Journals of Spiritual Awakening Turn into a Novel

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

My soul trembled in empathy when reading Wendy Baez’s novel Catch a Dream. The main character traveled through the Land of Israel desperately seeking the elusive truth that lies at the intersection of culture, religion, and self.

The main character’s search for spiritual sanctuary in the land of milk and honey echoes an ancient story I prayed about every Saturday. As I grew older, I discovered that across the globe, billions of people look for guidance from a a man who walked in this same land.

Despite all these reasons to be curious, I had never pictured myself wandering through contemporary Israel. After I read Catch a Dream, I can’t get that image out of my mind.Catch a Dream Wendy Baez

How did Wendy Baez create such a moving story about a woman traveling with her ten year old son, penniless, looking for handouts like a modern version of an ancient pilgrim? It sounds like the fever dream of a novelist driven to invent an extreme plot that would provide the backdrop for a modern Biblical story.

But it wasn’t a fantasy. The author really went on such a trip with her son. For many months, she tried to find herself reflected in the eyes and hearts and even the history of the people of Israel. She kept copious notes about her soulful experience, hoping to someday turn them into a book.

Despite years trying to transform her experience into a memoir, she couldn’t figure out how to construct a good story from her actual tricky detours and complex subplots. Finally, she decided to write it as fiction. That decision freed her to modify it to suit her storytelling needs.

The authenticity and psychological power of her main character arises straight from the author’s journals. By calling it fiction she could distance herself from the constraints of truth and zero in on the dramatic urgency. The book grew strong and deep when nourished by the influences of both fiction and memoir.

By reading and analyzing a number of fiction authors who turn to real life for characters and situations, (see notes) I learned how memoirs and novels differ in more ways than just fact versus fake. The two genres of writing invite different story arcs.

A fiction reader might expect this novel to end with the main character marrying and settling down. But Wendy Baez’s actual journey ended on a more ambiguous note. That’s where Catch a Dream blurs the line between the two forms. Instead of ending the novel with a fantasy ending, she allows the character to sound like a real person, with deep ambiguous needs.

Because the authenticity of the character arises from Wendy Baez’s own emotional complexity, her supposedly fictional novel took me on one of the most authentic searches for self I have ever read.

In addition to a search for self, Catch a Dream was a great story about Israeli identity, about ex-pat life, an awesome ode to the character’s best friend, an unbelievably conflicted love relationship, and a “love letter to Israel.” Each of these themes offered a good reason to read the book.

Reading memoirs and writing my own has sensitized me to the psychological journey of being a human being. For example, the psychological trials of being a parent, of being addicted to drugs, of losing a loved one, etc. Among the many aspects of being human that I have learned from reading stories, is the challenge of become an adult. Catch a Dream takes me on a fascinating, unique ride through that critical stage.

When any young person attempts to leave the nest and launch into the wider world, they must accept certain assumptions about what it means to be an adult. For example, they need to earn a living, find a relationship, start a family, and so on. Not every young person easily accepts these conditions. I have read some fascinating memoirs by people who, make mistakes or drag their feet while trying to transition from child to adult.

The most familiar impediment to becoming an adult is drug addiction. For example in Tim Elhaj’s memoir Dope Fiend, heroin addiction spoils his initial opportunity to step out into the world, and so he must reinvent himself in order to reach the next step. Dani Shapiro in Slow Motion  does the same thing with sex and cocaine. Both are excellent books by writers who spent many years “finding themselves” through writing.

In addition to drugs, another, more abstract, disruption often turns up in memoirs. A young person’s search for truth can provide a wall of confusion and pain, as it did for a number of authors.

For example, in his memoir Ashes in the Ocean  Sebastian Slovin had to make sense of his father’s suicide. In An Incredible Talent for Existing, Pamela Jane  needed to find herself amid the collective mental breakdown known as the 60s.

In the memoir New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, Elna Baker  struggled throughout her launching to decide whether to stick with the celibacy regulations taught by her Mormon roots, or to leave those rules and enter the ones offered by the dating game in New York City.

In the memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst, Mary Johnson,  refused to accept the social rules of marriage and family offered by her middle class upbringing. Instead, she made the radical decision to throw away conventions and join Mother Teresa’s religious order.

In my own memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World  my own upbringing and tendencies as a scientist and philosopher sounded good in theory, but as I tried to grow up in the sixties, my abstract ideas ran headlong into the complexity of real life.

Wendy Baez’s novel Catch a Dream is a perfect example of a launching story about a woman desperate for clarity about her relationship to spirituality and religion. To find herself, she joined a religious group (this took place outside the scope of her novel). Then she went out on her own, trying to find her own spiritual and religious homeland. She seemed obsessed by the thought: If Christ was here, shouldn’t I be too?

Catch a Dream is thought provoking at the intersection between childhood and adulthood, at the intersection between Christian, Jew, and Moslem, at the intersection between sexual love and committed relationship.

Her novel enriched me along each of these lines. And as if that wasn’t enough, her exemplary stylistic choices and talent made the novel an absolute pleasure to read. Some of her “riffs” or mental “soliloquys” are so passionate and clearly written, they seem like music.

To learn more, about her creative choices I interviewed Wendy Baez. Her comments offered lovely insights into the relationship between memoir and fiction. I’ll post that interview next week.

Notes
Catch a Dream by Wendy Brown-Baez
Click here for my interview with Wendy Brown-Baez about her decision to write her life experience as fiction.
Wendy Brown-Baez’s home page

Click here for links to other stops on Wendy Baez’s WOW Blog Tour

Click here to read my interview with Sharon Gerdes about turning her postpartum psychosis into a novel

Click here to read my article about Sharon Gerdes “fictional memoir”

Click here to read my interview with Israeli born novelist and writing teacher Naomi Gal talks about the relationship between her real experience as a person and the main character in her novel Daphne’s Seasons

Click here to read my article about a book of short stories The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly by Palestinian/American author Susan Muaddi Darraj

Click here to read my article about Xujun Eberlein’s book of short stories, Apologies Forthcoming about growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

Life as Fiction – Author Interview

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

In my previous post, I described the novel, Back in Six Weeks, by Sharon Gerdes about a woman who survives postpartum psychosis and lives to share the story with others. In this post, I ask the author to share her insights into the process of transforming a difficult experience into a novel.

