by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
When Martha Stettinius reached young adulthood, she and her fiercely independent mom parted ways. Years later, Mom’s cognitive decline forced the two women to reunite. After grasping the seriousness of her mother’s condition, Stettinius gradually incorporated this extra responsibility in her already busy life.
As a novice Alzheimer’s caregiver, Martha had much to learn. She quickly realized her mother needed more care than she was able to offer at home. Through experimentation and research, Stettinius learned about the types of facilities, and the theories behind them. So over time, two things were taking place. Stettinius was gaining expertise in what it takes for a daughter to care for a mother with Alzheimer’s. And at the same time, she had to relearn her relationship with her mother. In a surprising twist, this opportunity to care for her mother became the culmination of their mother-daughter relationship.
Martha Stettinius chronicles their journey in the memoir Inside the Dementia Epidemic. The memoir works on multiple levels. First, is Stettinius’ attempt to make sense of her evolving relationship with her mother. Second, is the story of her growing need to find the best care possible. And third is her desire to share this important information with others who face similar challenges. To achieve these three things, Stettinius was determined to create a readable, interesting book.
An unusual story of mother-daughter bonding
Since her mother often didn’t even seem to be tracking their conversation, Stettinius needed to learn new rules. One thing she learned about caregiving for Alzheimer’s was that since her mother was losing touch with the past, it was the daughter’s responsibility to do the remembering for both of them.
When the author tells her mother, “I love you,” it’s difficult to know if Mom’s smile was connected to the moment or was only an automatic reflex. Stettinius solves the dilemma by choosing to infuse her mother’s smiles and words with their shared history. Through Stettinius eyes, mutual love informs every syllable and gesture.
In the early stages of writing the book, Martha intended to use it as a way to hold on to her mother’s rapidly fading past. As the book evolved, she discovered that her relationship with her mother was actually growing deeper. She wanted to share this hopeful message with others in similar situations. And more practically, she wanted to help others learn the ins and outs of the Alzheimer’s caregiving experience.
With these goals in mind, she fretted that too much specific information about her mother’s life would shift the reader’s focus into the past. However, she was also concerned that too little would leave the reader without context. As a memoir writer, Stettinius had to decide how much of her mother’s actual history should she include in the memoir.
She decided to focus mainly on the mission to help readers learn from her experience. To achieve the goal, she applied her best understanding of craft, sought feedback, and revised again and again. Eventually, informed by feedback from editors, beta readers, and her own intuition, she decided that to reach readers in the most meaningful way, she had to reduce the backstory to a minimum.
The resulting book neither drags us back in time, nor ignores the past. Rather it offers an alchemical fusion of both. By turning confusing events into a narrative, she makes more sense of them for herself. By publishing the story she turns her painful experience into lessons that could help others.
What experience in your life could help someone else? Write an overview of such a story, or write a scene in which you learned a lesson you wish you could share.
Backstory: How to Find the “Right” Amount in Your Memoir
Many memoir writers struggle with the question about how much backstory to include. Too little risks lack of context. Too much could bog down the story. To assist with your decision, consider the example of Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Stettinius researched her mother’s life, and wanted to tell it to the world. However, in order to write a book that would be meaningful to readers, she chose to cut back on the detail about her mother’s younger years.
The resulting memoir centers on the daughter’s journey to care for her mother, a powerful story involving the progression of the disease and the relationship of the two women. As readers, we benefit from her hard work and commitment to her craft. However, in order to fit it all into a good story, she had to compromise. Only the author knows about the painful decision to cut interesting anecdotes.
When making decisions about your own memoir, there is no “right” and “wrong.” Your story emerges from your specific circumstances. From this raw material, you must shape a story that will convey your meaning to readers.
To make the most informed decision about how to construct your final version, get feedback from readers. And also expand your options by reading memoirs. After you read each one, ask yourself “What is it about this story that makes this particular literary choice effective, or not?”
When you finally publish the book, it will have gone through a series of such difficult decisions. And of course, none of them are perfect. You are simply doing your best to offer readers the most interesting possible representation of your experience.
For another article on how much backstory to include in your memoir, click here.
Write a synopsis of your proposed memoir. In one version, include your early life to show the reader how you grew up. In a second version of the synopsis, start at a later time, with a central dilemma or challenge in your life. Is there enough information in this second version to allow readers to experience the emotions you are trying to communicate? Are there things about your early life you want to explore in the story? How do you feel about these two books? Which one would focus the reader and help them understand your experience in the way you intend?
Other memoirs about caring for those who can’t care for themselves
When Stettinius attempted to write about Alzheimer’s, she was not speaking as an expert, but as a daughter whose life that had been profoundly altered by the problem. Carol O’dell was in a similar situation. After caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s she wrote Mothering Mother. When Diane Ackerman’s husband had a severe stroke, she knew a lot about the brain but hardly anything about caring for someone with a dysfunctional one. She wrote a fascinating account of caregiving for him after he lost his ability to speak in 100 Names of Love.
Jill Bolte Taylor was a brain expert but that didn’t help her when she suffered a massive stroke. She wrote about her recovery in My Stroke of Insight. Even though Jill Bolte Taylor’s book is about her own stroke, caregiving plays an important role in her story. The person who came to her rescue was none other than her own mother who helped her daughter in her hour of darkest need, a reminder that even in adulthood, service between parents and children can flow in both directions.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
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