Several years ago, we set out on a hike in Switzerland with our three children. It began to pour with rain, but we’re hardy people; rain doesn’t deter us. We knew we’d have to traverse a narrow ledge ahead, but hey, we could do it. Then we passed a couple going the other way. “You’re brave,” they said. That’s when we turned back.
When you hear those two words, “You’re brave,” you suddenly think, “Am I brave? Do I want to be brave? Have I made a big mistake?”
When we heard those words on that hike, we realised we didn’t want to be so brave and didn’t go to that ledge. There was no problem doing that. This memoir author, who also worried about those words, would have had more difficulty pulling out if she’d wanted to. Fortunately, she decided she didn’t.
I’m still planning to write a memoir one day. I’ve even thought of a format and written the first chapter. The revelations in it won’t be as hard as the ones Susan Burrowes owned up to. And many of the people in it are no longer alive and able to be hurt by it. Someone wants me to leave something out. It’s a very small part of the whole and can easily be omitted. It shows something important, but there are other examples.
I’ll have to be ready for people to tell me I’m brave. I think I will be.
Have you been told you’re brave? How did you react?
I’m so glad I decided to write these posts about memoir writing. I learned so much from them – first while writing them, looking up information and organising my thoughts, and then from the lovely comments, which enriched my knowledge and provided much encouragement.
As promised, I have summarised below what I learned from this challenge.
A is for Are you sitting comfortably
Out of the many lovely, encouraging comments, I chose this one:
“Memory is the grist to our mill as writers.” David Rory
B is for Beginnings
“Just as with writing a novel you can begin at a dramatic or crucially important point in your life and then go back later to show what led up to that point. Look at the way other memoir writers have done it, but then decide what you feel is right for you.” Jean Davison
Nick Wilford gave me some great advice on writing the memoir:
“How about placing a memoir in a historical context, of what was happening at the time; even if the author was not directly involved in those events it helps to build atmosphere.”
D is for Detachment
“I actually wrote a journal for a while in third person, which made me detach myself from everyday experiences, I learnt a lot from doing that.” chicaderock
“I found it easier to gain a healthy detachment when doing the editing rather than the first draft…. I think my early drafts were a necessary part of the process, and then when I was ready to put on my editing hat, I was better able to step back and decide how to shape the material.” Jean Davison
E is for Empathy
There seems to be a new sort of spam comment, which can appear to be a real comment because it pastes a sentence or two on the subject of the post. I think that’s what this is, because it seems to be part of a sentence and because the website in the link no longer exists (although searching for the string didn’t bring up any results):
“empathy is yes, in the details. Not the telling.”
Nevertheless it makes an important point. The details create empathy: the quiver in his voice, the stain on her dress, the empty glass.
F is for Feelings
“If… you don’t know what your feelings were then ‘sad’, ‘confused’ or even ‘emotionless’ are still appropriate adjectives.” Ann
“I think that the writing itself does generate feelings…. My experience is that when I write about something difficult in the past, there can be two results: either I become depressed and stuck (cause I haven’t really worked through this thing yet) – in which case I wouldn’t let anybody else read it – or I write myself to a better place.” Krina
“I think the fact that you felt you had to suppress and block out your feelings speaks volumes in itself, if you can get that feeling across to your readers.” Gill Downs
“Extracting feelings can be a tricky task. I’ve found that the best way to recall the feelings or emotions from a particular time, free writing worked well. No standards of what to expect when I wrote, simply me, a pen, a piece of paper, or three, and the release of the scene in all its horrible grammatical glory.” ~Angela Brown
H is for Humour
“Humor is so important! It’s not fair to just be intense and not allow the reader a chance to catch their breath.” AJ
I is for Insight
“When writing my memoir, sometimes I had to ask myself, could I be certain that my memories of how I felt about an incident then weren’t getting mixed up with how I feel about it now? Not always easy (though my old diaries helped a lot). I suppose this is where insight is linked to detachment, truth, memory and other aspects of memoir writing.” Jean Davison
J is for Journey
As everyone remarked, our whole life is a journey and so is the writing of it. What wasn’t said here, but was said in other posts in different ways, is that they’re not return (round trip) journeys. For better or for worse, there is no passage back to the place we were before.