Jerry: What a great example you have set by exposing this socially hidden experience to readers. Could you say more about your journey to write it and in particular to write it as fiction?

Sharon: When I first started writing about my postpartum psychosis, I considered several possibilities. One was a self-help book for women. But because I didn’t have any credentials in the counseling field, fiction seemed like a better way to tell my story. At first I wanted to write under a pen name. Again, I was ashamed to admit that I had been crazy and had struck a nurse in the hospital. When people asked what I was writing about, I used to get all choked up. But over time, I became more comfortable telling the story. It’s still painful, but I gradually transferred the pain to Kate, the protagonist in my story. It became both Kate’s story and mine.

Also, my story did not happen in a vacuum. Although I didn’t blame my husband, he always felt guilty and thought he should have done more to circumvent the psychosis. By writing my story as fiction, I was able to diminish the blame. After all, you have to eat Thanksgiving dinner with your family. Fiction gives you more freedom to tell your story, and still keep peace in the family.

The more I looked into it, the more I realized how hidden the problem has been, for the obvious reason that other women have been just as reluctant to talk about it. In 2000, the authors of “Women’s Moods” said that there was an “epidemic of silence” about this issue. A lot has changed in the past fifteen years as more women share their stories. I’m now proud to say that I had a postpartum psychosis, but went on to lead a happy and productive life.

Jerry: What a journey, from shame to sharing. Actually, this isn’t the first book I’ve read on the subject. I read Brooke Shields’ memoir Down Came the Rain in which she shares her postpartum depression. How do you see her memoir fitting into the whole spectrum of publicizing this issue?

Sharon: As a point of differentiation, Brook Shields had Postpartum Depression, which occurs in roughly one in seven new mothers. I had Postpartum Psychosis, which only happens to one or two per thousand women.  Women with psychosis are much more likely to harm themselves and/or their children. Roughly five percent of women with postpartum psychosis commit either suicide or infanticide. Some end up in prison. I’ve heard so many sad stories. I went from feeling bitter to feeling fortunate that I had such a good outcome.

Jerry: You started out as a technical writer, not a fiction writer. How did you learn the art of story-telling?

Sharon: It evolved over time. I had been writing articles about food science professionally for about fifteen years, so I considered myself a good author. But I soon learned that fiction is very different than non-fiction. It’s a real art form, and you don’t learn overnight. I took Jonathan Maberry’s “Novel in Nine Months” class. That got me off to a good start and provided the inspiration to carry me through to publication. It has been a nine-year journey. I attended numerous writers’ conferences and peer critique groups. I read a lot of books on how to write fiction. I worked with Toni Lopopolo and Kathryn Craft, both of whom helped me refine my story and my art. At one point I put the book away for two years, and then started it again. I would suggest that for the average person, writing a blog, a poem, or a short story might be a good way to tell their tale. A memoir is much more involved, and a novel is perhaps the hardest. For years and years I got up in the wee hours of the morning and wrote a set number of words or pages before I started my paying job. I hired professional editors to help me get the manuscript ready for final publication. It all paid off, as readers tell me they couldn’t put my novel down.

Jerry: As an aside, it’s interesting you mention Kathryn Craft. I’m writing about her recently published novel, The Far End of Happy, based on her own real experience of her husband’s suicide.

Jerry (continued): I am fascinated by the way writing your story helped you move past your shame and gave you the ability to talk about it, and even more fascinated that once you opened that door, you were able to help others, as well. Could you say more about how writing the novel has helped you become more engaged with helping other women?

Sharon: I’ve become involved with Postpartum Support International (PSI) and through that group am trying to help other women. I had extensive media training in my professional life, and so I joined the board of PSI as the Media / Public Relations Chair. I was recently elected Vice-President. Through our annual conferences, I personally met several other women who had a similar lived experience. Our little group of survivors has become close friends. I am involved in the PSI prison pen pal network, and offer an occasional cheery letter to an inmate. As I had no mental health problems in my subsequent childbirth, I’ve provided encouragement to other women who were afraid to have another baby after experiencing a postpartum psychosis.

Jerry: I’m interested in your experience as a novelist writing about your own experience, and then trying to write other novels that are about characters other than you. My readers are aspiring memoir writers and for many of us, once we’ve written a memoir, we wonder what we can write next. Writing the memoir gives us the knack of sharing our own first person points of view. But then, it seems to me that writing fiction requires that you be able to jump into other minds as well. What did it feel like for you to go from the incredibly personal account of your own darkest hour, to writing about other characters in fictitious situations? Can you give a glimpse of how that works?

I learned to base fictional characters on two or more persons that I’ve met or known in real life. By making those characters a composite, the author can create more interesting and realistic characters. I actually started my novel in third person, and then switched to first person. I learned a few tricks of the trade, such as adding a physical reaction—clenching a fist, or gasping for breath—at critical points in the manuscript. This all helps to engage the reader and bring your writing, either memoir or fiction, to life.

Jerry: So what’s next for you?

Sharon: I had a subsequent childbirth that ended tragically, but for different reasons. I realized that I was trying to cover too many subjects in one book. So what was originally one novel morphed into two. I have also started a third novel, which is a story inspired by my mother’s life after she became a widow. The first two books are sad and dramatic. The third will be much lighter, with two widows pursuing the same gentleman. The characters will poke fun at themselves and each other as they struggle with the early stages of dementia. People read to be inspired, but also to be entertained.

Jerry: Haha! That’s a good reminder! As we write our lives, whether in fiction or nonfiction, we need to remember that if readers are going to keep turning pages, we have to maintain their curiosity. Even though nonfiction writers can’t invent situations, we still try to keep people engaged by developing the dramatic tension and release of situations and emotions that make us human.

Notes
Sharon Gerdes’ Home Page:

Amazon page for Back in Six Weeks

Read my article about Brooke Shields’ Down Came the Rain

PSI Postpartum Support International for Postpartum Support International (“You are not alone”)

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Writing a Novel Heals Her Shame

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

I first met Sharon Gerdes around 2006 in Jonathan Maberry’s “Novel in Nine Months” class. My purpose in taking the class was to apply good story writing principles to my memoir, whereas Sharon wanted to write a novel. She confided in a confidential tone that the story about a woman who suffered from postpartum psychosis was based on her own experience.

