Memoir as Smorgasbord

Newborn immediately after birth
beginnings and endings

I announced in this space on August 30, that before the year is over I will complete my memoir.  It’s an ambitious task because, in that narrative, I attempt to cover all the years I shared with my two extraordinary children, Kristin Margaret and John Brophy. That journey began on May 14, 1969, the day my Kristin was born, and ended on February 3, 2015, the day she died. Forty-five years.

Birth and death do not necessarily make satisfying beginnings or endings for a story. Life’s meaning is not in the coming and the going, but in what happened in between. Yet, there is so much! It all feels terribly important, but an impactful memoir needs to be succinct. A long, rambling narrative loses readers long before they learn the important things you need them to know.

looking for a life raft

By the time I had written halfway through the fifth version of my memoir, I knew I required serious help. I signed up for a writing class. Rather than a course on how to write a memoir, author/mentor Ellen Blum Barrish offered a “smorgasbord” of topics. Each was designed to help potential memoirists dig deep into their own inner experience. I wasn’t entirely certain that the class was what I needed, but I trusted Ellen and I couldn’t go it alone any longer.

What a good decision that was!

defining truth

The very first week, we dug into the conundrum of truth in memory. We dissected Amye Archer’s searing essay, “Writing Truth in Memoir,” in which she adjures writers to give up hidden agendas they uncover as they write. “It is more important to be honest than vengeful,” she warns us. We are not writing to make the reader “be on our side.” For our story to be visible to our readers, we have to pull the lens farther back than that.

Amye made me realize I had to watch out for my own hidden agendas. I wasn’t after revenge, but I did tend to “protect” my characters.

what is a family?

Week two’s topic really excited me. “Writing Family” was exactly what I was trying to do. I looked forward to hearing about the other writers’ struggles and triumphs with this topic. At first, the evening’s reading disappointed me.  It wasn’t about “real” families. The essay poignantly recalled the writer’s early days in the funeral industry and how the personnel at the funeral home formed a close-knit and caring “family” so that they could better support the grieving families whom they served.

No, that wasn’t exactly what I hoped for. Yet, when we talked about all the different ways people form “family,” I began to see our story, mine, Kristy’s and Johnny’s, against a backdrop of a family that extended beyond biological connection.

No, not that funny

Our focus for the third week, “Writing Humor,” had me cringing. I have no idea how to be funny. When I was a professor I would hear students in other classes laughing uproariously and a sharp, green slice of envy stabbed me in the heart.  My studies never laughed in my classroom.  Maybe I should have been grateful, but I wasn’t. I took heart, therefore, that as our group discussed Amy Poehler’s “Take Your Licks,” a humor piece about a job she had as a teen, I found out I wasn’t the only one who didn’t find it funny.

I felt kind of sorry for Amy. After all, she is a comedian. She has to be funny to earn a living.  I don’t. I gave up worrying up hope to entertain readers by showing them the funny side of my story – there wasn’t one.

writing loss

“Writing the Lost Loved One,” the theme of week four most likely was the one that made me sign up for the course. My memoir focused not on me, but on two beloved lost children. They say be careful what you wish for.  The reading that Ellen chose for that week ripped my soul apart. I could hear Jaqueline Doyle’s voice cry out from her essay, “Dear Maddy,” “Talk to me, Maddy. Tell me what it was like. Rise up from the depths of twenty years in all your shadowy splendor. Tell me.”

We do that, those of us who have lost a loved one. We don’t want to let go, especially of someone yanked away from this world “before their time,” whatever that is. Doyle’s abrasive honesty made me question myself.  Did I dare put the searing blaze of my own emotions into black and white and offer them as a sacrifice? Was, perhaps, my whole project a mistaken quest?

perspective can be everything

We examined writing about trauma in the fifth week of class. We read both a touching testament to the moment a woman realizes her marriage is over and a horrifying witness to the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. The latter, Brian Doyle’s “Leap,” might appear to be the more “traumatic.” After all, it depicts people jumping from window and hitting the pavement transformed into a “pink mist.” That is only one of many tragic images Brian presents.

Yet, we found ourselves equally engrossed in the pain of the woman in the first piece. Our assessment of the two different pieces reinforced my conviction that how well a writer crafts their tale can determine how well the story will grip their readers.

always more to learn

Every week of the class continued to build my understanding of what it means to write from the very core of one’s being.  It was my one-on-one session with Ellen, however, that answered many of my most troubling questions about my memoir. She also gave me a whole new perspective from which to view my life. That tete a tete will be the topic of next week’s blog post.

Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate constructionWilliam Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)

Cemetery angel
Photo by Tim Mossholder

 

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