Memoir As Fiction: Or One Way To Write What You Need To Write

by Matilda Butler on November 8, 2012

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #89 – Memoir Writing Tips – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Writing About Our Lives When We Really Can’t

Painful memories can block us from writing. Something we just don’t want to dig into them. But does that mean you can’t write? Today, we have an interesting take on this issue in an article Deborah Heiligman wrote for you.

Deborah HeiligmanDeborah is author of almost 30 books for children and young adults and has just published her first novel. Definitely a woman who knows about the struggles of writing and how to overcome them so that she doesn’t get stuck. And yet, even she found it impossible to write about some life memories until she saw how fiction could come to the rescue.

Women’s Memoirs wants to thank Deborah for this blog post and hope to have her back here again soon. You can visit her website to learn more about her new book, Intentions.

Memoir As Fiction: Or One Way To Write What You Need To Write

Deborah Heiligman

Sometimes what we desperately want to write about is the most elusive. We try to capture on paper the people whose presence became part of our DNA, whose absence informs the way we reach out to others. We are passionate to share the events that shaped our understanding of the world, and explain our own stance in it. We try to immortalize these people and events, but they refuse to cooperate, refuse to be wrangled onto the page. Often we just need to let time pass; sometimes we need to write about them a different way, even in a different genre.

When I went off to college, my beloved grandfather was in the Intensive Care Unit. I could barely pry myself away from his side, even though I was eager to go away to my dream school, to begin my adult life. I could not imagine a world without him in it, without his love for me and mine for him. I could not let go of his hand, never to hold it again. (As I write this, 36 years later, I can still feel it–the fragile bones, his soft old-man skin). But Grandpa summoned his strength, squeezed my hand, looked me in the eye, and said: “Attend to your work.”

And so off I went to college. Those were his last words to me. He died a few days later, tearing my orientation week and my heart to shreds. My whole freshman year I tried to find someone to talk to about Grandpa, someone to comfort me about death. I had no second dates. One boy, Lenny, kept trying to make out with me while I kept trying to talk to him about death. It was like a fencing match. I “won.” He avoided me ever after, turning corners if he saw me coming. I nicknamed him Lenny Death, poor guy.

Back home my grandmother declined precipitously, and that June, soon after I returned from my freshman year, she died of a heart attack. All of us grandchildren knew she’d died of a broken heart. I spent the next four years, off and on, trying to write about the two of them, what they meant to me, what holes they left in my heart. Although I still remember lines from a poem I wrote about my grandmother, and images from an essay I wrote about my grandfather, the writing never quite gelled. I’m sure there were some good parts, but I think it was rambling, over-sentimental, and “on the nose.”

My mother died when my children were very young, six and three. I didn’t even try to write about that. No, that’s not true. I didn’t try to write about her or her death for publication, for anyone else’s eyes. I wrote in my journal, I wrote her letters she’d never see, and I snuck a line for her into a nonfiction picture book. My editor tried to take that line out, and I refused! I cried for the months before her death and for years afterward. I knew that I would need a lot of distance before I could write in any public way about that loss.

My father faded into senility after my mother’s death, just as my grandmother had after my grandfather’s—except that Daddy lived for five more years. So there I was, raising two boys, and shuttling back and forth between my home and my father’s, an hour away. I was sad, angry, and frustrated a lot of the time (I had books to write!), but there were also great moments, funny ones, touching ones. For example, one perk of a bad memory was that he called me twice after having read one of my books for the first time—each time he praised me and the book to the hilt, with the same words.

When my father died, I was walloped. I was not ready to lose him, the last of the four people who had raised me. I was an orphan at 39, and not at all happy about it. There was some relief at being done with that shuttling, but I would only realize that years later.

A few months after Daddy died, there was a grant opportunity, and I knew I wanted to apply for it. I didn’t think I could write about him, but I wanted to try. I spent a few solid months working on an essay to apply for that grant, putting away all my other projects. I knew that taking care of parents and children had much in common and I wanted to write a book about being in what they call the sandwich generation. My working title was I Am The Peanut Butter.

I didn’t get the grant, I never wrote that book, but I will always be grateful for writing the essay. Working on it, I was able to move past the diminished old man and find my father again: I found the younger man that I knew; and discovered the younger man that I hadn’t known. I came to appreciate him in a way I never had, and I got him back forever.

When I look at many of my books for children and teenagers, I can see little pieces of each of those four people who raised me—in a phrase, a thought, an emotion, a detail. Only I can see these things. So I still hadn’t written about them in a purposeful way, in a way that I could call memoir.

But when I wrote my first YA novel, Intentions, I was finally able to write about them with (forgive me) intention. Writing fiction was incredibly liberating for me. The book is not about them, nor is it really about losing grandparents (or parents), though when the book opens Rachel is almost 16, her beloved grandfather has died, and her grandmother is fading. In chapter one Rachel overhears her adored rabbi having sex in the sanctuary–so you might, in fact, miss the grandparents! But they are there throughout the book. Rachel’s grandparents are neither my parents nor my grandparents; they are fictional people who are as dear to Rachel as my grandparents and parents were to me. Of course there are pieces of my parents and grandparents in the characters. But it’s not so much about that, it’s really about how much Rachel is affected by them—their presence and their absence. And although I don’t want to give anything away, I will say this: in one scene, towards the end (you’ll recognize it when you get there), know that all four of them are there. All four of them and the love they gave me, the love I have for them, and the loss I feel to this day. It poured out of me, that moment, that scene, and although it took me, what? 36 years or so to write it, I think it was worth it. I hope my readers do, too.

As it happens, a lot of Intentions could have been written as memoir. Much of it is based on my younger life, things that happened, things that almost happened, people I knew, struggles and epiphanies I had. It is the story of the moment when a child realizes that some of the adored adults in her life are flawed, and in one case, tragically so. It is about that flash of understanding when a child stops seeing the workings of the world in black and white, and begins to see through the gray lens of adulthood. It is also, at base, about losing faith, and losing faith in the world as you knew it. Perhaps other writers could have written about these things as nonfiction, as memoir, and I might some day. But so far the only way I could do it was through fiction. Pouring my heart and soul into it, being present in every moment, and writing with intention, I wrote the book I wanted to write. And I paid homage to the four people who brought me up. So yes, Grandpa, I attended to my work. Thank you.

Deborah Heiligman is the author of close to 30 books for children and teenagers, including the National Book Award finalist, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith. Her most recent book, and first novel, Intentions, was published in August by Knopf Books for Young Readers. Please visit her website

“This witty but unsettling coming-of-age story from National Book Award–finalist Heiligman (Charles and Emma) traces 15-year-old Rachel Greenberg’s fall from innocence after a series of betrayals leaves her angry and confused… Heiligman nails Rachel’s reeling emotions as she tries to restore her faith and find answers and redemption.”—Publishers Weekly

“The fastmoving, powerful narrative in Rachel’s present-tense voice will easily draw teens, not only with its dark drama, but also with the spot-on teen banter and wry viewpoint.”—Booklist, starred review

We thought you might be interested in the book trailer for Deborah’s new novel, released by Knopf, 2012.

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