“Why not write it as a memoir?” I asked.

“There’s a stigma about postpartum psychosis, and I’m not willing to go public about that experience.”

I tried to visualize how you could stay hidden when writing about such an intense experience. “Are you going to use your real name?” I asked.

“I’m still working on that. I’m not sure,” she said trailing off into uncertainty
.
I was fascinated by her desire to distance herself from the book and wondered if writing it as a novel would enable her to achieve the anonymity she desired. I was also curious about her journey to become a story writer. After her career as a journalist in the food industry, I figured that she, like so many of us who start writing stories in midlife, would struggle to find her voice.

Almost ten years later, the manuscript for Back in Six Weeks was ready, and I read it for the first time.

After the protagonist in the novel gives birth to her baby, she enters that visionary, agitated, disjointed state, called a psychotic break. The novel brought me straight into her disturbed mind, including the shame she felt, and the judgment heaped on her by others. Through the magical transport of a good story, I entered this impossibly vulnerable situation, in which the baby’s safety hangs in the balance with its mother’s sanity, and the mother’s sanity hangs in the balance of the social support being offered by some and withheld by many others.

I was delighted to discover that Back in Six Weeks was a page turner. Sharon had clearly mastered the craft of story writing. And she was authoring it under her own name. What happened to her anonymity? She explained that her courage had grown over the years as she became increasingly aware of the fact that her story could help other women. After years of writing the novel, she now openly shares her compassion for other women who undergo this experience.

Shame is a creepy emotion because of the way it perpetuates itself through silence. This is one of the reasons I love the Memoir Revolution. By writing our stories, we find a voice for our wounds, and can shine the healing light of social support on the dark places in our minds.

Despite the fact that Sharon Gerdes wrote a fictional account of her postpartum psychosis, she has experienced the same healing influence. By turning her experience into a novel, she has transformed the isolating experience of shame into the compassionate experience of helping readers. Writing about one’s life, whether in fiction or memoir, often has this subtle psychological benefit, making the author more comfortable in her own skin, or more accurately in her own story.

The Author Interview contains our interview.

Notes
Sharon Gerdes’ Home Page:

Amazon page for Back in Six Weeks

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

More about Why Choose to Write Fiction Instead of Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

In the previous post, I interviewed David Kalish, author of the novel, The Opposite of Everything, about his ten-year journey to write his memoir, resulting in a fictionalized version. Why did he change genres? How did he choose his fictional storyline and characters from among the facts?

These important issues arise for many writers, whether novelists or memoirists who wonder how to create an engaging narrative from their observation of the human condition. In this second part of the interview, we dig deeper into David Kalish’s choice, trying to understand the relationship between his life experience and his powerful characters.

The Luxury of Deniability
Jerry Waxler:  I’ve been working on my memoir for ten years, and feel good about the story but not so good about the privacy that telling the story violates. I’m jealous of your ability to say in your acknowledgements “No one in this book is real.” What an awesome freedom that gives you. How did the freedom of deniability influence the decision to move toward fiction?

David Kalish: Interestingly, it wasn’t until after I completed my novel that the connection between fiction and deniability became clear. Until that point, the consuming process of writing the book, making sure it held together, and getting it published overwhelmed any concern over whether I’d offend anyone.

But several months before my book was released, a family member had a negative reaction to a synopsis of it on my website. The synopsis said that this family member’s fictional counterpart in the book was “overbearing” and pushed the main character off a bridge. My family member told me he feared the novel would make him look bad. He made the comment without reading the book. “How do I explain to my friends what’s real and what’s not?” Then and there I realized I needed to more proactively emphasize that the novel, despite its resemblance to my real life, is fiction. I crafted an acknowledgment to address his concerns, and struck the adjective “semiautobiographical” from all marketing materials. As I now say in the acknowledgment, any resemblance to real-life people is coincidental to my goals as a novelist to create a fully realized story with a narrative arc.

So the lesson here is, simply calling something “fiction” may not be enough to deny any violation of privacy. I suggest backing it up with a carefully worded acknowledgment and perhaps a dedication too. Even that may not be enough, however. The family member and I still are not on regular speaking terms, and he still hasn’t read the book.

Downer POV character
Jerry Waxler: Your character does some pretty excruciatingly rude things. He pushes people away. His relationship to his father is filled with neurotic blame and loathing. This guy was making such horrible decisions about his relationships, there were moments I wasn’t sure I wanted to accompany him on this journey.

As a memoir junkie, I am accustomed to thinking of the protagonist as a real person. So at first I thought, “This guy is incredibly rude.” Then I vacillated thinking “Wow. This guy is being incredibly honest about his own lousy behavior.” Then I thought “Wow. If I had cancer, maybe I would be a real jerk, too.”

But I had to reel my mind back from all of those assessments. It’s fiction, and you were free to create this character any way you wanted. Why did you choose to make him a jerk? Was it because you were a jerk? Were you drawn toward confessing your own bad behavior in real life? Did you exaggerate it for effect, dancing on the edge of intriguing readers and angering them?

David Kalish: I disagree that my protagonist is universally unlikeable. Yes, there are readers who may be turned off by his anti-social tendencies at the outset of his journey, but most people I’ve spoke with find him and his world entertaining enough to go along for the ride. They enjoy his humor, his hapless behavior, his intellectual zaniness. They connect with the darkness he’s going through. People give him a long leash as he discovers his place in the world.

But given that some people think Daniel Plotnick is a jerk, I’ll address that. To create Plotnick, I started with myself. I was a bit of a jerk, admittedly, in my younger days. In real life, I DID lock my wife out of our apartment, based on my lawyer’s advice. Indeed, for the novel, I softened my “jerkiness.” I planted reminders he’s morally conflicted about locking her out, and in fact doesn’t change the locks on her – he changes the locks on himself.

The dramatic requirements of the novel influenced my depiction. On the outset of his emotional journey, Plotnick is in conflict with his wife, his father, and the world. He just wants to be left alone. As the book progresses, he reconciles with people and puts his life back together. In his bizarre way, he finds love and renewal in the world.

