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catnav-interviews-active-3Post #218 – Memoir Writing – Matilda Butler

[UPDATE: The comments contest has now ended. Diana Paul has chosen Francine Fowler as the winner and has mailed her a copy of her new book, Things Unsaid. Congratulations Francine. And special thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway contest. Your comments were both interesting and insightful. --Matilda]

Welcome Diana Paul

Today I’m delighted to introduce Diana Paul, author of Things Unsaid.

In the interest of transparency, I need to mention that Diana is a friend of many years, probably more than 40. We first met at Stanford University when I was a lecturer and Diana was just beginning teaching as an Assistant Professor in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Buddhism. We shared lunches and dinners and stories about raising children in the early years. Later we shared stories of the difficulties and rewards of the life of a female professional.

As the years passed, we found new ways that our lives intersected. Now we talk about writing and marketing books. We’ve stayed in touch even though we are no longer even in the same state. I always look forward to seeing Diana when I return to the Monterey coast. She has a passion for life and for art that is infectious. That passion comes through in her new book, a tale of relationships that grabs you on the first page and stays with you long after you’ve read the last words.

Your Comment Just Might Win You a Free Copy of Diana Paul’s New Book

Diana Paul has graciously offered us a free copy of her debut novel for one of our lucky commenters. So leave your comment below about why you want to read Things Unsaid: A Novel or why her responses in this interview mean a lot to you by helping you think more clearly about the link and the line between memoir and fiction. Diana will choose one of these comments and send you an autographed copy of her book.

NOTE: The winner of Diana Paul’s Book Giveaway will be announced in early November. Until the winner is announced, you can continue to leave comments for Diana. — Matilda Butler

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Diana, welcome to Women’s Memoirs. My first question for you focuses on truth. So many writers worry about how much truth to put into their writing. The bargain a memoir writer makes with her audience is that the story is true. Some writers however feel the need to use fiction to tell a story that is too raw or might hurt too many people if told as memoir. Your book, Things Unsaid, is a novel yet seems to link to your own experiences. Did you consider writing this story as a memoir? In other words, what prompted you to write this particular story as a novel?

Diana Paul, authorDiana Paul: I feel that all writing is intensely personal and renders the writer vulnerable and exposed, in sharing the emotional truth of a story, be it fiction, memoir, or autobiography. My debut novel Things Unsaid focuses on secrets and lies, what a family cannot or will not say to each other. Half-remembered events.

Every child may think she knows her parents, but that’s an illusion, a fiction. Each family member sees differently and remembers what they choose to or only what they can bear. The emotional truth in Things Unsaid has scenes originating from, but never exactly like, my own family’s and there are other scenes adapted from friends, favorite novels, movies, and anywhere else where I could find rich material of shared moments of a family’s life.

Everyone has a story to tell and I thought some of my friends’ stories as well as mine would make great scenes for a novel, so I started recording them and exploring my composite characters. I had the freedom to impose a narrative pattern on memories. But, when family and friends know you have written a novel, they try to see themselves in the novel. Ironically, the scenes they identify are often ones I completely imagined.

I never considered writing Things Unsaid as a memoir because readers of memoir usually find reassurance that they are not alone in facing the obstacles thrown in front of them. In novels and plays such as Olive Kitteridge, Maine, Mrs. Bridge, and “August: Osage County”, the story is not only raw and painful to read, but also not necessarily encouraging or hopeful. There is heart-pounding drama and conflict and I wanted to tell that type of family saga. I also needed multiple points of view to underscore the idiosyncratic nature of memory. How we remember memories of memories. “The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember” as Harold Pinter famously said.

However, the emotional truth is personal, as I think it is for all authors. Things Unsaid is raising the questions: To what degree are we shaped by our childhood? And, can we redirect the influences from our past? If written truthfully, the reader will recognize his or her life and truth in the story, in what has been written, whether it be a memoir or a novel.

The inspiration for Things Unsaid was imagining the last words I would say to my dying mother, who was the picture of health at the time I started writing Things Unsaid. But, five months after I started writing, my mother was diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. Fiction does mirror fact.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Things Unsaid is your debut novel but certainly not your first book. You have previously published three books on Buddhism. To what extent do you think your in-depth knowledge of Buddhism influenced the way you wrote this book?

Diana Paul, authorDiana Paul: Buddhism, particularly Zen, has affected my life and informed my philosophy ever since studying the subject in graduate school and then teaching courses on Buddhism at Stanford. Karma is a powerful concept—the complex chain of events for understanding who we were and who we become. In my debut novel, Things Unsaid, a multi-generational family saga unfolds in which the complicated private relationships we all share with our parents and our children take perilous detours and side-trips.

I wanted to step out of the boundaries of traditional storytelling and infuse the story with Buddhist values as well as the residue of Catholic guilt which the protagonist still experiences. By overlaying these two different belief systems in Things Unsaid, the characters became rooted in guilt, karma, obligation, duty and broken promises.