Jo Carroll: Hidden Tiger Raging Mountain (a travel memoir)
Jenny Lawson: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
A B Facey: A Fortunate Life
John Steinbeck: Journal of a Novel
M is for Memoir
The comments reflected the confusion about what a memoir is. It’s usually a part of a life as opposed to a whole-life autobiography. Some commenters also think a memoir gives the reader more freedom. As Pete Denton wrote:
“I think biographies are sometime very factual whereas a memoir is perhaps more open to creative license.
“When we were doing assignments in life writing we were encouraged to add details that were not necessarily true, but more artistic license. Paint the picture more like a story rather than be biographical.”
N is for Narrative voice
“I know that fiction is somewhat different but one does have to deal with the narrative voice in similar ways. I face these problems when I have to change from descriptive background or scene setting to present tense narrative of intimate moments or character building.
“The clunk danger is always there, too.
“I think one has to give the reader some credit for knowing what you are doing and allowing for these transitions. Most readers are able to sense how the writer is using their narrative and will be complicit in the style one chooses. They will do as theatre audiences do; they will suspend their disbelief if one carries them along in a well-paced narrative flow.
“I guess I’m saying, one can over think this process. The craft shouldn’t intrude; the art is in the hiding of the crafting. The narrator should be the reader’s friend and guide but should never bully or prod with too much crafting made visible.” David Rory
O is for Organisation
“I chose mainly chronological order starting with the point of entry into the mental health system and beginning of treatment, as this led into the main theme around which the book was focused. Later, I used some flashbacks to fill in background details about childhood and of what led up to going into hospital. I felt this worked best for what I was trying to do.” Jean Davison
P is for Proust
Royal Holloway Girl added to my list of Proust quotes:
“I think one of the most relevant things that he says (it isn’t clear how autobiographical his writing is) is how things in later life take you back to a certain point in earlier life.”
R is for Reunions for Reflective Research
Jean Davison, Royal Holloway Girl, Linda, Ann, Su-sieee! Mac, and Rachael ‘Honest’ Blair all commented on my reunion question, mostly advising not mentioning the memoir at first. Just finding things out from general chatter and leaving the memoir to emails later on. The general chatter part is harder for me than they probably realise, so I’m not sure about trying to follow this advice, but I’ll consider it.
S is for Secrets
“When I was working with kids we worked hard to help them understand that there’s a difference between ‘good secrets’ (what you’ve buying your mum for her birthday – I was rubbish at keeping those) and ‘bad secrets’ (anything that makes you uncomfortable, frightened, etc. – and most children keep these, regrettably.)
“As an adult, I’d also distinguish between things that are secret (because someone would be hurt if it were disclosed) and those that are private (anything I choose to keep to myself for my own reasons, but don’t hurt anyone.)” Jo Carroll
T is for Title, Topic, Theme and Takeaways
“Themes are also important because they help you in the marketing process. Check out the series of guest posts that I’ve got on the topic of Themes and Premise.” My Rite of Passage
W is for Why? And Wearing White
“Songs do and did often speak directly to me. When writing my memoir I put in song lyrics which spoke to me about what I was going through at the time. Sometimes a song wasn’t exactly meant to be about those things but for me it fit well with my thoughts, feelings and the events I was experiencing. But when my memoir was accepted for publication I had to take the lyrics out because it was either too hard, or too expensive, to get the copyright permissions.” Jean Davison
X is for X-ray
“This is something that needs careful thought. Are we ready for the exposure? Do we want it? Why? I think it’s important to examine our motives for writing, or more importantly for seeking publication of, a memoir before going ahead and trying for publication.” Jean Davison
During the challenge, I visited several blogs whose authors were also doing the challenge, and read about song lyrics, recipes, animals, life in a Spanish village and more. I wish I’d had time to visit more blogs.
A huge thank you to everyone who commented here. You encouraged me to continue and taught me so much. Hopefully, this will lead to something like this:
But hopefully with a more exciting title and cover!
I spent the last two days at a memoir writing seminar led by the author Ilana Blumberg.
