as I have my voice, I can feel the earth beneath me, the sky above me.

What or where or who is your home? Is there anything you no longer need and are ready to release into the world? I love that every creation of art is a gift made for oneself and for others. Dear one, what creation are you presently navigating? Perhaps the gift you are bringing to life isn’t a specific book or film or play but rather, the masterpiece is your Self. Which is, after all, ultimately the case, forever and beyond.

Thank you for being such a gift.

Love, Reema

 

12.10.2018  Love Letter Monday

Writing a memoir deepened my compassion for others. Sure, growing up, I had been taught compassion by my parents. But writing memoir introduced me to a whole new authenticity of compassion. Writing memoir involves deep introspection and interrogation, and like any practice that exercises those muscles, it makes you look at an experience from all points of view, including the views and backstories of the characters who once hurt you. Be it through abandonment. Negligence. Betrayal. Physical, sexual, or emotional violence. I expected to feel anger while revisiting those chapters and characters of my life. And I did feel anger. But the most prominent and lasting emotion was empathy. Compassion. And sympathy.

All of us were born as children. Innocent and full of trust in the world. Then, it is through nonchalant or deliberate wounds that our faith is fractured. We become the love or the pain that is taught to us. In this there lives an invitation and potential for empathy, compassion, forgiveness toward life and those who wound. In this there exists proof that every human is but a sum of choices, made unto us, made by ourselves, and therefore, we all hold the power and possibility to heal, change, grow, and evolve. We can choose love.

Your heart — like you — is mighty, brave, and profound.

Love,

Reema

As featured in The New York Times, Reema Zaman is an award-winning author, speaker, and actress, and the 2018 Oregon Literary Arts Writer of Color Fellow. Born in Bangladesh, raised in Thailand, and presently residing in Oregon, she holds a double BA in Gender Studies and Theater from Skidmore College. Her wildly acclaimed memoir I Am Yours will be released February 5, 2019. Beloved by all communities, all ages, all genders, I Am Yours has already been adopted into the curriculum for several high schools through an Innovation Grant from the Oregon Department of Eduction.

I Am Yours is the story of Reema’s unwavering fight to protect and free her voice from the harsh winds, and hands, of life. Beginning in Bangladesh, moving into Thailand, then New York, and finally, Oregon, I Am Yours is an iconic, definitive book on the female, the human, condition. In impossibly gorgeous prose that is at once beautiful and biting, poetic and political, haunting and healing, Reema’s personal narrative acts as an uncannily perfect backdrop to ask and answer our most pressing universal questions: Why do we wound each other and ourselves? Why do we oppress and overpower when, beneath pigment, all flesh are the same color? And, in this rapidly changing world, what is authentic integrity, kindness, and equality, and how do we put them into practice, amidst genders, amidst family, amidst one another?

Above all, what is, and where is, home? In I Am Yours, these queries are explored, traveling between the streets of Dhaka, slums of Bangkok, and glittery film sets of New York City, in a singular voice that is radically vulnerable, loving, and powerful.

Breaking the Taboo: Writing When Your Kids Are Old Enough to Read

Breaking the Taboo: Writing When Your Kids Are Old Enough to Read

“One of the last taboos is writing about children,” my workshop leader said. I found this ridiculous. I was a mommy blogger. My closest friends were mommy bloggers. I knew many women who wrote about children, and said as much.

“The internet goes dark when children reach ten or twelve,” she explained.  It’s not considered fair to write about the struggles of our children, particularly their negative behavior.  The workshop leader directed us to read an essay written by a woman whose teenaged son stole her jewelry. A man in the class was livid.

“How dare she put such things in writing about her child?” he demanded. I came to the writer’s defense—this woman was writing her truth in a heartbreaking way that was relevant to me personally as a mother. The essay was wrought with this woman’s agony. It wasn’t an attempt to shame the child. And yet, the man argued, we only see the mother’s side. The son has no voice. He found it appalling.

When I was shopping my first memoir, Girlish, I started writing Mama, Mama, Only Mamamy love song to my single mama years. It was happy and bright and exactly what I needed to write after the darkness of my first memoir.  Skyhorse Publishing offered a contract on Girlish with an option on my next work. I told them about Only Mama and they were interested, but wanted to see how Girlish sold before committing.

