by Jerry Waxler
After Debra Gwartney’s divorce she packed up her two kids and moved a thousand miles to try to get them away from their father. She thought she was “starting over.” The new start however, was the beginning of a nightmare. In “Live Through This,” Gwartney recounts how her two daughters, age 12 and 14, dropped out of school, took drugs and slept in crash houses. With their tattoos, body piercings and heavy black makeup, Mom hardly recognized them. When she tried to reel them in, they withdrew further, until finally they hopped a freight train and moved to a different city.
There were many reasons I was interested in the story. For one thing, in my early twenties, I went through my own extreme rebellion, living in a garage on food stamps and not speaking to my parents for a year. In all the years since, I never tried to make sense of it from my parents’ point of view. Reading about another mom who watched her children fall apart revealed the other side of the story.
A parent suffering through the rebellion of a child is an important, under-reported facet of family life. Most kids rebel to some extent, and despite all the suffering and confusion that parents must feel, most of the social attention to the matter is limited to half measures and shared confusion. “Live Through This” provides a parent’s eye view of an emotional wrenching experience, as these girls hurl back in their mother’s face the life she was trying to build for them.
In addition to letting us see the girl’s bad behavior, Gwartney describes her own, including some glaring flaws in her parenting. She didn’t just break up with the girls’ father. She hated him so much she took the girls a thousand miles away, and throughout the hell of their rebellion she continued to do everything she could to turn them against their father. The story ought to be used as a textbook of how not to behave. And yet, while having screwed up so profoundly, Gwartney simply lets it all hang out.
In the book, she does not try to recruit us to hate her husband. She allows us to make our own decision. Nor does she justify her behavior in a flurry of self-analysis and defense. She just tells the story. This turns out to be one of the hallmarks of powerful memoir writing. Tell the story and let the reader go for the ride. From that point of view, “Live Through This” is impeccable storytelling.
However, there is an aspect of the storytelling that aspiring memoir writers can learn from. Gwartney played fast and loose with chronology, as if she threw the pages up in the air, and didn’t take the time to assemble them correctly. In the middle of one scene, the narrative morphed into another time frame, and then from there, she might hop backward or forward, so quickly and with so little warning, I often lost track of where I was. She made me work far too hard to figure out where we were in time and space. Through the lurches, I kept reading because I loved the underlying story. But it would have been far more enjoyable if she had held me hand and led me through the journey with more authority and grace.
Of course, storytelling does allow some breaks in chronological sequence, but to keep the reader immersed in suspension of disbelief, the author must deftly transition from one time frame to another. This usually involves far fewer leaps than there are in “Live Through This.” For example, in “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland, the author guides me through two well-defined time frames. In the present, the author attempted to win a cycling race. Inside himself, another story played out, in which he confronted the demons of his childhood. At all times, Strickland artfully let me know which timeframe I was in, and both stories, the cycling one in the present and the disturbing childhood scenes in the past let me maintain my sense of suspense, a sign of an effective technique.
In addition to well constructed flashbacks, another out-of-sequence technique is the essay-like focus that occasionally crops up in memoirs. For example, in the coming of age story “A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel, the book is a chronological account of the author’s childhood. However, it is not strictly in order, and that’s okay because she controls my attention using other devices. For example, in one chapter, she focuses on the shenanigans of a particular friend. It is a gentle, barely discernible shift from story into essay style. Another example is “Seven Wheelchairs,” Gary Presley’s mainly chronological account of coming to terms with life from a seated position. In the chapter about his relationship with wheelchairs, he jumps out of his timeline to talk about the various contraptions he has relied on for mobility. He does this effectively, and I found myself just as engaged in that chapter as I was in the story, without a sense of disruption.
In general, most stories can and in my opinion should unfold in the same sequence they were lived. When the story moves along in that order, I jump on board and go with the flow. However, according to Brian Boyd, in “On the origin of stories” humans have evolved to grasp storylines. The capability is wired into our brains and we’re good at it. My ability to stick to Debra Gwartney’s underlying dramatic tension supplies a good example of this innate strength.
Debra Gwartney’s amazing journey offered me all the benefits that I enjoy from a memoir. And then in a fabulous closing scene, one of the best final lines I’ve read in a memoir, she redeemed all flaws. A good ending makes all the pain of the journey worthwhile. In fact, this is a fundamental notion of storytelling. The story’s tension primes the reader to crave release. Then in that moment when we cross the finish line, if we feel lifted and inspired, the way I did when closing “Live Through This,” we will race to recommend it to our friends.
Write a scene from your rebellion period when you were trying to step away or differentiate from your parents. Write one scene in which you were in flagrant violation of their rules. Write another in which you tried to explain to yourself or to them why you had to “do this” even though they couldn’t understand.
Note about wrapper stories
Bill Strickland’s technique of a story in the present that helps set up a story in the past is what I call a “wrapper story.” Another example is A. M. Homes search for her own genealogical past in “Mistress’s Daughter.” In “Color of Water” James McBride searches for his mother’s history. Such memoirs maintain my attention by artfully flipping back and forth between two stories, maintaining crisp, easy-to-follow dramatic tension throughout. A famous wrapper story was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which starts with sailors on a boat telling a story. The whole book takes place in the body of the story. Then at the end, the sailors come back to recount the way it worked.
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.