Alchemy of a Memoir, Pt. 1: Deciding to Write a Book
Maybe you won’t like me. That’s what I thought when I started my “Daughter on Duty” blog about life with Mama. It was private at first, just my whiny journaling going out to a few friends who wouldn’t judge me. Then I decided what the hell, and I made it public. If my words offend you, don’t read it. I’m not writing for you. Caring for my mother—living with her again, for gawd sake—was the hardest thing I’d ever done, including raising children, and I thought that was hard. I was willing to risk vulnerability to tell the truth of how it was, or my truth anyway.
Some choose to care for a parent, some feel they don’t have a choice, some can’t, some fervently wish they had had the opportunity. Some choose not to—and there is no shame in that. One of the purposes of a memoir is to shed light on our common experiences, hoping others who choose a similar path will learn something that will help them, or at least know they are not alone. I wrote to those people.
I began to search out memoirs written by people caring for a parent. I was no stranger to memoir, it’s my favorite genre. Not the memoirs of famous people and celebrities (though some of those are interesting too, we never know what lies behind the curtain of fame), but of ordinary people no one ever heard of. They aren’t so much about a life as about how the writer experienced an event in their lives or navigated a thread sewn through it. I read the stories of those who felt honored to have been able to be there at a parent’s end of life, who reviewed their lovely childhood relationships or extended a close adult one, or how they overcame difficult ones. They felt so lucky. I didn’t feel lucky. I was tired, and frustrated, and lonely. I saw my 60s slipping by me. I felt stuck.
I didn’t find any memoirs by caregivers who found the work less than rewarding. Are we ashamed of ourselves for not being able to “do it better”? Afraid we will be judged? We live by the notion that if we can’t say something nice, say nothing. I assumed that was why no one was writing that story, not because I was the only terrible person, not because I lived on a distant planet.
Then I learned that memoirs are “supposed” to be written after the event at the core of the story is over, even long after. This gives the writer an opportunity to reflect, to see the entirety of the story and make sense of it. It also allows time to dig out those rose-colored granny glasses that were the rage in the 1960s, of which I had a pair. Emotional memory can be short, we see things as we wish they were and over time adjust our stories—known as “writing it slant.” When I was entrenched in living my story, I didn’t need someone else’s version of how it turned out in the end, I needed to know how they got through the days.
I decided to write the book I needed to read, and to eschew the “rules” and write it in real time, knowing bringing my frustration to the page may make some readers uncomfortable. It’s a vulnerable place. I loved my mother, and she nearly put me over the edge. Many times I thought moving across the country, into my childhood home, to care for her were the three stupidest decisions I’d ever made.
Lest you think my story is nothing more than a whine-fest, I also wrote the humor in living with an elderly person (albeit irreverently), I learned much about how to care for myself, and as time went on, how to care for my mother (though I never got good at putting knowledge into regular practice) and how to navigate the health care system in this country. They are tools I hope will help those who come after me. And I did take out many of the angst stories and put in more of my mother’s back story. If readers don’t like the main characters, they won’t read the book, and it did make the story more interesting.
As I edited my manuscript, after my mother died, I was tempted to alter it, to take out even more of the words that made me look like the world’s worst daughter, to rewrite the story to include what I could see more clearly later. Three years into caregiving, I wrote this in a blog post: “Perhaps when I have finished this walk across the wilderness, I will look back and understand how it expanded my life. Today I am highly skeptical.” Four years after my mother’s death, I can say that did happen. It did expand my life, I do understand my mother better now, I do wish I could have done it better, I am glad I was here. But that is not this story.
Next up: Choosing a Publisher
I look forward to reading your story. At one time, I aspired to write something coherent and worthy of the public eye. Appreciate you sharing Toni Morrison’s quote. It gives me something to think about. 🍃
Yes! Do it, Harriet! Revive that aspiration. I look forward to reading it.
Sharing my sister’s wisdom and experience.
Love this so much—and it is what makes your story so unique, helpful, and amazing to read!! Soooooo glad you wrote it just.this.way. 🙌🏾💙
Thank you, Pamela. I can’t thank you enough for believing in it . . . and me.
Ordered on pre-sale and looking forward to reading it. Thanks for posting your memoir journey.
Thank you, Marjorie! I appreciated your support very much. I’m so excited to send my story into the world.
Always odd to hear words that sound like “conventional wisdom” when it comes to something as “unconventional” as caregiving. I’m proud of you for pushing through with even the most uncomfortable of truths and not bending to the opinions of those not doing the work, those not having the experience. You’re a bit of a trailblazer. And Gretchen, this site is growing into something special. Thanks for the vision and the will to make it happen 💜
Well, thank you. And true that. I believe the “conventional memoir wisdom” I read is you “can’t” write it till it’s in the past. Well, it was over when I published it, so that will have to be close enough.
I’m looking forward to reading your story.
Thank you, Suzanne. I’m looking forward to sharing it!
I love hearing about the process, and now that I’ve read the book, it’s even more interesting to see how you got to where you ended up. The real-time mode, irreverence and humor, and woven in back story make it a delightful read. And hearing about how hard the work was to get there gives me more respect for you and your journey.
Thank you, Nancy!