Two years later, they were ready to move forward with Only Mama. By then the book had gone through several major revisions. A friend read it and said Only Mama didn’t reflect the hardship of being a single parent—it made it seem like a fun and upbeat jaunt.  I kept revising.

Girlish came out, and readers commented on the honesty of the book and what it meant to them. People talked about the beauty of the writing. I realized that writing Only Mama as a fun, shallow, humorous book wasn’t honest, as my friend pointed out, and more than that, it felt like a betrayal to my readers. I had already bared my soul in Girlish.  I couldn’t be coy, say, “that’s too personal”, gloss over the hard stuff, and get away with it.

I didn’t want my kids to read the whole book yet—I wrote about my divorce from their father and my subsequent dating. At 10 and 13, neither of my kids are old enough to read about their mother’s sex life–if they ever will be. Before I sent my final revision to my editor, I offered my eldest child the chance to read the chapters about him and his brother and gave him the right to veto anything that bothered him. He had read some of my blogs online and decided that he didn’t want to read more than that. He was supportive of my writing and not unduly concerned.

I kept revising and deepening the work. In the end, Only Mama was less funny than it started out, but more meaningful. It reflected my chaotic, often depressed time as a single mama as well as shone with the joy my children brought me. I was proud of it. My editor loved it and shared a similar vision for the final book—one with full-color illustrations and special formatting to make some chapters look as if you were reading my blog online.

Finally, my editor had edits for me the week before Christmas. The only problem—I needed to respond within twenty-four hours and the kids and I were out of town at my parents’ house.

My eldest—now in high school—was excited and curious. We looked at some chapters together. He was surprised and perhaps a little disappointed to see I had dropped the F-bomb more than once. He is against swearing by anyone and everyone. I reminded him the book wasn’t written for children.

He asked to read the chicken casserole chapter—one of our favorite stories about his brother successfully carrying out an 18-hour hunger strike. I agreed—I didn’t recall anything objectionable in it. He read the first few paragraphs and burst into tears.  My heart tore into half a dozen bloody, jagged pieces.

The offending sentence read, “Big Pants is sometimes well-behaved because he is good by nature and sometimes well-behaved just to make his brother look bad.”

He wanted me to change it to clarify that this was only my opinion of his motivation—not the absolute truth.  I had already hit send and my editor had forwarded it to the printer as her last piece of business before leaving for the holidays.

The rest of the family sat down to eat, but my son and I sat side by side on the couch in my mother’s living room. We talked about the difference between the person and the page and the person in real life. We discussed how the intended audience of the book—single mothers—would know I did not speak for him and his motives, only my interpretation. We talked about how much love I had written into the book that I was sure would shine through. I reminded him that we have different last names, and I never use even his first name in the book. No one would find the book if they googled him.

I kept talking. I told him for the first time that my parents weren’t happy about Girlish coming out. We had barely spoken for several months. Yet, here we were celebrating the holidays together. We had lived through the experience.

I told him that that chapter was actually about one of my biggest failures as a mother—I had tried to strong arm a kid into eating and in the end, my son had won.  It was one of my worst parenting moments. If he had read to the end of the chapter, he would have seen that this story—like the entire book—was less about my kids and more about me finding my way as a parent.

“I guess it’s like that Dragon Force album,” he said. “It’s a really happy album, except for that one song. If that was all you listened to, you’d get the wrong idea of the band.”

“Right,” I agreed, and said something along the lines of, “the sum is greater than the whole of the parts.”

I was honest with him about my sales figures for my first book, and the unlikelihood that Only Mama would become a NY Times best seller or major motion picture. He didn’t want me to lose hope. “It still could, Mama,” he reassured me.  At that moment, I hoped no one would read my book—ever.

Eventually, we joined the family at the dinner table.

The next day my son asked, “Do you feel better about the book, Mama?”

“I only do if you do,” I answered. But I didn’t.  Anxiety had moved in to my soul, where it still resides.

Writing memoir is hard on a family. So why do we risk it?

