Post #15 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Just because the memoir genre is about remembering and writing the truth–as you know it–doesn’t always make the writing easier. I’ve read of authors avoiding sensitive topics, skirting the truth, writing about something else entirely, even striving for some sort of family consensus. But this is the first time I’m encountered an author who tells it like it was by presenting Life with Mama as a dark, dark comedy. The scary truth becomes macabrely funny through Nancy’s skillful telling.
In her guest blog below, “Handling the Truth,” we get a little taste both of the stories in The Center of the Universe and Nancy’s dark sense of humor. If this sample is any indication of what’s to come, you’ll want to listen in when Women’s Memoirs talks with Nancy Bachrach as part of our Author Conversations series where she’s give her insights into memoir writing.
Here’s what we need you to do: Once you read Nancy’s guest blog below, take a minute or two to write a Comment. Better still, ask Nancy Bachrach about how to handle our own truths in print or other questions you have about writing a memoir. We’ll interview Nancy on Friday, October 9th (details below) and will ask her your questions. Then listen in on Friday to hear her answers.
Each guest blogger is asked to include a writing prompt. Nancy’s prompt uses an exercise to give you permission to write what you have been afraid to put on paper. She reminds you that you are in control. You can edit; you can even delete the file. When you’re done, please leave us a Comment to let us know if this freed you to write what you might have thought was unwritable. Then join us for the interview with Nancy Bachrach on October 9th. You can read more about Nancy’s new memoir, The Center of the Universe, here.
Date/Time: Friday, October 9, 2009/2 p.m. EDT (11 a.m. Pacific)
Phone Number: 712-432-0600 (access code: 998458#)
Handling the Truth
by Nancy Bachrach
A poet once observed, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” If that’s true, how much worse for a family when a memoirist is born into it!
You can’t avoid talking about your family when you’re talking about your childhood, and chances are you remember a few things someone might not want to see in a book. How much of someone else’s story do you have a right to reveal?
Memory is inherently slippery, and the closer you get to the bottom of it, the less traction there is. We’re not exactly disinterested observers of our lives in the first place, and the passage of time dims everything. Some of my own childhood memories are unconnected blurry dots, surrounded by darkness and mystery, like the night sky. Writing brought them into focus. But does sharpening a fuzzy image make it clearer, or further distort it? And who’s to say?
One night at dinner, my mother went after my father with a knife. I remember it as a butter knife that wound up, harmlessly, in the dishwasher. My sister remembers pulling a steak knife out of my father’s arm. My brother doesn’t remember a thing. When you’re writing “the truth,” which story do you tell? I told all of them, since I had no idea what “the truth” was.
There are plenty of families who’ve come apart over a memoirist’s contested, but indelible, version of the past. If you’re writing a revenge-memoir, a tell-all is just the ticket. But if you’d like your family to be talking to you after the book is published, perhaps sharing less is more.
Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina chose to wait until her mother was dead (really dead, not just playing dead) before publishing MOMMIE DEAREST. Still, it was an act of literary matricide. Are the dead fair game? Do they enjoy none of the protections of the living? When does the need for revelation legitimately trump privacy? Every memoirist who’s dealing with secrets debates these questions. “Secrets” was why I kept my memoir in a desk drawer instead of trying to publish it.
I believe that the dead are gone, really gone, and therefore they are fair game. But I wanted to protect the living, especially my mother, who’s the central character in my book. The pen can be a blunt instrument. It wasn’t always easy to tell her story truthfully and still be kind, but the route I found was through humor. Dark humor. Thurber calls humor “chaos in retrospect.” I had so much raw material.
When I was ten, she confided that she was “the center of the universe.” Then she demonstrated the rotation of the solar system around her, right there in the front seat of our old Chevy. I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. She may have been brilliant and charismatic, but she was certifiable, and her medical history read like the chapter headings of a psychiatric manual. When she was soaring, she could come up behind me as suddenly as a twister and turn Providence into Oz. But when she was depressed, she was the wind shear beneath my wings. I treated her like a virus I might catch, as though she was contagious.
Every night until I left for college, I prayed that my mother would go back to whatever planet she came from. And then. . . because of a freak accident. . . she nearly did. She was found aboard my father’s boat, the aptly named Mr. Fix It, in a coma from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, and that’s when our family psychodrama threatened to turn into Night of the Living Dead. I hovered over her bed in intensive care, thinking of Sunny von Bülow. And, yes, of course I was eyeing the plug.
(If it shocks you to read those words, imagine how I felt writing them.)
Inexplicably, after a diagnosis of “permanent and irreversible brain damage,” my mother woke up — and she was transformed in a way I could not have made up. And at that moment, her claim that she was “the center of the universe” didn’t seem so crazy after all.
I never intended to publish my mother’s story during her lifetime, so I let myself write things that I’d never said aloud to anyone, certainly not to her. Writing was better and cheaper than therapy, and I wrote “the unsayable.” Then I stored it away, safely, in a desk drawer — especially whenever my mother came to town. But one unforgettable day, she found the draft. It was quite a conversation-starter.
After reading my version of her life, which was hardly a puff piece, my mother announced, characteristically, “You’ll never have better material.” While I’d debated the ethics of publishing for years, “the center of the universe” made the decision in a nanosecond. It wasn’t a revenge-memoir after all. In fact, she thought I should call the book Love Story.
Writing enabled me to forgive her for things in my childhood that had always been beyond her control, and to appreciate her resilience and courage. I realized that she was the victim, not I. Amidst the harrowing anecdotes, I found moments of slapstick and farce. The book was cathartic for both of us — although I must admit that my catharsis doesn’t always outlast her visits.
Before the memoir was published, I changed my mother’s name to protect her. But the day it was released, she “out”-ed herself — she showed up at her local bookstore and announced she was there to sign copies!
Writer’s block can come from being afraid you don’t have enough to say . . . or from being afraid you’ll say too much and reveal truths you don’t really want to face or share. But the material that’s held back is often the most pivotal and dramatic — the stuff of which a good memoir is made.
What you put down on paper is rarely identical to what you publish. Judgment intervenes. Editors do too. Writing releases the truth; publishing may soften it. That gap is an opportunity to unleash your feelings.
Write 500 words – just for yourself, not for readers – about something you’re uncomfortable saying aloud. It could be about you, or it could be about someone else. But write it all down without censoring yourself. Let yourself say the unsayable. No one is looking over your shoulder. And you can always delete it later!