You Lived It Differently

Sign reading Proof
What Readers Deserve

In unpacking Tracy Seeley’s quote about the memoirist’s agreement with her reader, my September 20 blog post opened a discussion on what writers owe their audience. That essay, however, focused mostly on my promise to tell an emotionally true story and didn’t ponder Seeley’s warning that “other people in my book would tell the story differently.” My Ruby Slippers.

This week I’ll first address the issue of other people’s take on the same experience. I then tackle another obligation memoirists have to their readers — something has to happen in the narrative.

You Lived It Differently

But that’s not what happened.  Don’t you remember? It went like this.

These are the responses that I must brace myself to face if I go forth with this project of writing a memoir. I didn’t live my story alone. Dozens of persons accompanied me along the way from birth until I woke this morning. None of them, other memoirists have warned me, will remember the events and situations we shared in exactly the same way I do. In fact, their memories may be diametrically opposed to mine.

Because time travel is science fiction, we cannot revisit the moment in time of the remembered incident. Wrangling over who remembers more correctly is useless and can be harmful to an otherwise solid relationship. The better response writes, Marian Roach Smith,  the author of several memoirs, is to keep this phrase handy, “I realize that’s not the way it happened to you. It is, however, the way it happened to me.”

Memoir’s deep subjectivity

Saying this will help me and relatives or old friends who challenge my recollection to acknowledge the deep subjectivity of memoir. I invite others to tell the same story in their own way. Doing so lets them know I will honor their truth just as I hope they will honor mine. Wow! That’s an overwhelming declaration.  If it is only my truth, my version of the story, who else is going to care?  That’s a valid question.  Yet, subjectivity won’t invalidate the story.  Rather, only my deepest personal understanding of what I experienced and what I witnessed can possibly attract an audience.

required authenticity

If you read my words and you don’t find me there, you will stop reading. You are, after all, reading that book, that essay, or that blog post because you care about my point of view, about my take on things. Perhaps, you have known me for all the years I mothered Kristy and Johnny. Maybe you wondered, “How does she do it?”

Now, I’ve written a memoir.  Readers expect an honest account – not some Pollyanna perspective on parenting a child with special needs.  They don’t want hocus-pocus. Nitty-gritty holds their attention. If the real Jule is missing in action, if it sounds like someone else’s story, you won’t finish.  You are expecting to hear my voice.  I can only tell you what I remember about how it happened and how it felt.  If one of Kristy or Johnny’s sisters wants to say, “But, Mom, I remember…,” I’m happy for you to hear her tale.  She was there too.  She will bring her own brand to the narrative just I’m trying to bring mine.

Bringing my brand to the memoir is one primary responsibility I commit to. Another is telling a story in which something happens.

Something Has to Happen

It might seem obvious that readers expect something to happen in a story. That’s the nature of the story, isn’t it? It also is true that if a child is born, grows, becomes ill, becomes even more ill, and dies, “something” has happened. But that’s a biography, not a memoir. Poignant as such a story might be, it shouldn’t be published – at least, not in such a bare-bones fashion.

“Something has to happen” in the narrative means significant change takes place within the writer’s very soul.  In an important way, by the end of the tale, the protagonist is not the same person she was when the story began.  If she can’t weave a transformation into the fabric of her story, the writer probably shouldn’t be creating a “memoir.”

The elusive “something”

That raises lots of questions for me. What sort of evolution could readers be looking for? How do I show it?  I am not Saul, knocked off my horse on the way to Damascus, blinded, and converted to being a follower of a new faith. Fortunately for me and most other memoirists, a transcendent conversion isn’t necessary.  Less drama will do.  Yet, change must happen.

Sister Rosemary Connely, the director of Misericordia Home, often told the parents of the children in her care, “Not one of you chose to have a child with mental or physical handicaps. But because you have this child, you have accomplished things you never would have thought yourself capable of doing.  You are a better person than you would have been.”

not always for the better

She is right even though most of us would have settled for being a somewhat lesser person if it meant our children were more typical. Sister’s faith in us was touching. Simply being the parent of a child with disabilities doesn’t make you a better person. Sometimes the weight of the experience causes you to behave shamefully.  Simply giving birth to a child with serious challenges doesn’t automatically turn one into some kind of saint.  It can actually turn some people into devils.  But, I am convinced it does change parents in some way.  There is no remaining the same person you were before this child came into your life.

might i be different?

