|I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of writing memoir and how it transforms you. |
Over the next few weeks, I want to a share few ways that writing my memoir has changed me, with the hope that you might find something of value for your own work.
For years, I wanted to write a book about parenting a child with OCD. The itch began when my daughter was younger, when the diagnosis was new and strange and scary. But she was young, and I didn’t want to write about her until she was old enough to consciously give her permission.
A few years ago, when she was sixteen and we were in the thick of a crisis, smack in the middle of OCD hell, I started writing out of necessity.
We were staying in Houston at the time, where my daughter was in treatment, although it was clear even before we arrived it would not be enough, that she needed more than what they provided there.
I had been reading David Sheff’s memoir, Beautiful Boy, about parenting through his son’s battle with methamphetamine. I picked it up looking for the company of another parent who had suffered as I had, someone who had watched helplessly as his precious child slipped away.
Sheff’s experience was so close to my own, including my guilt over what was happening to my daughter, that it sent me scribbling into my notebook.
Sheff was also an accomplished journalist, and his careful his description of the specifics of methamphetamine addiction was illuminating.
I wanted to educate people about OCD the way he had with addiction, not only because OCD was widely misunderstood, but also because my daughter’s affliction had left me feeling isolated, like no one on the planet understood what I was going through.
If I’m honest, I felt sorry for myself. I wanted everyone to know the full extent of my burden.
I wrote furiously in my notebook for weeks. When I typed it it all up, I had 130 pages, twelve of which I pasted into a word document and sent to an editor friend. “This is great writing,” she wrote back. “But it’s kind of an episodic dump.”
I had to laugh, because she was one hundred percent accurate. It was a big and messy and raw.
I put those 130 pages away, and when we finally got Shira into residential treatment, I starting reading memoir of every kind, trying to learn more about the genre and find a form that would fit my story. Although the truth was, at that point, I didn’t know the full story.
I didn’t know how things would turn out, and so I didn’t know how any of us might change or transform.
Eventually I did land on a solid structure, which I’ll share with you in another email. And I did find a more sustaining reason to continue with the project, which I’ll share as well.
In the meantime, you might consider the following questions to fuel your own work.
1) What book have you read in which you resonated with the author’s experience so deeply, it made you want to pour out your own story?
Think about going back to that one and see what might inspire you to move forward with your writing now.
2) What aspect of your life or your experience do you feel is misunderstood by friends, family, or the larger culture? What do want to explain to to them?
The great New Yorker journalist, John McPhee, advises that to describe something complicated, write it as if you were speaking to a twelve-year-old.
3) In terms of your own process and projects, where are you? In the midst of an episodic dump? Ready to begin one? Or do you have an episodic mess that you are ready to shape into something?
Feel free to share your answers with me . I’d love to know where you are with your writing.
In the meantime keep scribbling and pouring out your heart in your notebook.