I didn’t have a model in mind for an edgy character, although I took cues from the bizarrely dark behavior of the protagonist and lesser characters in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

Wife is smarter than main character. Could you invent such powerful behavior?
Jerry Waxler: Your edgy main character meets a women with astonishing sexuality and cleverness who has a relentless way of bypassing his defenses, ignoring his cynicism and mean-spirited behavior in order to help him heal. His self-involvement and her ability to cut through it provides a fascinating mix. I love these two people!

In a way, his wife was the hero of the story, and the main character was being rescued. (It would be like a version of Hamlet in which Ophelia figured out how to help Hamlet heal from his fatal flaw.)This premise is so complex and intricate, it’s hard for me to imagine you made this up. I’m wondering if life experience handed you this surprising flawed hero and his surprisingly strong wife.

Even if it wasn’t entirely a memoir, it seems to me that at least some of its power was shaped by your own experience. This raises the maddening question any writer might ask him or herself. How would one evolve from the power of real life into (hopefully) the even greater power of fiction?  In other words, for all of us aspiring writers, even if we don’t intend to write memoir, how much of our lives should we be expecting to move to the page? I know you can’t answer for the mob of writers lining up at the starting gate ready to start the marathon of memoir writing. But after having run the marathon of writing an unpublished memoir, and then tacking a second marathon of turning it into a novel, could you share some pearls of wisdom about how the power of real life has informed your writing?

David Kalish: The second wife in my novel is totally modeled after my actual second wife. Like Sonia in the book, she is a strong-minded, purposeful Colombian doctor who has a unique way of looking at the world and expressing it. The fact she’s from a foreign culture allowed me, as a writer, to view her with fresh eyes and, to an extent, capture her mannerisms, dialogue, and quirks on the page. Of course, I exaggerated everything for effect. But what I didn’t exaggerate was how much she helped me when I was going through my disease. She never beat around the bush. She told me in no uncertain terms how to cope. Her interesting way of nurturing me was what I needed to find strength to face up to my mortality. I’m a lucky guy that way. Of all the characters in the book, she’s one of the closest to my real-life counterpart.

All writers need to mine their personal lives for material for their writing. But my material is particularly rich, and so I probably went deeper than most. I think we all have characters in our life, but my tendency is to stretch real-life personalities and events to make them more interesting. Writing, to me, is a constant flight from boredom – and a lot more happens in fiction than in real life. Much of real life is spent doing very little of interest to fiction readers.

Click here for Part 3

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

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

What Happens When a Memoir Author Chooses Fiction?

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

The novel, The Opposite of Everything is a powerful, fictional account about a character whose marriage is falling apart at the same time as he is fighting with a death sentence from cancer. In fact, this was the same circumstance as the author David Kalish.

Taking a cue from the title, I careened back and forth between the opposites of fiction and memoir, asking myself which parts were true, and how does fiction add to the power of the true life tale. The question of fact versus fiction haunts many memoir authors. How much should I hide? How can I protect myself from lawsuits and hate mail? What if I misremember? How can I embellish to make it more interesting?

I love these questions on the boundary of truth and continue to hope for answers. For example, last year, I went for a walk with Robert Waxler in preparation for point and counterpoint talks we intended to give some day about memoir versus literature. Since he is an English professor at UMass and has written two memoirs as well as a number of books touting the power of literature, he is intimately familiar with both sides of the debate. I told him that I believe memoirs are so important because they emerge from the truth. He insisted on the exact opposite. He believes that fiction is so much more powerful because it’s invented. These opposing views seem unsolvable.

The exciting thing about memoir writing, for me, has been the willingness to face these fears and keep going, staring into the unanswerable questions of truth and story. Now, having read the Opposite of Everything, I have come face to face with a man who has been staring at this paradox since he started writing about his life ten years ago.

Because he is apparently an expert in opposites, I interviewed him about these two forms of narrative and asked him how and why he stepped through that mysterious stargate into the limitless realm of imagination.

Your initial experience as a memoir writer

Jerry Waxler: When you first attempted to write this story, you were attempting to do it in a memoir. During that initial period, like any memoir writer, you were sticking to the facts and trying to turn them into a narrative, a compelling storyline. That makes you an unpublished memoir author. What did you learn from that experience?

David Kalish: I first wrote my book as a memoir because my life was pretty dramatic, and seemed to lend itself to a straight-forward telling. In just four months in 1994, I was diagnosed with incurable thyroid cancer at the same time my first marriage fell apart. I later got remarried to a doctor, and underwent chemotherapy around the same time my daughter was born. I turned to writing as a way to let off steam and tell what I thought was a pretty compelling story. I jotted down scenes, strung together a narrative. Going through this exercise helped me view the events in my life dramatically, and I gave certain scenes more emphasis than others, viewing them in a way that made sense from the standpoint of telling a story.

But after numerous rewrites over several years, I wasn’t happy with the result. The writing felt stiff. I didn’t know how to express how I felt about my pain. My characters were stick figures. Deep down, I felt uncomfortable starring in a book that featured me.

I decided to create some narrative distance. I tried humor. I made my characters do things their real-life counterparts wouldn’t consider.  I told the story in third-person. I replaced real names with offbeat ones. I stretched truths for dramatic effect.

What did it feel like to break loose from truth?

Jerry Waxler: To craft a memoir, writers limit themselves to what they can remember. But to turn your manuscript into fiction, you allow yourself to draw from the entire universe of possibilities. That’s a big step that seems to me like leaving the safety of the known and entering the unknown.

How did that feel? Were you scared of the unlimited possibilities? Exhilarated? Was there a moment you decided to make the break?

David Kalish: As a reporter for twelve years at The Associated Press, accuracy was paramount. But I’ve always written fiction on the side, and loved the freedom of it. So when I decided to extend that feeling to my book, I felt extra-liberated. The end result is still a story about one man’s struggle, his search for renewal. But I’ve handed the story over to actors who are free to do all sorts of crazy things. I focused more fully on narrative arc. I went to town on my life.

