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

Life Is What Happens . . .

Dogwood Blossoms
the artist’s way
Stacks of books
Photo by Ajda ATZ

A certain romantic mythology often draws young people to the artist’s life.  Estelle Ford- Williamson was no exception. As a teen, growing up in Chattanooga, TN, she dreamed of being a writer so that she could live her life as Hemingway had. Like him, she would be a journalist who traveled the world reporting on major crises, all the while writing terse, fascinating novels and stories (although her Catholic school girl self wasn’t sure about having multiple love affairs as he did). Her dream focused on the excitement and the adventure of his life.

The Right to Know the Truth
Typewritten Truth
Photo by Marcus Winkler

Her perspective changed when she had the opportunity to meet The Chattanooga Times managing editor, John Popham, who as a journalist in the 50s covered the Southern United States for The New York Times. His impassioned words extolling the obligation of the reporter to bring the truth to the people no matter what the difficulties nor who opposed them moved her to tears.  She had a whole new vision of what her life could mean. This compelling notion of a responsibility to the truth took full steam as she attended college during the turbulent 1960s.

life in the “real world”
Chicago blizzard
Photo by Max Bender

It was so powerful, in fact, that she left Saint Mary’s, the women-only college she attended, before she graduated. She had a plan to take her elective courses in Chicago so that she could live in the “real world.”  Working during the day and taking night classes at Northwestern University, a school renowned for its journalism program, she completed her degree requirements and graduated from Saint Mary’s College the next year. During the Chicago blizzard of 1967, two events undermined her determination to live and work in the north.  A friend’s car, which had been buried by the historic two-foot snow, was plowed away.  And a letter arrived from her mother with a dogwood blossom folded in the pages.  She headed back to her beloved South.

a tricky work/life balance
Newspaper collage from 1968
Photo by Arno Senoner

Almost by a fluke she landed a job with the global news agency, United Press International, in Atlanta. Her boss mistakenly interpreted the credits she had earned at Northwestern to mean she had graduated from that prestigious journalism school. Over a beer, the man learned he’d read the application wrong, but as she had been reporting for a while, she kept the job. Two years with the agency taught her to synthesize information quickly and to view events from a broad perspective.

Wanting to start a family, she left the agency.  While her daughter grew, she worked for several government agencies and non-profit groups, writing newsletters and research papers. Working for the city of Atlanta brought her in contact with several leaders in the Civil Rights movement and led Estelle into an active role in equal rights advocacy.

past & present coalesce

Estelle returned to school and earned a master’s degree in Psychology. Her coursework served not only to deepen her writer’s perspective, but also led to new work experiences as a management trainer and career development specialist. She performed workshops, helping people learn to communicate with one another within corporations and assisting people transitioning from one job to another. On the side, she kept up her interest in writing by editing and publishing three of her aunts’ memoirs about their lives in North Georgia.

what she least expected
Memorabilia
Photo by Ireland Rose

Then a cloud with a silver lining blew over her horizon. Felled by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she lacked the energy to work full time. But because it wasn’t her nature to simply sit around, she began reading from her grandmother’s trunk, which contained memorabilia and family writings from that woman’s family. She also came across a detailed genealogy constructed by a great aunt that covered multiple generations of family. She began writing a story of fictitious characters who lived in the same period. Sometimes she wrote with her eyes closed due to the persistent fatigue.

always questing
Man making rifles
Photo by Carter Yocha

Writing was a quest for Estelle. There were years of research. She hunted in schools, libraries, archives, and museums around the South. She collected not only data but information on valuable material culture—house furnishings, clothing, blacksmithing, rifle making.

Abbeville FarewellResearch was interwoven with writing. Several short courses in creative writing and many years of writing in groups helped her develop chapters of a historical novel. An excerpt won a top novel award at Sand Hills Writers Conference. Published as Abbeville Farewell, the story is a saga about family and moral conflicts in pre-Civil War Atlanta and North Georgia, but it also examines the state of the nation’s conscience in the mid-nineteenth century. It was nominated for the 2002 Townsend Fiction Prize.

an unusual collaboration
Boys in a refugee camp
Photo by

Time to begin working on a second novel. But no.  A friend insisted that she meet a young man who was struggling to write his memoir and could use her help. His name was Majok Maier. As a child, he had escaped from Sudan during its bloody civil war. Of course, Estelle was intrigued. Four years later, MacFarland and Company published the book, Seed of Sudan: Memoir of a ‘Lost Boy’ Refugee co-authored by Ford-Williamson and Maier.

Its gripping narrative reveals how tens of thousands of boys like Majok fled from the Sudanese Army. They survived on grasses, grains, and help from villagers along the way. They had to  walk nearly a thousand miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before immigrating to the United States.

a mission as much as a book

The research for the book took Estelle all over the US to interview the young men. Research also took her to multiple libraries to gather and verify the book’s necessary background information. After publication, they held book readings in New York, Ohio, and D.C.  In all those place they met with other Lost Boys who’d settled across the US.

Water well in South Sudan
Photo by Mohamed Tohami

Majok and the other boys’ stories are very poignant and disturbing. These young men felt the need to help change conditions in their new home country, South Sudan.  So, Majok, Estelle, and valuable supporters formed a non-profit organization. It raised funds to build clean water wells in rural villages in South Sudan. (http://www.wellsforhope.org).

a quiet place

After the intensity of getting these under way, Estelle Lockwood Folly Wetlandneeded a place to quiet herself. She found it in the wetlands along the South Carolina coast. At a home she and her husband purchased, they retreated far from crowds of people, perched on a coastal river.  Her fellow citizens are many species of wildlife that inhabit the area.  Now, at last, she has written the novel she dreamed of, a contemporary narrative.  Rising Fawn not only gives us a twenty-first century protagonist, we also find in its pages a confluence of the many streams of Estelle’s life–faith, natural wonder, and a family’s past–merging together to form a powerful narrative for our ever-changing future.

 good dreaming

Rising FawnEstelle’s girlhood dreams of becoming a second Hemingway didn’t pan out. Her multidimensional achievements are, however, a unique outstanding contribution to the literary world. She’s been awarded fellowships to arts residency programs.  Her teaching accomplishments include readings and workshops for Poets and Writers, Inc. and the Pat Conroy Literary Center. In addition, Estelle enjoys teaching writing to at-risk youth as well as retired adults. A special delight for her is that as her books received critical acclaim, they continued to find new readers.  Those readers have proved to be a faithful and engaged group with whom she communicates regularly.

Among them may very well be a young girl, who dreams of growing up to be a writer like Estelle Ford-Williams.

“Is there a place you can go to break away for a little while? If you haven’t yet built your tree house, it’s never too late to start.”
Gina Greenlee, Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons from Solo Moments on the Road