Thus, in writing a memoir about Kristy, Johnny, and me, I carry the obligation to discover and reveal how being their mother changed me.  Who am I today that I never would have been if I hadn’t been Kristy and Johnny’s mother? It’s a question anyone can ask themselves about all their committed relationships. For me, this year, it must be one that my memoir answers.

Johnny and Jay reading in the yard
So many days were quite wonderful! Johnny and Jay relax in our yard.

 

Dwell Deeply in the Only Life We Have

Old diary and photo with flowers

Memoirists enter into an agreement with readers: I will tell you an emotionally true story in a skillful way. I will make it worth your while. And while my memory is imperfect, I haven’t invented memories. I haven’t invented facts. If I compress timelines, combine characters, or conflate events, I will tell you. The other people in my book would tell the story differently; this is my own, true version.” — Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers

Being honest isn’t easy

Truth is slippery. It sounds so easy. Just be honest. Tell it like it was. Memory, however, is a living, breathing power and like all living beings, it changes constantly. Every day, I experience thousands of moments. Each one of them crowds itself into its own little corner of my brain. None of them are forgotten, but all are transformed by the space they share with the memories that were there before they arrived. And as new memories burrow in, they modify those that came before them.

It leaves me wondering how I keep my implicit agreement with my readers as I write my memoir.

craft is a given

The “skillful” part I get. I stay with my craft, writing, editing, and rewriting. I submit excerpts to writers’ critique groups and to mentors. Time to rewrite once again taking to heart the insights these wise counselors have shared with me – over and over until my writing clearly communicates my voice and shares my vision. Skill alone, however, will not make my story worth your while.  Only if you sense right from the beginning that what I tell you is emotionally true will you stick around to hear the end.

and so is imperfection

It’s a given that as a reader, you understand that my memory is imperfect. You know I must compress timelines. You’re not expecting to read a day-to-day diary. You may, indeed, accept that I combine some characters. Over the course of Kristy and Johnny’s lifetimes, I consulted with so many doctors and educational specialists that it is inevitable that these people run together in my mind.  As to conflating events, there were so many emergency room trips in our lives, it is only natural that some of them blur together while others stand out in vivid detail. This is true also of the multiple bittersweet and funny moments I shared with my two extraordinarily special children.

but lying is unacceptable

At the same time, you fully expect that I won’t make up a memory just so it fits the narrative.  Also, my story happens in a particular time and place. Therefore, the backdrop against which our lives played out, Chicago, Illinois, during the last quarter of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, must be portrayed with the greatest possible accuracy. For that I cannot just rely on memory. Research might not be the “fun” part of writing, but without it the memoir will lack luster and solidity.

digging deep is essential

There are no external references or resources, however, in which I can find my own emotional truth.  That vital nugget, that essential core, of a memoir exists in one place only, deep inside my very self. I’ve buried it so deep, I’m not certain that I can dig down far enough to reach it. There was a day almost fifty years ago when I sat on my kitchen floor and sobbed. I held in my lap, my four-year old daughter, unconscious and limp in my arms. She had just had had a wrenching grand mal seizure. I wept in frustration that none of the seizure-control medications were working. I wept in relief that I had caught her before she fell, and she hadn’t been injured this time. I wept in helplessness because I couldn’t make my little girl’s life better.

yet unbelievably difficult

Then Kristy’s breathing slowly became more regular. Her two-year old sister, Carrie, came up to me and patted my shoulder, “Be okay, Mommy,” she pleaded. At that very moment I heard their infant sister, Betsy wail from her crib.  I smiled at Carrie and wiped away my tears. I got up, lifting Kristy, and carrying her to a couch to sleep off the aftereffects of her convulsion and went to get my hungry baby.  Carrie trailed along behind me and stood beside us as I put her sister to the breast.  Her eyes were still wide with consternation.  I smoothed her dark curls back from her forehead. “It will be okay,” I promised. It was the last time I cried over a seizure and maybe the last time I accessed my own emotional truth.

can I do it?

Because I now want to tell Kristy’s story because I believe she deserves it and my grandchildren should know this part of their heritage, I must unbury almost fifty years of hidden emotions. Discerning which are the true ones and which are only the ones I wanted to feel will not be easy.  But if I don’t do this, you won’t read the memoir. It won’t be worth your while.