It was only after I took a fictional perspective – other than my own — did my compassion for characters emerge on the page. As an experiment in the novel’s opening scenes, for instance, I switched the POV from the main character to my first wife. This enabled me to imagine what she was going through during the collapse of my marriage. In doing so, I learned she wasn’t all bad — it was our relationship that was bad. In the end I switched the POV back to the protagonist’s. But my sense of compassion lingered, helping me to write a fuller account.

I felt uncertain about fictionalizing my memoir, of course. It was hard for me to decide where to push drama and comedy, and where to let the facts speak for themselves. That’s where I received lots of help from fellow writers, particularly from Bennington College’s Writing Seminars Program, where I earned my MFA. We formed a writing group after graduating where we shared insights into each other’s work. This helped tremendously when I repeatedly revised my novel to pare it to its essential story.

Sets you free to explore stylistic invention

Jerry Waxler: Most memoirs tend to be more journalistic, explaining what really happened without flights of wordplay and phrasing. In comparison, your book takes all sorts of stylistic liberties: fantastical metaphorical devices (like your character’s notion of  the two opposing lumps, his cancer and his wife’s baby) and being able to write chapters from other character’s points of view.

Stylistically you seem to aspire to get into my head in a playful way and sizzle and pop, using words to excite and inspire. Thanks for that sensation!! Fiction seems to have set you free from the journalistic style typical for most memoirs. Tell me how you felt your style evolving when you left memoir behind and entered the mindset of a novel writer. Did your voice change? How so?

David Kalish: When I was writing it as a memoir, the narrative voice was distant from the emotional core of the story. Once I started making stuff up, I had fun with my characters. I had them banter, tell jokes. I riffed on dialogue. The comedy revealed the coping mechanism of the characters, as well as myself. The narrator in turn reconnected to the underlying emotion.

My tone became lighter, even as my material remained dark. I grew less focused on creating beautiful sentences and more focused on conveying ideas, character and story. My writing, as a result, became punchier. The visuals less complicated. The words were a conduit for what I wanted to convey: the emotional journey of the characters.

In the next part of our interview I ask David Kalish more about his decision and thoughts on the relationship between these forms of literature.

Click here for Part 2

Notes

For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

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

When Does a Memoir Writer Choose Fiction Based on Life?

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

Every time I read a memoir, I feel the delicious release of leaving myself behind and entering the author’s world. How did this person cope? How did they grow? How did that feel? My involvement in each author’s experience does not rely on sensational circumstances. I read memoirs to show me the relationship between the author’s circumstances and his or her interior world. Memoirs are the only way I know to see inside another person’s mind. I love that.

I hope my memoir will, someday, offer the same gift to my readers as other authors have done for me – develop the best possible story based on the actual events of my life. That is the memoir writer’s quest.

When I first decided to write my memoir, I had never written a story of any kind, and so I went on a long journey, simultaneously traveling on two parallel roads. Like an electron that is in two places at once, I found myself dancing between the memories themselves and the art of representing those memories in words. I learned that a story carries the reader forward with literary devices, such as pacing, setting expectations, and flights of observation that add a splash of color to an otherwise drab scene.

To learn these skills, I often find myself learning from fiction writers. They are the keepers of storytelling, building on a craft that has been evolving for thousands of years, adjusting and shaping reality in order to captivate the minds of their readers. Even though memoir writers adhere to the truth, sometimes the need for excellence pushes them to the blurry boundary between truth and story.

For example, since few of us have the luxury of accurate contemporaneous notes, we must reconstruct what was said. Even with contemporaneous notes, written dialog is different than spoken. The same creativity applies to one’s thoughts. There is no way to know the exact thoughts. Memoir writers report the most likely version.

I love the veracity of memoirs, and read each one as if it was a detailed, honest account. But I also recognize that when attempting to transform their lives into stories, many writers prefer the pure invention permitted in fiction. There could be many reasons for this choice. Perhaps facts are difficult to remember, or were not exciting, or there are thing to be kept secret.

During my research, I came across a book by Xujun Eberlein. She grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. And her collection of short stories, Apologies Forthcoming, reflects those strange and fascinating times. However, when I asked her about the reality or lack of it in her stories she insisted it was all fiction. [Click here to read our interview.]

Susan Muaddi Darraj a Palestinian-American wrote a book of short stories called The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly, which won the Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction from Foreword Magazine. Most of what I know about Palestinians comes from the turmoil in the Mideast. I wanted to read about Palestinians in South Philadelphia. Her short stories gave me authentic glimpses of cultural mixing, and yet like Xujun Eberlein, she questioned the value of exploring their veracity or lack of it. [Click here to read our interview.]

Even though both books were fiction, their stories gave me a wonderful window into aspects of their lives that I would not otherwise have been able to experience.

Recently, I learned of another example of fiction based on reality, a novel by David Kalish called the Opposite of Everything. The book is about a man’s journey through cancer treatment, a profoundly disturbing time in a person’s life that cries out for understanding. But how much of the story was based on his own experience? He offered a hint during an interview with blogger Crystal Otto:

Before he was Daniel Plotnick, my main character had my name. That’s because my book started as a first-person memoir about my struggles with cancer and divorce. But over years of revision I decided the book worked better as a third-person comedic novel.[Click here for the whole interview.]

This decision fascinated me. Why did he do it and how did the transition work out? Fortunately, he is willing to delve into this question more deeply. In my next post, I will publish the first part of our interview.

Notes

For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

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

Show Don’t Tell: Difference Between Fiction and Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Why are memoirs so popular? Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn the reasons for this important cultural trend.

The rule “Show don’t tell” can help writers find a strong, clear storytelling voice. However, because it is mainly taught to fiction writers, we memoir writers have to apply our own interpretations in order to adapt it to our genre.

In a previous essay, I explored the fact that we have all been influenced by ideas. Since ideas are important in the journey of our lives, they might authentically enter into our memoirs. Exposition about influential ideas could offer a valuable contribution to your readers.  In this essay, I continue to explore the ways memoirs differ from fiction.

I don’t mean to imply that good memoirs ignore the powerful methods of storytelling. On the contrary, a good memoir converts the bits of our real lives into the shape of a story. When we do a good job, we offer readers an informative, engaging entry into our world.

