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.
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.