I haven’t attended many such activities, so I can’t compare, but this one was excellent. It covered many topics, let the participants participate and included writing exercises. Sharing our hastily written pieces showed up the similarities and differences in our lives.
It came as no surprise to me, in a seminar held in Israel and conducted in English, that all the participants had moved to Israel from other, mostly English-speaking, countries. None of us was forced to leave our native countries and for all but one the move was intended to be permanent.
But, as I listened to the tale of one woman who’d moved with her husband, ten children and twenty-four suitcases, I realised how different the emigration/immigration process can be. I came on my own with one case. I hopped on a plane and landed less than five hours later to join a year-long programme. My stay in Israel could be temporary or permanent. I didn’t have to decide at that point.
That’s not to say that my immigration process was all plain sailing. But I didn’t have the difficulties of arriving with a large family.
The seminar has made me think again about memoir. I did write one once, but when I reached the end, I decided I needed to start again and change the structure of it. I thought of a new way of organising it, began again and stopped. How could I be sure that way was any better? Maybe the best way, in the end, is to write it chronologically, because that shows the sequence of events and the affect each event had in shaping the personality of the author… me.
The seminar included a discussion of what Vivian Gornick in “The Situation and the Story” calls… well… the situation and the story. The situation is what happened. It shows the events – the descriptions, the conversations, the actions. The story is the emotional journey caused by the situation. The story is what we need to tell, but it’s not clear what the story is. This is something the writer has to work out. Without a story, the memoir is a jumble of events. The story tells the author which events to tell and how to tell them. It tells the author how to create order from chaos.
I suppose that’s why I don’t have a structure. I haven’t yet worked out what my story is.
The seminar was held in the picturesque neighbourhood of Yemin Moshe. It’s a neighbourhood of alleys and cobblestones. Of several stairways leading down to the Old City of Jerusalem. The view is magnificent.
Arriving early, as I often do, I decided to take a short walk around the area. My feet led me to the house we lived in for about fourteen years until we moved out seven years ago, and I realised how much I miss this place. I remember how lovely it was to be able to step from the house into this area of history and beauty, away from the noises and smells of modern day life, yet within easy walking distance of the town centre and the Old City.
I’ve never missed a home before. Certainly not the one I grew up in. I was eager to leave the place with memories that were mostly sad. In one of my writing exercises in the seminar, which I read out loud, someone noted that, when writing about visiting my former house and school, I’d mentioned looking at both from the outside. That does reflect how I feel now about my former life. I’m outside it now and pleased to be so.
I am delighted to welcome Jean Davison to my blog today. I have been
following Jean’s blog for some time, but only recently got round to reading her memoir: The Dark Threads. At the age of 18, Jean, like many intelligent teenagers, was confused about religion and other issues. Feeling the need to discuss these with someone who would listen and offer guidance, she went to see a psychiatrist. The result was five years in the mental health system, including two stays as an in-patient in an antiquated institution. This was the 1960s and ’70s.
I must admit that when I started reading Jean’s memoir, I thought it wouldn’t add anything to what I’d learnt by reading Jean’s blog. But I was wrong. It’s the detail that brings her story to life. The short, unmeaningful conversations that provided no basis to her being diagnosed with schizophrenia. The interaction with other victims of an outdated system.
How has the experience changed you?
Initially, very much for the worse. It played havoc with an already shy personality, worsened my depression, triggered long-lasting feelings of anger and bitterness, and perhaps brought on what today might be called post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even now I sometimes wake up screaming (fortunately, rarely) from the nightmare of being in great danger, such as from a white-coated man bending over me ready to interfere with my brain. Recently I was anxious about having to go into hospital for a minor operation under general anaesthetic for a physical condition. I wonder if my memories of ECT (electro-convulsive treatment) and the whole dreadful hospital experiences have made me more fearful and distrustful of hospitals, doctors, general anaesthetics and medical procedures, than what perhaps I would otherwise have been.
On the other hand, maybe in the end, it was the experience, the desire to overcome it, which helped motivate me to change my life and go on to do things I would never have thought I could do. I entered the mental health system as a teenager, not yet fully formed, so I will never know how I would have turned out if I had not seen a psychiatrist. Although I would not, with hindsight, have chosen to go down that road, I do feel I have learnt much of value from my experiences. I hope I have learnt to be a stronger, wiser, more understanding person. Without my experiences, I wonder if I would ever have stumbled upon the reserve of inner strength that enabled me to reach out and achieve the richness of my life today.
