Where Do I Begin?

Kristy's Kinderkarten

 

a colleague’s question

“I wondered,” suggested a writing colleague, who read my memoir manuscript for the first time, “whether you should have started with the moment of crisis? You know when you heard the scream from Kristy’s bedroom?”

Her question resonated for me as I read a recent post by memoirist and memoir-writing mentor Marion Roach Smith, “How to Write a Difficult Family Story.” Roach Smith encourages writers to begin with a line that reader will “fall into.” Called “the hook,” by writers, this is a device that catches the reader’s interest so powerfully with the first few sentences they feel compelled to keep reading.

where does the hook belong?

Often the hook places the protagonist in a terrible situation, sometimes even at the point when they have run out of resources. The intention: make the reader immediately say, “How are they ever going to deal with that diagnosis?” or “Can they escape those people?” If the writer can entice the reader into asking such a question, then maybe they’ll keep reading because they need to know how the protagonist overcomes the “invincible foe.” This is an important factor to keep in mind. Victory may come as a change in perspective, attitude, or emotions, but there is almost always an assumption of victory-of some kind. Or the reader will feel cheated.

another way

There is, however, another way to use “the hook.” It’s trickier to make work, but it’s the one I used for the portion of my memoir this colleague had read. That device begins with the best of it, showing the high point in the protagonist’s life. Then the story plummets into struggle, often into a situation much worse than the main characters could have imagined. This isn’t what the reader expected to happen to these people. Yet, the question remains the same, “How are they going to handle this?”

A risk & a reward

There is both a risk and a reward with this second approach. The writer risks boring the reader with what seems a mundane narrative at the beginning-ordinary people leading ordinary lives, no drama. His, her, their job becomes rendering these characters engrossing and charming enough that the reader waits to see what’s coming. Then comes the reward. When the disaster occurs, the reader is fully engaged with the main characters. They know them and can feel with them. Thes reader cannot bear to be left behind. In their hearts, they hold these people and have a stake in what happens. Of course, they’ll stay until the end.

The second approach is the road less traveled, but it‘s the one I’ve chosen. When the memoir comes out, I hope you’ll walk along with me.

Daddy's Birthday

Giving Thanks for Work and Its Lessons

wishing can be tricky

A new board game, bought by my family, challenges players to answer random questions picked from a stack quickly. If they cannot answer, they lose their card. Sounds simple, right? Still, some questions left us stumped, including for my granddaughter, “A genie has appeared and will grant you three wishes. What do you choose?”

The first thing that makes that difficult to answer is most of us have over three wishes. Then, the query trips us by making us hover between sheerly personal wishes and hopes for all humanity. Finally, of course, the player is on the spot with people who know them eager for answers. The proper point of the game is not winning but getting to know one another more deeply.

Despite some hesitation, my granddaughter provided a balanced list of three things. Her wishes were an end to poverty and hunger, a billion dollars for her parents, and never having to work.

never working! Good or bad?

The last one threw me for a loop. It isn’t anything I would have ever thought to wish for. Nor, as I ponder the prospect, does it seem appealing.

Just the opposite. As Thanksgiving Day approaches and we all reflect upon those gifts for which we are most thankful for, at the top of my list is WORK.

thanks for work

From my first job to my retirement, work provided personal growth and a sense of identity. Throughout high school, I babysit our neighbors, four children, 3 little girls and an infant son. I gained valuable insight into the psyche of small children that would serve me well throughout my life. I learned as well that we fail children all the time, but if we have forgiven their small foibles, they will forgive us our major ones. They taught me to say with honesty, “I’m sorry” and “It’s okay.”

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” – Helen Keller

scrubbing thankfully

Also in high school, I took a job covering a local doctor’s office on weekday evenings when the staff had left for the day. The tasks included cleaning blood off the surgery floor and accepting money for doctor bills after hours. Switching from “cleaner” to “receptionist” defined multi-tasking for me long before I heard that term.