I wrote in the beginning of Mama, Mama, Only Mama,

…raising children has been the single most important thing in my life. Not writing about it seemed to nullify its significance.  Children matter, and parenting matters, and mothers are still women with needs of their own.

Writing about mothering is for me an act of feminism as much as it is creative expression. As mothers we are told over and over that our needs come behind our children’s, and in a lot of ways that is how it has to work. One can’t tell a crying baby that you are too tired to feed it. But mothers are still women, and we need books that reflect the myriad ways we come to terms with being parents without losing our identities.  We have been erased in literature for too long, especially those of us with children old enough to read and gain a partial understanding of our stories.

I wrote this book to give hope to newly single parents. I wanted people to see themselves on the page and know that they could not only survive but thrive after divorce. I have to trust that in the end, my children will agree it was worth it. As much anxiety and fear I feel at this moment about exposing myself and my family, I still believe in the importance of memoir. The world needs true stories.

Heart Speak, The Memoir Writing Advice Column #1: Getting Alice Out of Wonderland

Heart Speak, The Memoir Writing Advice Column #1: Getting Alice Out of Wonderland

Dear Lisa,

They say: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I am living proof of that statement.

My life has mirrored a journey through a magical wardrobe into Narnia, where I got lost in winter garments, accidentally stumbled upon a yellow brick road into Oz, got distracted by a witty rabbit and followed him down a chasm into Wonderland. Along the way, I’ve met wizards and mad hatters. I’ve explored shadowed lands and faced mystical questions about power and energy. And while that may sound like the stuff of a really fascinating and unique memoir, that’s precisely where I am stuck. My story is all true. And it’s much stranger than fiction.

I jokingly tell friends that my life is so surreal, I need to “reinvent genre” to write my memoir. But maybe this is not such a joke? Am I actually staring smack at a perfect opportunity to play with craft, form, and narrative? And if so, how am I supposed to write my memoir without feeling impossibly overwhelmed and daunted by this seemingly insurmountable goal? It’s one thing to write my story (and deal with all those inherent anxieties and doubts), but it takes a whole other enchanted wand to create a genre that may not even exist.

In general, I am vulnerable and raw in my writing. I’m unashamed to shine a spotlight on my heart. I’ve attempted to get this memoir out of my swirling mind, and into a few short essays and outlines. But I find the essays lack a higher purpose when I’m too focused on plot points or dialogue. And yet, the details of circumstances matter.

I’ve asked myself: “How do my stories either define or blur my place in this world? How can I claim my own hero’s journey? And what have I learned about safety, trust, power, energy, love, and connection?” But, I worry that such an approach will evolve into a motivational self-help handbook. That is the very opposite of my goal, and the antithesis of my identity. I’m far more Joseph Campbell than I am Louise Hay.

Lisa, how do I hone MY very unique and authentic memoir, with all the existential magic and epic wonder it deserves, without falling too far into fantasy folklore or too off-track into inspirational guru guide?

Signed,
Alice in Wonderland

…..

Dear Alice,

You’re right, the truth is always stranger than fiction. One of the reasons we’re drawn to memoir is our desire to derive meaning from experiences we don’t fully understand. This is especially true when these experiences contain fantastical elements or a colorful cast of characters. You begin your letter, Alice, with questions of reinventing the genre, asking whether writing your life story is the perfect opportunity to play with craft, form, and narrative. Experimentation can foster growth for writers if it helps generate pages, but to think about re-inventing the genre is to put too much pressure on yourself and your book. It’s likely to squash your creative process as you think not just of writing a book but THE BOOK. That’s like asking the Cheshire Cat for directions.

The very first activity I give my memoir students is to create an intention for their books—one that has nothing to do with publishing or success. I ask them to consider how they may act or behave differently or believe something new as a result of writing their story. There are few guarantees in this competitive publishing market, but the one thing I can promise all writers is that the process will change them. My advice to you is the same: consider how you wish to transform as a result of writing this manuscript, then let your book work on you.

When I think of Alice in Wonderland and how it relates to the memoir writing process, I think not so much of the characters, which are all interesting, but of the way Alice shrinks and grows over the course of her adventure. On her hunt for the white rabbit, she encounters a bottle on a table labeled “Drink Me”. In real life, drinking from mystery bottles is about as safe as being a sex-crazed teenager in a horror flick investigating the noise coming from the basement. No good comes from it. But for Alice, drinking the potion helped her shrink enough to fit through the small door in front of her and continue her journey.