However, if we adhere too closely to techniques that work in fiction, we miss opportunities to help readers understand our authentic, real-life experience. To develop a strong memoir writing voice, consider the differences between fiction and memoir writing. Here are three areas in which the forms differ.

Fiction writers make stuff up

In fiction, a novelist can show ominous emotions by adding a wolf’s howl or a foul smell, or covering the sky with dark clouds. Need tactile sensation? Blow some snow in your character’s face. Need a gloomy room? Put a layer of grime over everything. The ability to invent actions and descriptions creates a whole palette of experience that can keep a fiction reader engaged.

Memoirs rely on real-world settings. What if the setting doesn’t evoke the right mood? To add emotional depth, memoir writers can simply invite readers inside our interior. As protagonists we know we hate this situation and we know why. To help the reader understand, we can just say it. For example, in Freeways to Flipflops when Sonia Marsh searches for a school in Belize for her younger son, she realizes he would have had better educational opportunities back home. A key aspect of her dramatic tension arises from the worry that perhaps she was hurting her younger son at the same time as she was trying to protect her older one. To convey this fear, she lets us “hear” her thoughts. It is a simple and direct way to share her inner battle. Her fretting “shows” the pain and confusion of the situation, and strengthens the point perfectly.

In my memoir, if I felt bad about myself during the 70s, I could relate it to the way I felt at the end of a day at the foundry when every inch of exposed skin was covered in a film of black grit. These memories are a combination of showing and telling – telling my thoughts in which I show my experiences. Another way thoughts could keep the reader engaged would be to suggest some hypothetical action. “I wanted to scream.” The protagonist shifts from feeling things directly, to becoming a narrator telling the feelings.

Note
This shift into the mind of the narrator at the time of the story is relatively common in memoirs. This is different from the less common technique of shifting into the mind of the present-day narrator. When you comment on the past from the point of view of the present-day narrator, you are asking the reader to jump back and forth between two versions of yourself. Whether or not this is an effective technique for you will depend on the way you want to structure your story.

Novels Condition Us to See Characters from the Outside

We read endless novels written in third person. The statement “he pulls out his gun” focuses our gaze on the character’s external actions. We have grown so accustomed to this external point of view that we might feel confused hearing too much of what the character thinks, relying instead on their actions and speech. This makes sense in fiction when we are not inside anyone’s mind.

By contrast, the first person point of view prevalent in memoirs provides an entirely different vantage point, taking us inside the main character’s mind. From this point of view, we have direct access to the character’s thoughts, not just through external cues but within the reality of being that person.

After I realized I was allowed to reveal my thoughts, my scenes became stronger and my critiquers thanked me. I also pay attention to the memoirs I read, and discover that I enjoy learning what the protagonist of a memoir thinks. In fact when a memoir author relies too heavily on external detail, and too little on his or her own thoughts, the book often feels “fake” to me, as if the author is trying to write a novel, rather than a memoir.

Actors condition us to guess a character’s thoughts from external cues

On the page, a story might describe one character speaking and the other character smirking. On the screen, an actor could squeeze complex subtexts into the smirk. With just the right twist of lips, eyebrows and voice, the actor could imply “I know you didn’t mean what you just said,” or “I love you and I don’t really care what you say. Just keep talking.” or “Yes, yes. Whatever. My mind is a million miles away.” As viewers we have become accustomed to “reading” all this subtext into the actor’s intentions, based on the nonverbal cues. Our verbal minds don’t need to be engaged.

In addition to the nuances of an actor’s face, moviegoers rely on yet another nonverbal channel of communication. Background music lets us know what to feel. After a lifetime of watching shows with soundtracks, we have become accustomed to believing that feelings can and should be expressed without words.

Memoir writers do not have access to the facial nuances of a professional actor or the musical score to set the mood. Instead we employ our own unique tools. When we attempt to portray the subtlety of emotion, we can share what we think.

Share Your Inner World

Woody Allen has become famous for portraying characters who think before, during and after every important action. His career is based mainly on the joke that only weak-minded, obsessive people  think. There is an ironic twist embedded in his send-up. His characters reflect the human condition more accurately than do the characters who populate “Hollywood” movies.

Unlike the external view provided by fiction, memoirs allow us into the interior of human experience. People really do think, and memoirs are taking the mute button off the mind and letting us learn about each other’s thoughts.

Memoirs let us see, hear and experience what it was like for someone else to grow up, struggle to find dignity, and adapt to change. We learn where this person has been and can listen to their thoughts. We see the world through their eyes and we keep turning pages to see how the situation unfolds.

Instead of paying actors to communicate human experience through body language and invented situations, we are paying our neighbors, peers, and other memoir writers who have learned how to express their own thoughts, feelings and observations.

Writing Prompt
Read through your memoir-in-progress and find a spot where you have been struggling to “show” the emotions and thoughts. Since you can’t invent things in the external environment, try revealing something about what’s going inside your mind.

Notes
For an entertaining and informative book about how to live in a culture which celebrates action over thinking, read Quiet, The Power of Introverts by Susan Caine.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Relationship between Fiction and Memoir, Interview Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second part of my interview with Marie Lamba, author of the young adult novel, “Over My Head.” In this part of the interview, I continue to seek understanding of the relationship between young adult fiction and the Coming of Age period in memoirs.

To read the first part of the interview click here

Jerry Waxler: Adult fiction is sorted on bookstore shelves by genres such as romance, mystery, and sci-fi/fantasy/horror. Are YA books separated along similar lines? Your book “Over My Head” reads to some extent like a romance. Would you or would booksellers categorize it as a YA romance?

Marie Lamba: It’s a contemporary YA or a romantic YA.  There is young YA for the tween crowd and older YA for more mature audiences (think PG13-R).  Then of course there is paranormal, dystopian, chick-lit, fantasy, literary, you name it.

Jerry Waxler: In Over My Head, there is an incredible amount of inter- and intrapersonal deception. Almost everyone was lying to each other, or to themselves. Girls lie in order to get guys, to save face, to override parental authority, to hurt each other, to protect each other, to brag. It was a deception fest. Naturally the lying created enormous dramatic tension. Did you accentuate this quality of human nature because of your own experience of what young life is really like, or is this just the way you felt these particular characters needed to act, or what?