Visualize wringing a smelly rag, washing your hands, and cheerfully calculating a client’s bill, despite their questioning. It was nitty-gritty work for which no one ever thanked me. I left when my shift finished and received the check for $5/week in the mail. I found, however, that I could be my own cheering squad and take pride in minor tasks accomplished well. Praise, I discovered, however gratifying, isn’t necessary. You can develop your own sense of self-worth.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

unnoticed, unthanked

This awareness came to my rescue through several other work situations. Throughout college, I served in the college dorm to earn tuition, room, and board. No tips, of course, I had to be my best judge of how well a mealtime went and not depend on the generosity or the stinginess of those I served. Wait staff bears the complaints of diners for mishaps, real or imaginary, of other members of a dining room staff. Being gracious enough to accept the slurs with an apology and without pointing fingers is as much a part of being “good” as being adept at balancing plates.

thanking appraisal

That same principle worked for me in other positions. In my roles as a caseworker, teacher, and professor, I was regularly evaluated. Others judged my work by systematic standards or personal reactions. I didn’t ignore these assessments, but I took them with “a grain of salt,” i.e. I improved their flavor with reminders of how hard I had worked and what I knew had gone well.

defining work

Work has been a Ying/yang experience–without defining me, it has helped me define myself. I am who I am for many reasons, but my working for a living has been a major contribution to the ultimate definition.

For that reason, this year I choose to be thankful for WORK.

Of course I also say “I am a woman; I am a wife; I am a mother.” Those roles are the heart of my being. But I am better at all of them because I am also a WORKER. Thus, although the paychecks stopped a decade ago, I still “work.” I write and I need all the confidence I gained in those other roles to keep my writer self going.

“The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it.” – John Ruskin

John Ruskin was a Victorian writer, philosopher, and art critic. 

Gratitude Quotes for Workers

person typing on laptop
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What Am I Trying to Ignore?

Stuffed monkey covers eyes
“What am I trying to ignore?”

This is a question that Jane Friedman threw out on her blog, Electronic Speed, two years ago. (jf@janefriedman.com, Sat, Nov. 27, 2021) I wasn’t ready to deal with it, but knew I’d need to confront it before my memoir would ever make it into publication.

being overwhelmed?

Some close friends have read brief parts of the memoir. They sometimes say I I ignore how totally overwhelmed I felt as I coped with the challenges presented by two children with complex disabilities.

I ask, do I leave that reality out of the memoir or did I ignore it at the time? If I had let those challenges overwhelm me, could I have coped? If I couldn’t have coped, what would have happened to my children? Sometimes every parent asks themselves some version of that question.

not talented enough?

A more nagging concern is the fear that I’m ignoring, that I can not really pull off a successful memoir. It’s hard not to suspect my beloved husband, who tells me over and over how beautiful my writing is. After all, he is prejudiced in my favor-unlike the readers in my critique groups who minutely question details such as sentence construction, overuse of adverbs, improper period spacing, etc. But then I tell myself, their job is not to tell me what work is great. It’s letting me know how to improve. That only results from constructive critique.

story is too sad!

There’s the nagging doubt about the deep tragedy of our story. As a friend said, “It’s all so sad. I’m not sure people want to read about that.” She makes a good point, but readers will take on a tough narrative if it’s interestingly written. Nothing is all sweetness and light. Nor is parenting children with challenges all doom and gloom. I include plenty of light moments, like this one:

not always

One of the striking differences, I claim, between Kristy and Johnny is how much she loved to create works of art and how he refused to so much as pick up a crayon. Thus, one Friday afternoon upon entering Johnny’s apartment at Misericordia, I got the surprise of my life. There on the wall next to the TV hung a bright abstract, multi-colored, three-by-three framed painting, signed “John Ward.”

“Johnny couldn’t have painted that,” I challenged his caretaker.

“Oh, but he did.” She said, but giggled as she spoke.

“How did you possibly motivate him to paint anything, let alone such a complex piece?” I asked.