My invitation to you is this: brew yourself a cup of tea, close your eyes, and commit to writing your story. Then drink up. Let your metaphorical potion narrow your focus to the work at hand. Jot down a few key scenes that reveal what happened. Make them as vivid as you can. Leave behind fears of believability or the need for labels. Simply immerse yourself in the stories you’ve always told, and your hidden stories will come find you.

Memoirists make two contracts with the reader: the story must be true, and the quest must lead to some form of insight or transformation. It’s not just about what happened but why it’s important. Mary Roach Smith, author of Another Name for Madness says memoir is about something and you are its illustrator. She has a handy formula for helping writers hone their messages: it’s about X, as illustrated by Y, to be told in Z. For example, it’s about finding your voice, as illustrated by your experience of not being believed as a sexual assault survivor, to be told in a book-length memoir. In other words, the events in your life are merely the backdrop for the topic at the heart of your story. The something is what you’re after.

The drafting process is about sense-making and finding the universal truths inside your specific circumstances, no matter how bizarre or unbelievable. That specificity is the reason we’re willing to follow Cheryl Strayed as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail even when it may seem impossible that she carried an eighty-pound pack across a thousand miles, or that Tara Westover or Mary Karr could achieve academic success and stability after their impoverished, chaotic upbringings, or that Sarah Manguso could run a 5k after being paralyzed by Guillaume Barre Syndrome. Memoir is about making unbelievable true experiences believable.  We do this through vividly rendering events in service of the story’s main goal.

If you’re not sure what your story is about (healing, recovering your power, finding your voice), write what happened one scene at a time.  Once you have a collection of episodes, ask yourself what they have in common. Determine your X, Y, and Z using Marion Roach Smith’s formula. If your X is unclear, or you’re feeling blocked, you may not have enough distance from the events to examine their meaning. Continue drafting or write something else and try again later.  

Once you know what the work is about, write like a motherfucker. Draft as bad and as fast as you can. Open your heart to the process. Write with the belief that your story is worthwhile and that it will change you. If you draft without expectations, your book will tell you what it wants to be.

Later in her adventure, Alice finds the white rabbit. Inside his home, she eats a cake that causes her to grow. In a similar vein, once you have arrived at a solid working draft, you’ll be ready to expand your perspective. Write down one-sentence summaries for each scene on a series of index cards, then spread them across a table. Give yourself an aerial view of your work and examine your narrative arc. Perhaps, like Justin Torres’s autobiographical novel We the Animals, your manuscript begs for some magical realism. Maybe the story needs a unique structure like Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index or Sara Manguso’s 300 Arguments. It’s possible some poetry or episodes of speculative fiction could be in order. Suppose there are blank spots in your memory. Like Sharon Harrigan in Playing with Dynamite, you may need to imagine scenes to address the gaps in your story. If your manuscript could benefit from a rich metaphorical landscape, Reema Zaman’s memoir I Am Yours comes out in February of 2019. Take a deep dive into her exquisite sentences. Read as many genre-bending memoirs as you can. One of these books may inspire you to create something altogether new.

The stories of our lives are precious. Give yourself time to process unexpressed feelings, delve into what’s behind the stories you’ve always told, and create meaningful reflections. In preparing my response, I spoke with Joan Wickersham about her creative process. It took Joan eleven years to write The Suicide Index. Her story began as a work of fiction and slowly turned into a memoir. It wasn’t until year nine that she figured out the right structure.

Draft by draft, you will reveal the truth masked by the wardrobes, mad hatters, and wizards in your life. By taking a critical look at your stories, you will transform challenging life experiences into art. Your job is not to judge the story or to worry about how the world will receive it. Your job is simply to write it to the best of your ability and accept that only you can tell your story, whether the format is inventive or traditional.

Let this quote by Martha Graham be your mantra as you follow your own white rabbit:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

Have patience with the process and keep your channel open. The rest will work itself out.

Fondly,
Lisa Ellison

Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.

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