Marie Lamba: Jerry, I’m sure you NEVER lied as a teen, but I might have once_ or twice? Teens try to be good, they really do, but sometimes it’s the lie that allows them to continue to be viewed that way, or to test out new identities or to fix what they may have broken, or to break what is too perfect.

The tougher the mess, the bigger the lies can be until they are so ridiculous that only the truth will do. Lies, like secrets, are also great story devices. As writers we do highlight elements in life, heightening them to make a story really shine.  In real life you might have one grand humiliating moment, in a book the character can experience a virtual fest of humiliation. Now that’s a story.

Jerry Waxler: Actual people are infinitely varied, and the situations that drive us have all sorts of nuances and details. I read memoirs so I can learn about these unique aspects of real people. However, in the genre fiction that I read as a young man, such as, mysteries, thrillers, and sci/fi fantasy, the characters often have far less human individuality or depth. Where do you see your books falling on this spectrum? Do your YA books aspire to offer authentic, unique challenges of real human beings, or more formulaic characters of a genre?

Marie Lamba: I hope that my books contain characters that are nuanced and not stock.  The bad guy has a soft side, the good girl does something horrible, they all have their own arcs and purposes and dreams. They say there are no original stories. But people are original.  I hope that by putting my own spin on characterization that I’m creating characters that are fresh and original and that feel real.

Jerry Waxler: What sort of real-world observations do you use to help you authentically portray your characters? For example, do you keep a writer’s notebook about growing up, or interview young people, or does it pour from your imagination?

Marie Lamba: It definitely flows. Once I have a good feel for the characters, that’s all it takes for me.  It helps that I’m surrounded by teens as a mom and that I’m an older girl scout troop leader. And I definitely remember my teen self vividly. No journal required for that.

Jerry Waxler: When creating your novels, what sorts of real life experience did you bring to your books? Can you offer any example of how you mined your own memory for situations, age appropriate emotions, characters and psychological tension?

Marie Lamba: It doesn’t take much for any of us to remember a time when we were heartbroken or mortified or how it felt to be in a fight with a really close friend. These are such visceral experiences that plucking those emotions to use in a story is a natural thing for most writers. In “Over My Head,” the uncle’s illness plays an important role. My brother-in-law actually had the same disease as the uncle in the book, and he passed away shortly after 9-11.  The novel is dedicated to his memory, and Sang feels what I felt_helplessness and a deep desire to do something, anything, to help.  So adult emotions and experiences can also be helpful in shaping the YA world.

Jerry Waxler: Have your characters ever taught you interesting lessons about yourself or about human nature? In other words, as you watch a character develop in your book, does the behavior or attitude of your fictional character help you piece together some aspect of real life?

Marie Lamba: In a way, a book is more than you are. You are creating different characters, points of view, experiencing things you never would have experienced otherwise.  I think it forces me to look harder especially at the villains in our lives to find a speck of good in even the worst of us, and writing difficult scenes forces me to linger and feel things that in real life I would eagerly speed past.

Jerry Waxler: In the last 5 or 10 years more and more writers are interested in memoir writing and the trend seems to be accelerating. I wonder if fiction writers are more open to real-life experience. Years ago, when the novelist Carl Barth visited the University of Wisconsin campus, I asked him if his fiction had been influenced by his life. He snapped at me like I was insulting him. Nowadays, I have met many fiction writers who are more open to discussing the relationship between their stories and their lives. What do you think? Have you noticed any change over the years in the attitude about using real life situations in fiction?

Marie Lamba: We fiction writers do have a dilemma. We want to be free to create honest stories, and this of course includes experiences from our past, but if the veil between truth and fiction is lifted, how can we feel free to be as frank? In my work, most things are a composite of experiences put together, plus a healthy dose of make believe. Is there a trend for writers to own up to the memoir-like aspects of their fiction?  Not for this writer.

The real truth is that people love to see themselves in your books. Even when they truly aren’t in there.  It’s pretty fascinating.

Jerry Waxler: What are you working on next? Are you going to stay within this period or are your characters going to grow older?

Marie Lamba: My YA novel “Drawn” again deals with a 17 year old teen, but the next novel I’m currently stirring around in my brain will probably reach into the 20-30 year old adult range.  And, hey, who’s growing older?

Notes
Marie Lamba’s novel “Over My Head” was described by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry as “a funny, touching, and at times heart-breaking young adult novel about the search for love.” She is also author of the young adult novel “What I Meant…” (Random House), which was dubbed “an impressive debut” by Publisher’s Weekly..

Marie Lamba’s Home Page

Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

Click here for a more detailed article that compares Coming of Age memoirs with Young Adult fiction.

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.

Interview: Young Adult Fiction versus Coming of Age Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

I am fascinated by Coming of Age memoirs because they provide a window into the many emotional challenges that people undergo on their journey to becoming adults. Recently, I realized that Young Adult fiction is about that same period of life. To learn more about the way Young Adult fiction handles that period of human development, I read the novel “Over My Head” by Marie Lamba in which a 16-year-old girl falls in love with a college boy. Is it real love? To find out, she must process her own feelings as well as advice and opinions from friends and parents.

When I started reading, I was afraid I had entered a girl-zone where I didn’t belong. The more I read, the more engaged I became, appreciating my privileged front-row seat, where I watched the emotional and social challenges of a girl trying to make the leap to adulthood. “Over My Head” zooms into one particular aspect of Coming of Age: that awkward period when humans first steer through the outrageously intricate connection between romance and sex. The hero of the novel must learn those lessons under the spell of emotions so compelling they have an almost mystical power.

I have spent the last five years infatuated with the way memoirs allow us to see each other through the medium of a story. Memoir authors go deep inside themselves and then bring that intimate detail out into social awareness. Marie Lamba reminds me that the real people who write fiction also share their insights into the human condition. After reading the book, I asked the author her opinions about the relationship between real life and fictional characters.

Jerry Waxler: In “Over My Head” your character was 16-year-old character had to sort out romantic feelings from sexual ones. Some people advised her that the boy might be using her while others urged her to jump in. Her challenges represent the dilemma teens face in real life. When composing your novel, how conscious were you about representing these real-life Coming of Age challenges?