“Well, we wanted to hang a work of art by each guy in the apartment. All the other men were excited to take part, but every time we gave Johnny a paintbrush, he threw it on the ground. Then Sara got her brilliant idea. She spread an enormous piece of paper right where the brushes were landing. She handed him one brush after another, each with a different color. One by one they hit the floor, splashing colors in every direction. You can see the result is lively and almost looks purposeful.”

Staring at my son’s “creation,” I laughed so hard my sides were splitting. That was Johnny. Life was never dull with him around.

The above vignette is just one of the many charming stories the memoir includes. It’s not a simple tragedy, but also a triumph of love and joy over the worst that life can throw at us. https://julewardwrites.com/committed-relationships/the-notion-of-fixes-and-cures

no end to questions

But other questions mount up. Is it too long? Are the chapters balanced enough? I’ve revised it nine times. How can that not be enough?

So, what is the awful TRUTH that I’m really trying to ignore?

Friedman writes that what we are trying to ignore is usually a problem that won’t go away until we do something about it.

the truth

For me, it’s acknowledging that I’m finished writing. It’s time to work on moving the manuscript toward publication. Just thinking about the process daunts me. There are many avenues to publication, but despite the many paths, few debut authors actually find their books on the bookstore shelves.

Dwelling on that reality makes me hesitate to try. Why put so much energy into something that is sure to fail? Yet truer yet is that if I never work toward publication, if I ignore even that slim chance, then failure is certain rather than possible.

“Resolving the problems I am most afraid to confront is where progress lies. It’s insanely hard psychologically, but worth it.”

https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/Jane+Friedman+What+are+you+ignoring/FMfcgzGllChzgDxQDRVbDSKsVqtbGdNq

Woman and old memoir

Life Comes Full Circle

Israeli rooftops

My favorite guest blogger, intrepid world traveler, Nancy Louise, shares a favorite story with us this week.

a half-century ago

Fifty-one years ago my newly minted husband, and I took off on a month long round-the-world honeymoon courtesy of a Trans World Airlines interline rate of $98 each!

I had been working in the airline industry; my husband, Frits, was working for a tour wholesaler designing tours to Europe and the Middle East.

Our third stop on the journey was Israel. I had traveled a bit in Europe… but this was my first time to venture further. I was 24 years old and having grown up in the Bible Belt of the South in the US — I had never even met a Jew — much less a Muslim. Or a Palestinian.

overcoming naivete

My entire “understanding” of Israel was based on Leon Uris novels and gorgeous Paul Newman playing the lead in the movie, “Exodus”.

Frits had a business contact, Emil, in Israel and had written him (yes, an actual letter in the mail!) asking him to make us a hotel reservation. We arrived in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Eve of 1971.

Emil was there at the airport to meet us. He informed us we would not be staying at a hotel. We were going to stay with his family!

Emil lived in Jerusalem near the top of the Mount of Olives (next door to the Papal delegate). We pulled into his yard, which overlooked the Old City just at midnight as the bells of Churches pealed out the New Year. It is a treasured memory.

We stayed five days with Emil and his wife,Um Hani Abu-Dayyaeh. Emil gave us our own private tour guide, driver and car with Palestinian license plates. It was an eye-opening experience. Our guide, Mohammed, was a Palestinian Muslim who knew the Christian sites and their meaning better than most Christians did. With our Palestinian license plates, the Israeli military stopped us every half hour for “security” purposes. Mohammed also had to caution us frequently on taking photos of anything thing or person who could be construed as our “spying” on the Israelis. We were quite oblivious.

Emil and Um Hani also took us to a Palestinian Refugee camp—a sobering sight that I would never forget.

struggle to survive

In the evenings Emil and his wife shared with us their lives and struggles to live in a country that had been Palestine when they were born—- and was now Israel. Emil had sent his two sons to study in the United States to keep them out of the constant conflict between Israel and Palestine. That had been a painful decision, but one he felt necessary for their safety.

