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.

My client asked me why I think Saks' and Manning's stories didn't sell as well as Jamison's. My client knows she relates more to Saks' and Manning's books - they are more personal, more scene-based, more real-time and less distant. Like her own writing. Jamisons' book is more clinical in tone, with few real-time scenes and a lot of distant reflection on her experience. Jamison's title, however, has outsold Manning and Saks' by miles. Why? Putting aside uncontrollable factors of publication, popularity, timing and exposure, we realized there's another key theme and factor: distance.

My client knows that the power of her story is that it is told primarily in scenes, even more so than Saks' or Manning's titles.  Her peers, those who have read her book and are helping to give her feedback and build it into a finished product we all hope she can get published, also know that the strength of her tale is scene and dropping us into her experience.

So why isn't that published more? And will it prove to be a weak spot in getting published for her?
Jamison's book is "cleaner" - the distance allows safety for the reader, who may or may not be able to directly relate to Jamison's tale, but wants to experience it, regardless, more as a cautionary tale or at some kind of safe distance. The irony - or tragedy - is that this client's main experience was people wanting to distance themselves from her experience AS IT HAPPENED - and so to do so in her own writing feels like a repetition of that trauma. Part of her writing is to encourage people to get close, to feel what she felt when she felt it, and TO NOT take the kind of distance many did during her mania. Hopefully, in addition, to encourage future people with friends or colleagues in that state to have compassion for the complexity by having "felt with" (the deeper meaning of compassion) rather than having just "read about" this kind of situation.

When it comes to rough drafts, I encourage students to write as close to the bone as they can. We can always add the right amount of distance later, with narrative framing and context, adding or removing some things as scenes and instead summarizing them or skipping them. It seems important to me that people write as closely as they can to what happened, to keep the immediate truth feeling as powerful as possible. But doing it that way does mean we feel the loss of adapting for publication. It means we understand that what we can bring ourselves to write is not always what others want to read. And if there is trauma involved, as there is here and often is in the case of mental health challenges, then the process of having to edit for others to read it "cleanly" enough can be quite painful.

I still think it is worth it to write with very little distance at first, and grow that distance over time, adding in the narrative structure we need. It's not the easy path, but its the healing path. And that way, if we decide not to publish - or not to compromise to the extent we might have to to get published - we haven't lost much. If we write it at a distance from the beginning, there's still not guarantee a title will be picked up, and we lose the chance to write it clear for ourselves.

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