Explore Painful Memories by Writing Fiction

By Jerry Waxler

When aspiring memoir writers review the landscape of their past, some painful memories stand out like smoldering volcanoes. One way to slowly release the pressure of betrayals, losses, and other traumas, is to work with a therapist who will offer insights, strategy and a supportive presence. Memoir writers try to work out their painful issues on the page rather than in the counseling office. During this process, instead of a therapist, we rely on critique groups to provide support and coach us to make the most sense about the past.

There is a third way to reframe your pain. Fiction writers develop stories, based loosely on the events of their lives, and allow the trauma to work itself out through their characters. For example, horror/thriller writer Jonathan Maberry explores the cruelty of his abusive father in the evil actions of his characters. While the therapeutic benefits of such expression are not proved scientifically, most mental health systems support the notion that expressing inner reality helps make sense of it. And in the process, authors like Jonathan Maberry and Judi Hendricks author of Bread Alone, can develop successful novels that turn hard living into good reading.

In this part of my interview with Judi Hendricks, I ask how she developed the story of the betrayal of her marriage in Bread Alone.

Jerry Waxler: Now onto a more painful subject. Many people who have been hurt naturally allow their anger into the story. But telling a reader how to feel, spoils the story. Bread Alone is impeccable in this regard. You simply tell the story. The protagonist’s husband is doing what he needs to do and the protagonist feels hurt, and just wants him back. The more passive the protagonist is, the more I want to scream, “How can he be so cruel?” Help me understand how you achieved such elegant authorial control over the emotions of the story.

Judi Hendricks: I’ve always believed understatement is the most powerful tool for portraying emotion.  If you present a situation without telling the reader everything they’re supposed to be feeling, the reader then becomes not a passive recipient of information, but your partner in imagining.  This makes their experience of the story much more intense, because they’re interpreting it for themselves.

Jerry: But the protagonist in “Bread Alone” receives such brutal emotional treatment. She was so raw, vulnerable, and helpless. I’m guessing this character was you. Despite the pain, instead, of forgetting it, you went back and got into it. How did you feel when you returned to those scenes?

Judi: One of the biggest differences between fiction and memoir is that I believe every fictional character represents some facet of the author, as opposed to memoir, where the author is generally the narrator/protagonist and the other characters are real people, so they’re not part of anyone’s creative process.  In speaking about Bread Alone, I would say that yes, Wynter represents me to a certain extent, but so does her husband.  If Bread Alone were a memoir, I would be the nefarious partner, the betrayer.  It’s more complicated than that, of course, but essentially I was the one who destroyed the marriage.  At the time it seemed like an act of survival.  And I was also the person who found herself after the breakup.  After I left, I truly discovered my own path, my own strength and my own abilities.

But it took me a long time to understand what I was doing. The story went through six complete re-writes over a four-year period before I ever sent it out to an agent, and in all that time I never saw that the emotional part of the story was about myself, too—not just the bakery part.  I couldn’t see that until it was all over and I stepped away from it.

Jerry: Oh. (long pause). My God that is a surprise. I wouldn’t have guessed that twist. So you were reversing roles? In real life, you were the “bad guy?” Wow. Thank you for sharing that. That’s an extraordinarily vulnerable thing to share. Okay, I’m seeing how as a fiction writer, this is just like what you were explaining earlier about the what-if in the bakery. You flipped the situation backward in order to turn it into an interesting story.

Judi: It wasn’t something I took lightly; I knew I was hurting a very good person.  Writing the story from the “victim’s” point of view allowed me to explore things from his perspective, which is perhaps what makes the “detachment” possible.  So yes, I wish it had not happened, but at the risk of sounding cold and calculating, it was an interesting way to write the story.  It was sort of my story, but I was writing it from the point of view of the other character.  It brought me more closely in touch with all the emotions involved—not just my own.

Jerry: Now that I think of it, this opens up all kinds of opportunities for writers who are trying to make sense of their lives through story. Instead of being stuck with what actually happened, they can turn it this way and that. Like role playing on the page.

Actually, I know another example of a writer who did something similar. She was too angry with her deadbeat father to write a memoir, so she decided to write a novel. Since he had abandoned the family, she decided in her novel she would kill him off. By writing about him as if he were dead, her anger burst, and she became much more peaceful with the situation. Her storytelling had provided her with an enormous psychological payoff.

Did you have any such insights or new ways to look at that period in your life by writing about it as fiction?

Judi: The point in Bread Alone where Wyn’s husband says, “Don’t you even know when you’re unhappy?” was sort of a “hell-o” moment for me, even when I was writing it.  I really didn’t know I was unhappy because I was doing everything I was “supposed” to do.  I married the “right” kind of man, had the “right” kind of job, lived in the “right” kind of house in a “good” neighborhood, did the wine tasting and the gourmet club and collected antiques…so, in my own mind there was absolutely no justification for getting involved with this other person.

The first time I read Bread Alone all the way through after it was published (I was long since divorced and re-married) I had this tremendous epiphany.  OMG, I was miserable!  In my marriage, I’d felt nothing I did was good enough.  I had to prove myself everyday, to earn my husband’s love.  Of course, there were other, more honest ways to deal with the situation, but I was too afraid of what my husband would say, what my parents would think, didn’t want to hurt anyone, didn’t want to rock the boat, didn’t want to admit I’d failed, etc.  So I’d been carrying all this around with me for years.

Writing the story allowed me to get it all out on the table.  I could look at it more objectively, and I saw that yes, I did something wrong but it didn’t make me pond scum.  I learned to accept that I was really much happier after we split up.

Notes

To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More of my interview with Judi Hendricks

A Novelist Plays at the Border of Fact and Fiction

How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

Read my discussion with Jonathan Maberry about the relationship between horror and real life.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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