The family had lost everything in 1948 and again in the “Six Day War”of 1967. In January of 71 when we visited — Emil was unsure if his once more struggling tour company would survive. He and his wife were Christians—Lutherans — specializing in Christian Pilgrimages. And tourism hugely depends on the stability of the country.

Frits continued to work with Emil for the next two years, but then we moved from Michigan to Chicago, Frits joined KLM Airlines, and we lost contact with Emil.

many returns but no re-encounters

Over the years I have returned to the Holy Land a half dozen times mostly as a Tour Director, which allowed me no private time to hunt up the Abu-Dayyaeh family.

Now retired, I thought I had done my last tour of Israel. I was, however, persuaded in the summer of 2022 to join friends through Loyola University to come back for one last visit—a full-fledged pilgrimage.

Our itinerary was to include a dinner with students from a Palestinian University and a group of Palestinian Lutherans. My thoughts went back to that first trip and Emil and Um Hani. Their first names were the only ones I remembered. I thought, “How big could the Lutheran Palestinian community be in Israel?” I knew Emil had most probably gone “home to God” by now. It had been fifty-one years ago—and Emil had been well into his 50s when I met him. I wondered though if anyone would remember this hard-working, dedicated man and his family. So I texted Frits and asked him for the name of the fledgling company that Emil had started. Frits responded, “Near East Tours”.

an extraordinary coincidence

I was standing beside my tour bus when I got the text. And there in BIG letters on the side of the bus were the letters “NET”. I went up to our driver, Haseem, also wearing a shirt emblazoned with “NET” and asked him if “NET” stood for Near East Tours. He replied. “Yes it does!”
“And was the founder named Emil? ”
Haseem confirmed that Emil’s company was now owned by the two sons. One son, Hani, would be at the dinner that evening.

Hani and I had dinner together at our special gathering that night. I regaled him with my memories of that first Holy Land visit courtesy of his family—and how that eye-opening journey profoundly impacted my life and would lead me to be involved for many years in Interfaith endeavors with a group called “Soul Space,” of Jewish, Muslim and Christian women — with a mission of sharing the commonalities of our faiths through mini-retreats.

Hani informed me that his Mom, Um Hani, was still very much alive. Indeed, she had worked every day in the office until Covid hit! And at 96 she still lived independently in that same house where we had stayed.

full-circle experience

I asked Hani if she was still up to having visitors. I wanted to thank her for that life-changing visit so long ago. He called her there and then… and the next afternoon our driver, Haseem, took me in his own car up for a visit. When Haseem dropped me off, I told him I would probably only be a half hour. After all… she was 96 years old! When he returned… Um Hani had barely gotten started! Haseem joined me — and we sat riveted, listening to the stories of the very long life of this remarkable woman. Near East Tours had not only survived — it had thrived — expanding throughout the Mediterranean — to such places as Greece, Turkey, and Egypt.

It has been a “full-circle” life event for me. My first… and what for sure will be my last visit to the Holy Land impacted so much by this wonderful family.

I have long treasured these words from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” That journey was my first proof of Twain’s truth.

Over the years, Nancy’s friends and family have urged her to record her experience as a memoir. She has had so many, she feels she doesn’t know where to start.  I think the theme of “Then and Now” could be a wonderful organizer for her writings. Let us know in the comments if you agree.

Writers Need to Be Heroes

wonder woman illustration
silhouette of mountain under night sky with stars
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An Author’s Dark Night of the Soul

If one imagines a hero’s journey for authors, then your dark night of the soul is probably when no one believes in your work except yourself.

Jane Friedman <jf@janefriedman.com

Coming to the end of a first full edit of the memoir I’ve been writing for two years, I spiraled down into a dark night of despair. Who but me believed in my projected book? Was I my only audience?

In her blog, Electric Speed, Jane notes writers can fall prey to the temptation to internalize the “NO” they receive from editors or publishers. (Jane Friedman, August 5, 2022)

I have found one can also internalize the critiques that one receives from fellow writers, those colleagues you ask to access your work.

a sign from the universe?

