Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Provoking Empathy in Memoir

One of the potential powers of memoir is to bring readers deep into a life they otherwise would not experience. For someone who has never thought of themselves as an addict, reading a very real and raw depiction of drug addiction is more powerful than reading journalistic reports or statistics. 

However, it is also challenging to read - and write - such a thing. By how we write about our trauma, we can distance our readers - or encourage the further distancing we are prone to doing when we encounter someone else's discomfort and don't want to get close to it. The more difficult the content of the story - violence, extreme isolation, trauma - the more the writer has to do to develop safety so her readers will keep reading and relating to her without exploiting the tale.

One of my students is writing a memoir about a time in her life when everyone she had been close to for decades left her. Because of their misinterpretation of her health, people suddenly disowned her: canceled their friendships, and otherwise cut her out.

The effects, as you can imagine with even the smallest amount of empathy, were devastating.

As we have discovered in our intimate and supportive group working with her on the manuscript, even we who know and sympathize with her are doing our own distancing. It's an unfortunately common human way to subconsciously pretend we don't understand in order to not connect. On the one hand, this is because we don't actually understand - if all your closest friends and family have never given up on you, it's almost impossible to imagine it. Really. No matter how empathic you are.

On the other hand, "I can't even imagine what that was like," is not an uncommon thing for us to say to someone like who has been through horrific experiences. When I hear someone or even myself say this, part of what I hear is:"I don't want to imagine."

We want to keep extreme suffering at a long distance from our seemingly stable and companionable lives. By thinking someone os not like us, by making their experience separate enough, we can keep ourselves safe - or so we think. As if suffering is infectious by some imagination osmosis.

So, as readers, as humans, we can try to relate more. We can try harder. All of us.

As memoir writers, often our stories ache to be told BECAUSE others did not understand or relate or hear us when we are suffering. So from our end, what can we do to help people develop empathy, understand us, and see the whole picture in our story?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What Versus How

When they begin writing memoir or even reading it, so many people are concerned about the "what", or the content: Can I tell stories about my mom or dad or sister or brother or cousin? I can't really talk about my marriage, right, or my children, or my former job, right?

Starting memoir concerns are most often about these kinds of things - about what to tell, what not to tell. They belies a misunderstanding common in our culture - memoirs are "tell-alls" and what we tell is the hardest part. Will I get sued? Will my mother die? Questions like this are about content.

Content is important, don't get me wrong. Certainly Wild would not have been as strong a seller if her mother hadn't died (to be crude) and Eat Pray Love is leveraged on Gilbert's divorce (again, not to be crude). If those women had chosen to not write about these key aspects of their personal struggles because of fear over libel or dishonor, they would not have written the books at all.

However, what is more important is not what is written, but how it is written.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Right Distance in Memoir

Recently, I've been working with a client on her memoir about becoming psychotic. She is a mental health care provider, which adds an extra depth to the whole experience.

Psychological care providers having experienced mental health challenges is a powerful topic, one strangely un-published about, save a few very notable examples: Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison,  The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks, and Undercurrents by Martha Manning. This client and I have been discussing why that might be the case, and the standard issues apply: professional reputation, respectability, stigma, etc. Of course, all of these challenges are even better countered by a professional taking the risk to tell their tale. But the lineage of stigma is strong. And it goes deeper than just the lack of publication - it also enters the form the tales take once they are written and presented to be published.