Marie Lamba: Hi Jerry.  Thanks so much for speaking with me about this.  I think when you write for the young adult market, it’s almost always a coming of age story. This is a time when we search for who we are as individuals.  The conflict of trying to make big decisions based not on the thoughts of our peers or our family, but on our own feelings and beliefs is key. This forces us to examine who we really are.  When I write about these sorts of things, it’s just natural for me. I don’t consciously plot out a coming of age structure, it just evolves from the characters and the plot.

Jerry Waxler: (laughing) Wow, I think you ought to be teaching a course in developmental psychology… In most Coming of Age memoirs, one of the protagonist’s tasks is to understand the relationship with adults, especially parents. We have to grow toward adulthood and yet at the same time, push adults away. I thought you did a great job in Over My Head portraying this dilemma.

When you were writing Over My Head, or when you read other Young Adult novels, how do you like to see the relationship between the young characters and their authority figures? How does the relationship of your fictional characters with their adults relate to your own observations of these relationships in the real world?

Marie Lamba: Family, whether absent or all-too-present, looms large in everyone’s lives. Intrinsically, children want to please their parents, even terrible parents, sadly. But there comes that moment when the point of view of even the very best parent seems so foreign for that child. That is when the child does take that giant step away from the parent and sees that maybe she’s on her own.  Pleasing your parents or listening to them isn’t always what’s right. That can be quite a revelation.

In YA fiction, the main character needs to have some independence, or needs to be fighting for independence, or the story just isn’t dynamic to me.

Jerry Waxler: The audience of YA is supposed to be 14 to 21. That’s a big range, considering the difference in reading level, emotional and life experience. So when you write, what is the age of the audience you visualize?

Marie Lamba: These days, the YA audience stretches straight up into adulthood. It’s not unusual for me to hear from adults that they related to my novels and that it took them back to their own teen years. And I also hear from readers who are much younger than I’d expect saying that they really related to the characters in my books. I guess I don’t really think about the audience, though. I think about the characters and strive to create as authentic a voice for the ages they are. For OVER MY HEAD, Sang was 16 going on 17, so that’s where my focus in voice and tone went.

Jerry Waxler: In adult life, a few years difference in age rarely makes much difference. But in a teenager’s life, each year brings them closer to adult empowerment. When will I be able to drive? When will I be able to earn freedom from my parents? When will I be old enough to earn the optimum romantic partner?

You bring out these tensions powerfully in “Over My Head” with the romance between a 16-year-old girl and 20-year-old boy. The age difference creates a big power imbalance. What interest brought you to the story of a 16-year old hero and her 20 year old love interest? How does age-related envy and power imbalance play out in your favorite YA stories?

Marie Lamba: There are all sorts of imbalances in relationships in novels, but age is a biggie. The younger character finds herself wondering if she’s mature enough, envying the freedoms of the older character, perhaps even glorifying what is mundane to an older person.  In OVER MY HEAD, the age difference isn’t exactly 4 years.  Sang is almost 17 and Cameron is just 20, but with him in college it is a great divide indeed.  He has a separate life from his summertime world, and this raises a lot of red flags about who he really is.

In my previous novel, WHAT I MEANT… all the teens were around the same age.  The adults had tremendous power and one especially diabolical aunt used this to set the heroine up to take the blame on numerous occasions. With OVER MY HEAD, Sang is 2 years older, and ready for true independence. I selected an older love interest to up the stakes and to really force Sang to be at odds with her youthful self and her family.

A favorite YA of mine, IT’S NOT SUMMER WITHOUT YOU by Jenny Han also involves a girl smitten by an older boy. The separation forced by him going off to college, coupled with the death of his mom, create huge rifts between the two, and the heroine wonders if he’s changed, or if he was ever who she thought he was. And perhaps she didn’t know her own heart either.

Jerry Waxler: I felt your novel “Over My Head” had especially good control over the passage of time. I wondered if part of that authorial control is related to the age of your characters. Since we all went through the school system during those years, your school-year markers remind us of our own coming of age. (Harry Potter capitalizes on this structure too, making each book correspond with a school year.) In addition, an illness in the family creates additional time pressure, and then toward the end, we hear the drumbeat of the approaching school year. Do you pay special attention to the suspense around the passage of time? Do you have any set rules about how to keep the reader moving through time?

Marie Lamba: I’ve learned through writing a number of novels to always keep a fictional calendar for my stories. Weekends make a difference. So do holidays.  So does the weather, the phases of the moon, stuff like that. With my manuscript DRAWN, which has a time travel element, this was especially critical.  I had to track the present day time as well as the critical events of the 1460s.  

I always know the big climactic event of the book before I write, and having a count-down to this helps me plot the pacing and keep the tension going.  An author (now I can’t remember who) once said that the things that keep story engine going are a secret or a ticking time bomb, preferably both. I always try to go for both.

Jerry Waxler: Sometimes YA books jump over into an adult readership. For example, Harry Potter obviously made the leap to a cross-generational readership. And sometimes adult books are picked up by young people. J.D. Salinger apparently wrote “Catcher in the Rye” for an adult audience, and then young people realized that the subject matter was about them, and they took it for themselves. So when you write about your young people, what sort of attention are you paying to the possible interest adults might have in reading your books?

Marie Lamba: With YA books, parents are often the ones who okay or nix the purchase, whether at a bookstore or online or at the library/school level.  Because of this, we YA authors are actually really conscious about the level of profanity and sex we put in a novel.  Win over the teens, lose the parents? It’s a delicate balance. I strive for authenticity, and then I assess how critical a curse word is or a sexual thought. If it truly is critical to the story, in it goes.

As for appealing to adults as readers, I believe that any well-told authentic story will speak to us all.

Interview to be continued

Notes
Marie Lamba’s novel “Over My Head” was described by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry as “a funny, touching, and at times heart-breaking young adult novel about the search for love.” She is also author of the young adult novel “What I Meant…” (Random House), which was dubbed “an impressive debut” by Publisher’s Weekly..

Marie Lamba’s Home Page

Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

Click here for a more detailed article that compares Coming of Age memoirs with Young Adult fiction.

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.

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.