But the process of writing Things Unsaid was also influenced by my Zen Buddhist practice. For me, writing is a form of meditation. When unlocked, writing reveals what is real in my emotional life, my memory, my images. Just as a Zen practitioner experiences losing of “self”, I also felt the losing of self in writing. In writing, the characters had a life of their own, arising in scene after scene, like momentary thoughts arising in zazen meditation.

To overthink is to destroy. I trust what is intuitive, almost seamlessly and organically. And then I let it go and move on. The writing process itself is a letting go, to give myself the permission to speak my truth, to let go of the editor, critic, and censor within. Without my background in Buddhism, I doubt that I could have written Things Unsaid.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: I am intrigued by your discussion of how all writing, whether in the memoir or the fiction genre is, as you said, “intensely personal and renders the writer vulnerable and exposed, in sharing the emotional truth of a story.” Memoir writers understand your statement for life writing but you have helped us see that this applies to fiction as well.

Given your perspective, Diana, what advice do you have for memoir writers who decide to use fiction rather than non-fiction to tell their life story?

Diana Paul, authorDiana Paul: Memory is subjective. If you change the plot of your life to make it more interesting, then you are entering the realm of fiction. Maybe you feel torn because you want to tell the truth about what happened but you’re worried about embarrassing someone involved or yourself (perhaps both). Or you want to re-imagine the story as a novel to gain distance and another perspective on your own experience. The word “novel” means new—while “memoir” means “to remember” or “a memory”. Fiction can have both, but a memoir is essentially nonfiction and the reader is enticed by the fact that this really happened to the author. But, a novel is also truth-telling or the story won’t be authentic and satisfying.

I think the voice and point-of-view are critical for deciding if you want to tell your life-story as memoir or a novel. If there is one voice, it can be a memoir or a novel, but the voice is, in my opinion, always one person’s version of what happened in a memoir. Multiple voices, on the other hand, cannot be the structure of a memoir, because you can only be inside your own head as a writer of a memoir.

The choice is, ultimately, the author’s to make: to create a world from the imagination or to re-create the one you have lived in. Both are a type of truth-telling and a type of fiction. Buddhist phenomenology analyzes the psychology of mind as a net of mirrors—we are all reflected in each other’s mind but can never really know anyone else’s psyche. So, too, with point-of-view. Memoir is fundamentally the author’s point-of-view, his or her version of what happened. Fiction also incorporates memories– of place, time, and people—but some are more imagined and dramatic than others. In a novel, different points-of-view can be invented and are often necessary.

Memory and imagination hold hands, and a compelling story has both. The author will know which voice or voices convey the story’s emotional impact most effectively. And then she can choose how to tell her story.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Diana. You’ve given the readers of Women’s Memoirs a lot to think about and to consider as they write. Thank you for joining us today.

NOTE: Please leave Diana a comment below. I know she will appreciate hearing from you. By the way, give her enough intriguing comments that she has a hard time choosing the winner of the book giveaway.

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Memoir Writers Take Note: Help! I Can’t Press the “Send” Button

by Pamela JaneSeptember 15, 2015
Memoir Writers Take Note: Help! I Can’t Press the “Send” Button

Pamela Jane shares her thoughts and tips on sending your work off to contests, to agents, to publishers. Her advice just may help you decide to go ahead and press the Send button.

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Reflections on Story Structure for Memoir Writers: Based on a NYT Book Review Best of 2014

by Matilda ButlerAugust 4, 2015
Reflections on Story Structure for Memoir Writers: Based on a NYT Book Review Best of 2014

What are the building blocks for your story? What will you say and how will you say it? Join Matilda Butler as she describes an unusual story structure from a New York Times Book Review: Best 10 of 2014.

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Memoir Writers: Just for the Fun of It

by Matilda ButlerJuly 28, 2015
Memoir Writers: Just for the Fun of It

Do you have favorite jokes? Here are Matilda’s and she invites you to recall your own as a writing prompt.

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How Writing Your Family’s Memoir Benefits You Too: Tips from Denis Ledoux

by Matilda ButlerJuly 21, 2015
How Writing Your Family’s Memoir Benefits You Too: Tips from Denis Ledoux

Women’s Memoirs welcomes Denis Ledoux, founder of The Memoir Network to share details on writing his mother’s memoir…something you just might want to do as well. Be sure to read to the end where Denis tells you how to get a free copy of the ebook version of the memoir — a gift to you to honor his mother on what would have been her 94th birthday.

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Writing Prompt: Know Where You Are Going in Your Memoir

by Matilda ButlerJune 23, 2015
Writing Prompt: Know Where You Are Going in Your Memoir

Matilda Butler shares an insight of writing with a goal in mind. It just may help keep you on track.

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Memoir Writers: Remember Family Rules; Create New Rules

by Matilda ButlerMarch 17, 2015
Memoir Writers: Remember Family Rules; Create New Rules

Matilda Butler shares a new perspective on lists of rules — great as a writing prompt and just as good for planning your life.

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