It’s asking a lot. A writing teacher –someone like me –casually says: “That version of your past, the one you’ve been carrying around all your life? Doesn’t work for a reader. Too victim-y. just change your whole point of view toward your childhood, so we can have the kind of spunky, heroic, non-whining narrator we enjoy.
My brilliant student Eanlai, writing about a non-ideal childhood in a village on the west coast of Ireland, did do this.She’s an astonishingly gifted writer. When she read her memoir aloud to the workshop, we all just looked at one another wordlessly. She brought the very rocks and trees of the tiny Gaelic-speaking Irish village she grew up in alive.
Gorgeous prose like that can cover a multitude of sins, so you have to listen hard for the self-pitying whine throughout: a father in ill health who seemed about to die from a heart attack at any moment, a boy abuses the narrator throughout her childhood, a dreadful mother. Even though the book had some very funny bits, we in the workshop couldn’t enjoy them, as the pervading tone let lets us know that none of this was funny.
So Eanlai set to work to get that tone out. In one potentially great scene, the narrator is incensed that she’s not allowed to play a family game with a new soccer ball because she’s only four. To get her yelling self out of the way, one of her brothers pitches her over the fence to the neighboring field.
Furious, she hurls beer bottles at the offending brother.
Yet. As Eanlai wrote it, the point of the scene is that it’s the moment when the little girl learned she mustn’t ever get angry like that again, because everybody’s so furious at her afterward.
So if you’re writing the story of this moment, you have choices. You ALWAYS have choices. The author can emphasize a moment of defeat., Or she can pause on that moment of hurling the bottle, on the girl’s flash of triumph and satisfaction when it whacks a brother on the shoulder. She can linger long enough (that is, add enough detail) to make sure we feel it too.
Another one of Eanlai’s scenes, shows how awful it is for the narrator when the father has a heart attack. He and the mother are off at the hospital for days. We’re told:
“I had to butter my own bread, nearly taking the eye out of my head with my mad swipes.”
Just those two words, “had to,” transform a sentence into a whine.
No good. Do we want to read about a squashed, spiritless child? We do not.
Eanlai’s rewrite neatly gets rid of the whining tone:
I buttered my own bread, nearly taking the eye out of my head with my mad swipes, but getting it done.
Same event –buttering her own bread, right? –but no longer a victim. A kid getting it done!
In another scene, the child develops a rash. When a doctor recommends that she be taken to see a child psychologist, the child perks up in the hope that the psychologist will drag her dreadful secret (being molested by a neighbor boy) out of her.
There was something inside that needed to be set right and she might be the very one to do it.
But instead of taking her to an expensive head doctor, the parents buy her a sweater instead. That’s a defeat. But a spunky child will manage to take something good from it: She could think,
Now I knew there were people you could talk to. I tucked that thought away.
That’s hope –and also the beginnings of power. A child’s power is small –people just can pick you up and move you to where they want you to be!
It’s there, though. And the reader loves te child narrator for it, roots for her because she roots for herself.
As she revised, as she emphasizes those places in the story that show us a spirited child, Eanlai recalled that she was in fact a spirited kid.
She not only gets a better memoir, but a better set of memories.
The development of persona is a pursuit, and the journey toward honing that perfect persona to tell a particular story is its own relationship within the writing of a book.
The shift from victim to hero in one’s own work is a momentous action because it not alone shifts the entire timbre of your memoir from defeated to defiant/triumphant but it also shifts your perception of yourself, your past and others from put upon and powerless to precious in many of their parts.
Try this: Write from their point of view
Eanlai writing in her mother’s voice
I wish to God I could get it across to my crowd how no one in this village can be trusted. this is the place they’ve been born and bred and I can’t tell them that Wexford—my old home—is nothing at all like here—that the people here have a kind of poison in them that I never came across at home. Mother of God, I wish I could get through to them—but what can I do when they’re part of this bledy place and I feel like an outsider with my own flesh and blood?
I wanted to marry Micheal—the handsomest man I’d ever seen—a bit like Gregory Peck. Shur how was I to know that going down to Kerry to live in that village where he was born and reared would turn out to be the purgatory that it was? His bledy mother and no word of English by her when I came—only all Irish—and roaring at me day and night like some servant. I didn’t marry her son to end up cleaning her pisspot and her arse.
people in Wexford had their notions of what a person should and shouldn’t do, but there was a kind nature in the people there. But this place. these people have a sickness like nowhere I’ve been—
In the workshop Eanlai was gratified at our response to the writing when she wrote a piece from her mother’s point of view.
“But I’m still confused,” she said. Then how do I occupy my negative feelings about the mother without seeming like a victim? This new Mom is not readily recognizable. She feels made up. She doesn’t reflect the author’s actual experience of her mother, and thus it feels false. This person wrecked my childhood and I don’t get to put that in?
You don’t. Eanlai, who grew up on the west coast of Ireland and was a dazzling writer, worked hard on getting a pervasive victim-y tone out of her pages about that childhood, in which a neighbor molested her from age 5 to 15. Then she read that fucking Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and … I’m a temperate sort of person. For example, I’ve never thrown anything, except the Bridges of Madison County. But the temptation was there after I read it. She’s a lovely writer, but in that book keeps her craft secrets to herself while spending two whole strident chapters on telling the truth. This is the kind of advice people are always giving writers, while pocketing their checks for books, conferences, their whopping manuscript-reading fees, and their bookstore dollar. “Just tell your truth.”
The answers don’t come from the heart.
Despite all advice to the contrary,
Writing from the heart hardly ever produces good writing. The heart is full, but the heart is stupid. It’s full of resentments (I was sick and he went off to see the solar eclipse!), old griefs (my husband died ten years ago and I am still unable to go on with my life), and unexamined beliefs (if it obsesses me, it must be a good topic for writing).