High Royds and the other asylums/mental hospitals have now closed. Does that mean that nothing similar to your experiences could happen today?
No doubt a lot has changed for the better. High Royds was a big, Victorian-built institution. When I was there (late 60s and early 70s) there was a strict, authoritarian regime, with many of the staff openly displaying attitudes that would be unacceptable today. As you say, those old type of hospitals have now closed down. With the emphasis on community care, I don’t think a teenager like the ‘18-year-old me’ would be admitted as an in-patient today.
However, it’s important to say that people today are still having similar experiences to mine because many of the same issues do remain. A psychiatrist is trained to look for, and expects to find in a patient, symptoms of ‘illness’, and is, therefore, likely to see them. People accessing the mental health services, past and present, are pathologised with a diagnostic label and treated within a medical framework, often with dangerous mind altering treatments which may not be appropriate for their problems. This can cause a person to become more embroiled within the psychiatric system until they get stuck.
I’m not saying a medical approach is wrong for everyone. But supposing a person’s circumstances need changing, not their brain? I can’t see the sense in bombarding a person’s brain with powerful drugs, and electric shocks (ECT is still used today) to ‘treat’ what might be social problems, ‘human life’ stuff, or ‘normal’ reactions to traumatic experiences? People are still being damaged, as I was, by a system that is supposedly there to help them. Unfortunately, the issues raised in ‘The Dark Threads’ are still very much relevant today.
What you describe in the book as shyness, you’ve since said was probably social anxiety, something I know a little about (!). How do you cope with it today?
It’s not as big a problem as it used to be, but I do sometimes find myself battling with the same feelings of being unable to initiate or join in conversation when with people I don’t know well. In some ways I’ve come along in leaps and bounds, even become able to give talks to large audiences – but then I might revert back to my old uncomfortably quiet self when it comes to chatting at tea breaks.
I do find it frustrating and upsetting to think that, after trying so hard for so long, I still keep feeling and behaving as if I haven’t really overcome this shyness or social anxiety or whatever it is and sometimes just can’t get through a barrier that holds me back. I cope by reminding myself of how far I have come and of all the positive things in my life now. I have a lovely husband, several close friends and a good social life; so much to be thankful for.
And I have to tell you, the part I most identified with in the book was about talking to professionals and thinking, “Is he saying that because he means it or because he wants to see my reaction?” I think the fact that I’m thinking it affects my reaction and causes me to do the thing he expects me to do, and then he holds it up as “proof” of whatever it was he wanted to show. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but if it does, do you agree?
Yes, it does make sense to me and, yes, I do agree. I’m sure that the way we think (rightly or wrongly) that someone might be seeing us does affect our reactions to them and, consequently, often reinforces their thoughts about us.
When I first saw a psychiatrist I thought during the interview that he was prematurely and negatively evaluating me (I was right about this, I learned later). Thinking this made it harder for me to be relaxed and respond spontaneously to him, which, in turn, made him see further ‘proof’ to back up his first impressions of me.
The rest of the questions come from my friend, Gill.
Despite all your achievements and evident abilities, do you still worry about your “treatment” having caused permanent damage?
Yes, to some extent, and I know that might seem an irrational view because of all I’ve achieved since. Obviously the treatment hasn’t made me unable to function at a reasonably high intellectual level or I wouldn’t have been able to obtain a first-class degree, nor did it make me lose the ability to hold down a responsible job and go on to lead a happy, constructive life. I do think there was the danger of this happening if I had stayed in the system longer, and I believe I am very lucky.
But is there still some damage, perhaps more hidden or subtle? It’s hard to say as I don’t know how I would have been if I had not had the treatment. I do have difficulty in finding my way to new places, and it often takes me a while to remember faces so I sometimes forget who is who when watching films (though I can’t remember whether or not this was the same before my treatment!). I sometimes forget what I’d just been thinking about or what I was going to say, but friends my age tell me that so do they. I honestly don’t know if any physical damage remains. [Some of those things can also be symptoms of social anxiety.]