But how will I reach emotional truth as honest and raw as Anne Roiphe attains in her essay, “A Child Has Died,” published in Tablet, an online magazine about Jewish life?  Read it and see what I mean.

I can only try

Of course, my language cannot be Roiphe’s language.  I don’t have her voice. Still, I want you to feel my loss the way I feel hers. That’s the task I’ve set for myself. Almost everyone else in my story would tell it differently because they lived it differently. All I can promise is to do my best to tell my own true version.

Jule reads the Christmas story to Kristy, Betsy and Carrie
Note the net on the spiral staircase. We lived every day with the illusion that it kept our daughters safe.

 

 

If I Had Known

Question mark by doorway
Be careful what you promise

In last week’s blog post, I promised that this week I would “bring you up to date on how far I’ve gotten so far with the memoir, examples of advice I’ve received, and the quandaries I face as I move forward.” The sentence makes me chuckle because, of course, I couldn’t possibly do all that in one short blog post.  Instead, I can share what I consider to be one of the important pieces of advice I found about writing a memoir: “Begin by asking yourself a lot of questions.”

don’t do this

This is not what I did. Rather, I just plunged in and started telling a story about a young couple who longed for a child but struggled with fertility issues.  Then page after page I recounted the days and years of their life as a family. No wonder my writing colleagues felt lost as they tried to find a theme and to keep up with dozens of characters. The manuscript was a roller-coaster ride up the peaks and down the valleys of our life.  Readers had to hang on for dear life because it never paused. I didn’t take time to reflect on the challenges or the joys for very long at all. And I kept how I might be feeling about what was happening completely to myself.  Did I even know then or now how I felt? I didn’t stop to find out.

After eighteen months of writing and submitting sections of the “memoir” to writing workshops for review and always hearing the same critique, I finally realized there was something fundamentally wrong. Kristy’s story remained as compelling as ever, but I had not yet imbued it with its true power.

now and then

I put aside writing narrative and took up asking myself questions. Many different guides to writing memoirs offered a myriad of possible questions I could ask myself.  I read several of these. The one that struck me right between the eyes was, “What do I know now that I didn’t know then?”

What I now know is the Kristy never had a chance.  The neurological disorder that eventually destroyed her resided deep inside her infant’s brain from the day she was born. As best I can understand and explain it, the force behind this disorder was a genetic anomaly. It was not carried on a gene she inherited from her father or from me. Rather shortly after conception genetic mutation, a so-called “de nova variant” caused her developmental trajectory to be unevenly and unpredictably stunted.

blissful(?) ignorance

I did not know any of this until Kristin was thirty-eight years old and most of the damage to her body and mind had already happened. During those thirty-eight years, my husband and I sought the best medical care we could for Kristy. We never let go of our hope that someday a medication would come along that could control her irretractable seizures. We firmly believed that if Kristy could stop seizing, she could regain some of her lost abilities and even start learning new ones.  That dream dimmed greatly as the years went by but never disappeared entirely – until 2007.

not a real answer

That year, genetic testing became available for her. The tests revealed the root cause of Kristy’s seizures and disabilities and why her brain had slowly atrophied. (Brain atrophy is a wasting away of brain cells, or more accurately, the loss of brain neurons and the connections between them that are essential for functioning properly.) EEG exams performed when she was young showed no damage, but the older she became the more these pockets of atrophy appeared.   By the time the doctors could give us this genetic analysis, Kristy was as helpless as an infant, dependent on others for all her needs. The diagnosis was, therefore, not a shock, but finally an answer.

willful naivete

Now when I ask again, “What do I know now that I didn’t know then?”, the question deepens into, “Would I have wanted to know then, what I know now?”  My only honest answer is “No.” Although it was hard to have our hopes dashed year after year, I wouldn’t want to give up the joy our beautiful, happy little girl brought us through the first twenty-five years of her life. If we had known how ultimately devastating the disorder would be, fears and forebodings would have tainted all those good times.  And we would have been helpless to stop the inevitable.  It was by far better to live each day, each year, as it came to us without any knowledge of its heartbreaking end.

through a mirror darkly

As I write the memoir, I will have to hold up a double mirror to my own inner thoughts, reflections, and feelings.  My readers need to fully understand all the optimism I held onto as a young mother, all the joy I got from being Kristy’s mom. Yet, the story must also carry my awareness of its tragic end.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
― Søren Kierkegaard

Doorway opening out
Photo by Jan Tinneberg

 

A Memoir Is NOT about Me.

