Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Writing Memoir: Reflection and Take Away

When I wrote my memoir Flowers in the Wind, I wanted to document the things that had happened, the memories, before they faded but I wrote the way a writer of fiction would write. I wanted the reader to be invested enough to want to find out what happened to me and I hoped the reader would see himself or herself in the choices I made. As I approached publishers with the first chapters, it became evident that not including my reflections made the story read as a novel instead of a memoir.

The reason people read memoir is to connect deeply with someone they either admire or identify with, to gain insight into their own lives. But the memoirs that really touch people’s hearts are the ones in which readers not only imagine themselves in that person’s shoes, but can be uplifted, inspired, provoked, and connected to a universal truth. In which their hearts are pierced by the honesty and courage of the story-teller.

I wanted readers to come to their own conclusions but my writer friends told me that if I wanted the book to be read that way, I should write it as a novel. Now, I have nothing against writing novels, I have written four, but for this particular project, it would mean removing huge sections of the book. It would need tighter pacing. There was a natural and accurate rhythm of feeling lost and lonely, allowing decisions that I didn’t agree with to be made for me, then rebelling and leaving, followed by returning to where I felt accepted and loved. This might make it in a novel from the 19th century but not the 21st, sad to say.

I had taken out all of my moments of self-reflection and now I had to put them back in. When I worked with an editor, I also learned that I had to explain things more specifically. That someone who had never lived with our philosophy wouldn’t understand why certain choices were made. I could not assume my readers would "get" it simply by describing events as they happened.

The difference between reflection and take away is that reflection is a moment of inner musing to make sense of the experience but the take-away is a moment of connection with the reader, where you offer something that speaks heart to heart. Brooke Warner writes, “If you’re a reader of memoir and you’ve experienced a really good takeaway, you’ll recognize these moments as the ones where you experienced a chill, a deep level of connection, or when you needed to put the book down for a second to sink into the powerful truth the author has just revealed.”

Both reflection and take away must be interwoven through-out, little jewels of insight embedded in the text.  My editor suggested that I consider the theme of each chapter as well as the overarching theme of the entire book, a thread that runs consistently throughout, while each chapter may have slightly varied undertones. My memoir is the story of how I lived communally for ten years. We took in the homeless and traveled worldwide by hitch-hiking. But as we succumbed to the manipulations of one powerful and charismatic man, things began to unravel. My major theme is how I lost my identity in order to fit in and how I gained it back. The minor themes include the challenges of single mothering, desire for love, manipulation and abuse by a powerful man, traveling by faith and hoping to become a worthy disciple of Jesus, the desire to serve the less fortunate. The universal truth is that we all want to belong, to feel welcomed, to come home. This journey is harder if we are artistic, social rebels, pioneers, peace-niks, visionaries, and have a strong desire for social justice and true equality. We often give up parts of ourselves, sometimes our whole selves, our freedom, our money, our voice, our conscience, our beliefs, to fit in, to be part of, rather than demanding that the group change to meet our ideals or to leave the shelter of the group to go it alone. Reclaiming ourselves is essential to move forward after a severe and devastating loss when we no longer fit or are expelled or can’t put up with the inconsistencies any longer. For me, the life I choose was meant to be my life for the rest of my life.

This section of my memoir takes place when one of the “sisters” and I and our children have been sent off after being told that we were not disciplined enough to live with the group. I was seven months pregnant at the time and had a eighteen month-old son. I was determined to improve in order to return to the fold but was mostly consumed with finding places to stay. We ended up at my sister/friend’s family home while I gave birth, then I was invited to return to the group in Santa Fe.

 Snow started to fall as we pulled in to the Santa Fe Greyhound Bus station. Diane answered the phone and said someone would come to fetch me. I burst into tears when I saw Brett coming through the door. My entire body trembled with relief as we greeted each other with a warm embrace. I shoved the box into a locker. He swung Yoan up onto his shoulders, I tucked Ezekiel into my arms and we set off for the hostel.
 The familiar atmosphere of homeless men sitting around the TV while soup bubbled on the stove. A hot cup of coffee served by Tiffany with a gracious smile. Hugs and exclamations over the newborn—being welcomed the way a guest is welcomed. The insecurity flared up immediately. As sharp as that IV needle driven into my arm. How could I have ever thought I could fit in here?
The next day Russell escorted me to the other house, the private house where Ben and Marian stayed with its atmosphere of study and contemplation. I was an outsider. My room was in the basement, dark and hidden away. Yoan was expected to sit still through the morning readings rather than go off to play. All the children sat with us, including the youngest. I had never forced Yoan to do anything in his life. He wailed and squirmed. I took him outside and scolded him, disrupting the somber atmosphere.

My first conversation with Ben included being chastised for how many things I had acquired, how we were dressed (Yoan in corduroy overalls rather than jeans) and my utter lack of discipline.…I was scoured by Ben Oren from top to bottom. The clothes I wore (pastels), my relationship with Cristopher (all sweet, no substance), and my attitudes (spoiled princess), my lack of understanding and respect for my elders, my lack of obedience and devotion. Ben repeated his litany of my personality. “You are a beautiful girl but you have cotton candy in your head. It’s probably not your fault but you have to change...you have to change. You are vain and presumptuous and that has to change.”

“But what can I do?” I wailed.

His face folded into a severe frown but Marian stepped in.

“Stephanie and Anna have just sent us a postcard from Missoula where they have been helping out at a place that feeds people. They just rented an apartment and want someone to come up there. You can leave tomorrow if you want.”

I slowly stood up, relieved that I had somewhere to go. Ben turned away. “Thank you,” he said sarcastically. I had no gratitude for what they were doing for me, pointing out the changes I needed to make. I was too hurt and humiliated.

I stayed at the hostel for the next two days while an attempt was made to raise bus fare. I trudged through slushy piles of snow, but I had used all my options in the fall. Finally Diane informed me that Salvadore would hitch-hike with me. It was the dead of winter and ...Ezekiel was three weeks old. My faith was being tested and I did not falter. By placing myself and my children in God’s Hands, I would be escorted every step of the way to safety. The only way to go was forward. Toward Montana.
  Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t protest or take my kids and get out of there. The heart truly makes no sense. Was I holding on to those moments when I felt connected, bonded, or was it the promise held out to us that we would become pure of heart and able to make miracles? Was it strength or exhaustion? No one ever shared their doubts or worries with me, but people would leave, usually quietly. The immediacy of finding rent and cooking and cleaning and caring for children, or those moments of euphoric companionship took away our ability to discern whether or not the Scriptures being poured over us every morning were truly transforming us into Christ-like disciples capable of healing or saving souls. We wanted to be “good servants worthy of our reward” and “inherit the Kingdom prepared for us.” Of course we did. I did.

I don’t know if this take away, that strong desire to be good while never being quite good enough, is one that will pierce the hearts of my readers. But every woman who has suffered demeaning abuse, every man who has put up with humiliation at the hand of a boss, will recognize that sometimes we ignore our inner knowing for the hope of acceptance, love, and redemption. It would take more than a scolding about the pastels I was wearing to wake me up to the dangerous power of control and condescension.

As writers, we must remember that we are telling a story as a way to build a bridge between us and the reader, one that is both tender and sturdy, fragile and invincible: the thread between our hearts.

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