As far as psychological damage is concerned, again it seems to be not much, if any, now. I do still have anger about what happened (to me and to many others) but, hopefully, I am channelling that anger to use constructively, so it’s not altogether a bad thing.
Do you still struggle with the existential questions of your youth?
Yes, I do, but they don’t bother me as much as they used to now that they aren’t mixed up with all the anxieties and confusion of being a teenager. I find it easier to accept the not knowing. I can still get hung up on questions about what a human being is and what I’m here for and what life’s all about, but then I can more easily laugh at myself for tying myself in knots with unanswerable questions. I can put the questions aside to get on with the many enjoyable and interesting things that are going on in my life.
I know now I’m not alone; that many people, today and throughout history, have struggled with these same questions. I might (who knows?) have been less worried about these questions when I was a teenager if they hadn’t been pathologised by the psychiatrist who quoted my words ‘Who am I? What am I?’ in my case notes as an example of ‘thought disorder bizarre in nature’.
Do you think there’s any form of counselling or therapy that might really have helped, had it been available, or any of the newer types of medication now available for depression and anxiety?
A more holistic approach and being given information about options may have been helpful instead of being immediately shunted down the path of the medical model. I remember how I longed for someone understanding to talk to, so I do wonder if counselling could have helped. I think perhaps what is today called ‘person-centred’ counselling might have helped; a non-judgemental, empathic counsellor with qualities of genuineness and warmth.
The newer types of medication, lowest effective dose and only for a short time, would probably have suited me better than the kind of medication I received. However, I do believe it would have been far more helpful for me to have never been prescribed any medication at all in the first place. I wish I could go back to 1968 and change things and see if I am right to think this!
Thank you, Jean, for agreeing to come here and for taking the time to answer our questions so clearly and thoughtfully.
If you have any other comments or questions for Jean, you can ask them here in the comments or contact Jean directly.
There aren’t many writers’ conferences in Israel, but there was one this week and there will be another next week. This week’s, in Bar Ilan University, was free and I decided to go along yesterday.
I attended all five sessions and they were excellent. The first, with Joseph Skibell and E. Ethelbert Miller discussed memoir writing. I loved the way their advice was interspersed with humorous asides. I think it was E. Ethelbert Miller who talked about being the baby of the family. He said, “Growing up, I thought my name was Shh.”
They gave us an exercise to sketch a floor plan of our first house and list five sensory details from it, and then discuss it with a partner. In a second exercise, we recalled a gift we’d received, reflecting on why it was valuable, what was symbolic about it and the stories behind it.
In the poetry session with Linda Zisquit and Joy Katz, they invited people to relate a memory. Then they told us to “write a poem about something that scares you.” Writing the poem was pretty scary in itself, as I don’t write poetry. Not only did I write it, but I read it out loud.
“We need a volunteer. You.” The finger is pointing at me. Me! “Stand up. Turn round. Tell us about a memory.” “But….” “Just do it.” I want to say, “You don’t understand.” I want to say, “I can’t do this.” I want to say, “I suffer from social anxiety.” Ten thousand eyes are looking at me. Ten thousand ears are waiting for me to talk. “No – sorry.” I sit down and rest my head on my knees.
In the fiction session with Evan Fallenberg and Joan Legant, we analysed a whole (three-paragraph) story by Etgar Keret and then wrote two paragraphs of our own story, starting with one of four prompts. The main advice from the session was: resist. Resist the obvious plot and resist obvious words.
In a fascinating concluding session, Etgar Keret himself was interviewed by Evan Fallenberg. I wrote down just two of the many interesting things he said.
In couple therapy, there’s an exercise in which one partner falls backwards and lets the other partner catch them. So, when you’re writing close your eyes, fall backwards and wait for the story to catch you. Sometimes it does. Other times you find yourself on the floor with a bump on your head.
Only when you’re writing can you do anything you want. You can be rude to your mother, make a lot of noise, anything. Etgar doesn’t want to compromise this freedom for any audience by making his stories more universal.
At the very end I took an awful picture with my phone.
Keret is on the right and the screen shows his picture as it appears on the cover of his latest book: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.