I almost quit blogging

When you write a blog you need to choose, according to the common wisdom, a topic about which you are passionate and upon which you have a great deal of expertise. For me, this narrows down to two subjects – one, my own life story, and two, love & committed relationships, my field of scholarly research and teaching.

A few years back I wrote a few sample blog posts upon the latter topic and submitted them for review to a small group of fellow writers. These colleagues, members of a Portland writer’s workshop strongly preferred the stories about my personal life to the essays on family life, love, romance, and marriage.

 everybody is an expert–at something

Other writers, they stressed, already commanded the stage on the topic of committed relationships. And, frankly, these commentators told me, those bloggers did a much better job of elucidating that field than I did. On the other hand, many of my short tales about my life as a wife, student, teacher, and mother were quirky, warm, and captivating.  Upon that subject, I was clearly the one and only expert.

So, following their advice, for two years I’ve devoted my blog, here on my website, “JuleWardWrites,” to vignettes of various moments in my life. Most of these stories focused on my time as a wife and mother, but a few reached back into my childhood. None have, however, examined my life since my daughter Kristy died in 2015.

blog posts as the “trailer”

That’s because while I’ve been writing the blog, I’ve also been working on a memoir. Through the memoir, I am trying to share with others the struggles, the failures, the mystery, and the moments of great joy that filled the forty-five years of my life I shared with Kristy. She was only nine months old when she experienced the first symptoms of what would prove to be an unpredictable, devastating neurological disorder. The scientists called it “Progressive myoclonic epilepsies/neurodegenerative encephalopathy,” but that is simply a description of what the patient suffers and not really an explanation of what causes the disorder. The known causes are many, but most of the time the cause is unknown. The disorder strikes like unseen, unheard lightning.

it just wasn’t working

I have submitted drafts of the memoir to writing colleagues for critique. And I hear familiar comments, not unlike those leveled against some of my blog essays. The blog posts, a friend claims, isn’t honest. “It only tells the good stuff.”  The memoir, fellow writers tell me, doesn’t dig deep enough into the narrator’s emotions.  It portrays a protagonist who always seems to be in control despite the complex challenges she faces.  And they don’t believe that could have been true. And they are right.

Last week, I read an interview with Rebekah Taussig, author of the new memoir new book, Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body. Rebekah, paralyzed since toddlerhood, has already gained audience for her book through her Instagram account, Sitting_Pretty. The interviewer praised both the Instagram account and the book, a collection of essays, for the way they were able to create an intimacy with the reader.  One felt, she wrote, as though the memoirist had “hooked elbows” with you to walk you through her life.

come, walk with me

Reading the interview affirmed a resolve I had made earlier this week. Just nine days ago, one of the people I hold most dear in this world, my brother-in-law, Marty Ward, succumbed to Covid 19, despite being fully vaccinated. Marty had been quite healthy and had a long bucket list of grand adventures planned. People in his family usually have long lives. His totally unexpected death cracked my heart. It also jolted me awake to the fact that I could no longer dilly dally about writing my memoir.  Kristy deserves to be remembered.  Only I can tell her story.  I must get going.

Like Rebekah, I plan to take you with me. For the next year, the blog will take a new turn. It becomes the story of my journey into the depths of my heart and soul as I struggle to give an honest account of my years as Kristy’s mother.  This means it will include the challenges any writer faces such as dealing with critique, the hard work of rewriting, again and again, the difficult task of finding an agent, and the search for a publisher.

lots of questions, but also some answers

The blog will be full of questions that I’m hoping you’ll be willing to answer.  I am open to critique as well.  I don’t write simply for the positive feedback. Let me know what engages you and what leaves you cold. In return, I promise to share with you everything I learn about writing a memoir.  I believe you probably have a story to share.  Taking this walk with me might be the inspiration you need to sit down and begin that book you were always “going to write.”

September, the start of the school year and the month of my birthday, has always been a time of new beginnings for me. Next week, my first post of September will bring you up to date on where I am at this point. I’ll share examples of wisdom  I’ve culled and how that’s working out.

Let me know what you think about this new twist.

Jule and Kristy 1969
Kristy and Jule, Chicago, 1969
  1. You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better. ~Anne Lamott