If we treat that “NO” like a “sign from the universe” that our work doesn’t make the grade, our life as a writer can end right there. A chance encounter or an unexpected opportunity could reverse your fortune, but that’s not the likely outcome. What we need is the more straightforward solution—turn up the volume of your dedication to your work.

Straight forward, yes. Easy, no.

For that reason, Friedman suggests authors think of this task in terms of a “Hero’s Journey.” What is a “Hero’s Journey?” It’s a literary device that breaks a character’s story arc into discernable steps with a probable outcome. The journey typically has twelve steps in three acts. (Thirteen Step Guide to the Hero’s Journey)

If my writing struggle follows this arc, what would that look like? Here’s how I imagine it.

Act I—The Departure

Step 1The Ordinary World in which the hero is living their everyday life oblivious that they are called to something bigger. For me, I was retired and finally had the time to write I had dreamed about for years. I crafted two novels, several short stories and started a blog.

Step 2–The Call to Adventure: An incident transforms the hero’s life with a sudden jolt. As a member of several writing workshops, I read and edited memoirs for colleagues. The more I worked with these manuscripts, the more I knew I had to put down my other writing. I had to memorialize the lives of my two extraordinary children.

Step 3–The Refusal of the Call is where the hero doubts her abilities to accomplish the task. There seemed to be so many reasons this story couldn’t be told. It covered too many years. It was too complex. The mystery that shrouded it would be difficult to unveil.

Step 4Meeting with the Mentor: There were multiple mentors in my life. Friends and writing colleagues, as well as family members, all urged me to write this book. My Wanderer’s Writing Workshop colleagues promised to read and give advice through every step of the process.

Step 5Crossing the Threshold: Ready to head the call. The hero sets out on the journey.  As best I could recall, I wrote a chronological record of what had transpired during Kristy and Johnny’s lives. Then I constructed an outline on which to base my writing.

Act II – Initiation

Step 6Tests; allies; enemies: This is a long beginning of the adventure when the protagonist finds all their abilities stretched, discovers some new allies, and encounters expected enemies. I started the memoir in many places and gave it different emphases. Nothing seemed to work. New colleagues agreed to read the work. I took two memoir-writing classes, which both taught me techniques and bolstered my confidence. My memory and my self-confidence were constant enemies, begging me to give up this arduous task.

Step 7Approach to the inmost cave: Here, the hero faces the genuine challenge. It’s the call to the ultimate battle. In December, 2021, I finished a complete draft, seventeen chapters! It felt like such an accomplishment. But it was only a “vomit draft,” that is everything I had in me about our story. With the new year, I faced turning those thousands of words into a well-paced, page-turner that someone would want to read.

Step 8The Ordeal: This is the moment of truth where the hero dies, even if metaphorically, and must be reborn. For the last eight months I’ve “killed my darlings” as the jargon goes in the publishing world. With each part of the memoir that I chop from the final draft, a part of me goes with it. My hope is the final product will be a true rebirth.

Step 9The Reward: The hero has achieved a major success. When I finally believe that I have edited my manuscript to where it can be offered for publication, I’ll have reached this step. But I’m not there yet.

Act III –Return

Step 10The Road Back: The Hero returns home with the reward. Once I have what I am convinced is a publishable work, my journey will be to decide whether to self-publish or offer the memoir to a traditional publisher. Either of these will be a long, painstaking trek, but I’ll be buoyed up by having finished the manuscript.

Step 11The Resurrection: The hero faces a major threat, often the threat of death itself. For me, this would be if they published my book, and no one buys it. I know absolutely that getting it out there will not be enough for me. I’ll need the affirmation that someone values it enough to pay for it.

Step 12The return with the Elixir: After this, the hero is no longer the same. The challenge has been successful. Death is beaten. If my narrative fulfills its intent, others will understand what rich and meaningful lives Kristin and Johnny led. The meaning of their lives and mine will endure even when I die.

 

 

brown pendant lamp hanging on tree near river
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The Vomit Draft

brown and white bear plush toy
the end is just beginning

Last month, both on this blog and on my Facebook page, I bragged (and there’s no way to put a kinder word there) about having completed a draft of my memoir. I felt darn right proud of that “accomplishment” because I had attempted to complete a memoir four other times and never got to “The End.”

Then I read Marian Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project in which she firmly states, “self-congratulatory is very bad.” She would add that this is especially true than when one is talking about a “vomit draft.”

My husband gagged when I used that term. “That’s a terrible thing to call your demanding work,” he told me. But I really get what Marian is saying when she writes, “It’s called the vomit draft because it will both sink and be pretty much everything you’ve got in you.” (p. 86)

digging deep

Writing a memoir, I’ve discovered is like mining for diamonds. Before any actual mining even takes place, prospectors need to locate the diamond sources first. If I choose to write a memoir, I hope will be worth reading, my first step is exploring my life experience to determine whether there may be sharable value there. Do I have something to offer readers that will enhance their lives?

man in orange polo shirt and blue denim jeans sitting on brown wooden round stone in near on on on
Photo by Sheku Koroma on Pexels.com

Anything and everything are mine to explore. But just as diamond seekers often follow second sources that never lead to “pipes,” or deposits where the diamonds will prove true and profitable, not everything I dig up from my life belongs in a memoir. I need to locate a primary source.

When prospectors are certain they have found diamonds, shanks are inserted into the ground at the ore-bearing “pipes” and vast amounts of soil are extracted. I knew I wanted to write about parenting my children, especially my two children with an extraordinary neurological disorder. That, however, covered forty-five years of my life. As I dug into my memories I retrieved copious numbers of incidents, funny, sad, delightful, challenging, discouraging – piles of memories.

the wheat from the shaft

Diamond miners typically do not examine the raw rock and soil on-site. Instead, conveyor trucks transport the composite to special plants which process the ore and extract the rough diamonds. This is where I stand in the memoir-writing process. My “vomit draft” is the huge pile of rock and soil from which I need to extract the “rough” diamonds. What pieces of the narrative I’ve captured on the page can I dole out in the final story? What have I learned that I can share in a meaningful way? Which of the “rough” diamonds, I sort out of this pile now, will work to build an argument for me, one built upon what I now know about the human condition because I lived this life? Which of these scenes best illustrate what I learned?

shallow focus of letter paper
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

In diamond mining, there is no assurance of fortune. Three hundred tons of ore might be sieved just to produce a single carat of gem quality rough diamonds. I may have written 100,000 words. It would be fortunate if a third of them are still standing when I finish my work.

not there yet

Even after extraction, the rough gems are a long way from the jewelry store. In heavily secured facilities, workers sort rough stones into various gem-quality categories and industrial-specific grades. To get from here (staring at my “vomit draft”) to there (the finished manuscript) is mind-boggling arduous work. Each paragraph even of the “rough diamonds” needs to be reevaluated. Is it necessary? Does it help the argument? Did I make the same point elsewhere? Am I falling asleep? If I am, so would my reader would be. Does this sentence help to show that I moved forward? If not, either it shouldn’t be there or it needs to explain the stagnation. Not until I’ve evaluated the “gem-quality” of each scene can I feel free to move toward the next draft.

brightly shining

In the ultimate step of its violent transformation from rough stone to exquisite gem, the roughs are sold, cut, polished, and commercialized. As I work toward a final draft, I’ll be doing four or more cuts. Are my sentences overly long? Break them up. Have I used a phrase where a single apt word would work much better? Did I just skim over that sentence? Get rid of it. To shine as brightly as an engagement diamond, this memoir needs to be perfectly cut and polished. It’s a long and violent transformation process for “gem,” but you wouldn’t give your beloved a diamond straight out of the ground. And I don’t dare offer you my vomit draft.

“Parents would be much better off if, like defense attorneys, we knew the answer to the question before we asked it. Except we never do, which makes a very nice place to write from.” Marian Roach Smith, The Memoir Project. 

a child playing with her mother
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Make Them Pop Off the Page

Johnny thinks a sculpture is a fort.
keeping a promise

Last week’s blog post, “Memoir as Smorgasbord,”  I promised to tell you the most enlightening moment of the memoir writing course I took this autumn from Ellen Blum-Barish.

two heads are better than one

Every class contributed immensely to expanding my understanding of memoir creation. All the discussions were lively, supportive, and inspirational. But the shining moment of the class for me was the one-on-one hour that Ellen spent with me. As a component of the course, Ellen scheduled a one-on-one hour with each student. She encouraged us to choose whatever aspect of writing we believed was giving us the most trouble, that we found the most discouraging.

I told Ellen I struggled with how much of my story of parenting two children with profound disabilities to share. The narrative covered so many years and so many different challenges as Kristy and Johnny’s needs and capabilities changed and shifted. The work felt encyclopedic. Where did I begin? Where did I end? What could I leave out and still be authentic?

caught in a maze

I knew my obstacles were not unique but did not see an effortless way through the maze. Ellen asked one question. That question turned out to be the key to the locked gates between me and a finished draft. “What,” she asked, “is your mission in writing this memoir? Are you hoping to inspire or help other parents of children with similar disabilities?”

“Absolutely not,” was my immediate response. “I can only tell what happened to us and how we muddled through. I can’t pretend to have the answers other parents might be seeking.”

seek your mission

“That’s totally valid,” she replied. “I completely understand, but there must be something driving you to tell this story. You need to be able to name that very clearly. That’s the only way you can discern the parts of the story that must be written.”

I knew why I wanted to write this memoir. But I had not thought of it as a “mission.” “Kristy and Johnny were such special kids,” I told her. “And I mean that in ways that go beyond their special needs. They were unique and wonderful, and they gifted the world with their presence. I do not want the people in our family to forget them. I’m writing this story so that their niece and nephew, cousins, and the many other folks in both our families and among our friends can remember them as the extraordinary human beings they were.”

there’s your focus

Ellen’s face crinkled in a big, bright smile. “Wow, that’s a mission for sure. It also definitely tells us where the focus of the memoir needs to be.”

“It does?” Her claim perplexed me. It did not sound like it limited the span of the story very much to me.

“Without a doubt,” Ellen stated, “You have to tell the stories that make them come alive. You need to make Kristy and Johnny pop off the pages of your memoir. Choose to tell the things about them that were unique and stood out. Let the reader really know them.”

still caught in overwhelm

“I see how this theme could be a good guide, but it still feels like a lot of material,” I objected.

“That where there’s a trick of the craft that comes in,” Ellen explained. “Limit yourself to a certain number of scenes – much like you were writing a play. Then choose the action that would bring those scenes alive.”

Ellen noted that this is how she was able to bring clarity to her own memoir, Seven Springs. https://ellenblumbarish.com/tag/seven-springs/

That work covers forty years of her life, yet she focuses on seven specific springs during those years to tell the whole story. I knew and loved Ellen’s book. Picturing how it laid out, I could envision tackling my own project in a comparable manner.”

mythic numbers

“Sometimes,” Ellen said, “certain numbers have a particular meaning for us spiritually and emotionally. Working within the confines of such a number can inspire and enlighten us.”

She advised me to sit with that notion and discover my number. Once I knew it, I could start working out what the “scenes” of my “play” might be.

This approach has galvanized me. I have plowed ahead – not creating scenes just yet but recording down all the best information I can about Kristy and Johnny. Once I have that in mind, I will let the contemplation begin. I’ll let the number emerge. When it happens, you will be among the first to hear about it.

“One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.”
― Shannon L. Alder

Kristy with rag doll
The older Kristy got, the bigger her rag dolls became.

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

 

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.