Monday, September 25, 2017

The Glass Castle and Writing A Memoir

Memoir Writing, The Glass Castle, Non-Fiction, Writing Memoirs
The Glitter Globe/S.R. Karfelt

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is one of a handful of spectacular memoirs I've read. I read it years before I set out to write or even planned to write Nobody Told Me love in the time of dementia 

I planned to write a memoir about the exact time I started writing it.

There were moments after I'd agreed to write the book that I stared at blank pages in utter terror, wondering if there was a step-by-step program somewhere explaining memoir rules. In the end I decided to make my own rules and took with me only a feeling or a flavor that I wanted to infuse into my memoir. It's not something I'd found in The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle isn't even my favorite memoir. I prefer humor to temper painful realities. Trevor Noah's Born a Crime is my favorite, and Shonda Rhimes' Year of Yes is a close second. 

What I loved about The Glass Castle was the brutal honesty. That's something I've always admired. It takes courage and inspires.

When I set out to write my memoir I did it the way I do most things in life, by the seat of my pants. If that sounds like lack of preparation, I'd counter that that's an assumption. I prep while diving into the deep-end and I figure things out. It works for me. When I first started to write fiction novels, I opened up a blank journal and a new document and began to write. 

My only guideline was to tell the truth. My truth. 

I simultaneously read articles and books and talked to publishers and figured it out. Flying by the seat of your pants is not for everyone, but I'm a hands-on learner.

With each new book I find that the process works best if I write with no filters from start to finish. 

Then I go over it again. (And again.) (And again.) Each time I go over the manuscript I add and take away. I fluff out scenes, and tie loose threads together. I clean the book up and watch for unexpected opportunities to expand on a theme.

As I wrote my memoir about my mother-in-law and dementia and all the memories we've shared, I pulled out my blow torch of snark and dusted off our funny stories and got to work. Writing the book while simultaneously watching Gummy tackle dementia every day was painful. I cried a lot, but I laughed too. 

My goal was to spread our stories out and take a good look at them while I shared them. I wanted to share this lovely lively soul I've spent so much time with. I didn't want to leave readers destitute and scorched by dementia, because f*ck dementia. Life isn't about dementia. It's about loving through all the shit and enduring the best we can.

That is why I loved The Glass Castle so much. Despite having neglectful parents and a growing up without the things we find vital in our nice first world country, Jeannette survived. She went on to have the best life she could.

What I found mandatory to writing a memoir is unvarnished truth. There were many revisions to Nobody Told Me. Each time I went through it again I asked myself these things:

  • Is this exactly what happened?
  • How did I feel?

Those were the two most important truths. That is the skeleton of a memoir. As a writer those were the things I couldn't doctor up or change. I had to be honest, and with each revision to the story I added more truth. I can't know for certain what other people were thinking. I saw what they did, and I heard what they said, but even dialogue made me nervous. I'd dug through decades for this book. I couldn't always remember verbatim every word that was said.

That's why I wouldn't put my dialogue in quotation marks. That worked fine for everyone except the poor guy who had to format the book to my exacting specifications. Getting everything together with revisions, rewrites, edits, and formatting took nine months exactly. I was in the deep end that entire time and pulling lots of sixteen hours days and night writes. It wasn't easy and it wasn't pretty, but I've never been more satisfied with a book.

My only outline was that flavor I wanted to infuse through the book. The one I got from knowing Gummy all these years. It tastes a bit like hope, humor, and orange zest.

My guideline for memoir writing is what works for me. That's not going to work for everyone. We all have different experiences, different stories, different philosophies, and different voices in our writing. For instance I don't think that Jeannette Walls tells us once in The Glass Castle how she feels. We can tell, or we think we can, but it works beautifully in the book.

Recently a reader told me the same thing. You never told us how you felt.

There's a reason for that. I showed you my truth, my thoughts, my actions. After that it's about how you feel. 

I don't think that the writer should ever tell the reader how to feel. 

Searing stories are difficult to write. They're also tough to read. I think that The Glass Castle was written exactly as it ought to have been. It's my opinion that if Jeannette Walls had told us how she felt about the miseries she endured, the book would have never been finished. Likely she'd have been holed up with a therapist or a bottle of whiskey as she relived it deeply enough to share those feelings. And I doubt we could have handled that truth anyway. 

When it comes to writing memoirs you have to tell your own truth in your own way. Your story. Your voice. 

There will be blood.

After it's written with all the bloody truth you can slather into your manuscript, then you go over it. I looked for these problems first:

  • Revenge. That's any story I told to avenge injustice against either Gummy or myself. It was so deliciously easy, and every word of that crap had to go.
  • Exaggeration. Everything had to be honest.
  • Other people's stories. It took concerted effort and focus to keep other people's stories out. Nobody Told Me works because I stuck to one main story. My relationship with Gummy. It's about a daughter-in-law's journey for better or worse. In our case that plows right into the crack of dementia. 
  • Other people's personal details. I changed names and locations to protect Gummy's privacy and periphery characters, because these are real people. 
  • Things that may or may not have happened that could or could not have resulted in legal trouble. I may have had to file down small details on the advice of my publisher and editors. I'm not saying that anyone said I could wind up in jail, but I'm not saying that they didn't. Just write the truth, then at some point go over it with a lawyer's eye if not the entire lawyer.

Raw truth is always best. It's just not a bad idea to double check statues of limitations if you're talking about anything shady. Imagine if Jeannette Walls had written her memoir when she left home at seventeen. Let's hypothesize she even got it published then. Would there have been any fallout about her parents? I imagine there would have been. 

When do you temper facts?

You don't, but you don't have to include every inflammatory detail if it doesn't serve the story. Only the writer can determine that line in the sand. It's something to think about, but not until you've written the bald truth all the way through to the end and you're up to your eyeballs in re-reads and re-writes and more and more edits. 

As I went over and over Nobody Told Me, I'd read it imagining how Gummy would feel about it, if she'd have a miraculous recovery from dementia. I also read it imagining how Gummy might have felt if she'd read the book before dementia, and she was reading about someone else.

The reason I did that wasn't to edit out painful details. I left those in. I did it for another swipe at the truth. When I saw the book through the eyes of Gummy, it gave me a new perspective. If I was putting in her ugly truth, I had to put mine out there too. 

That's how I knew I was at last finished with combing over the book. When I read it trying to see the story from Gummy's eyes and I didn't change a thing, I knew it was finished.

The writer truth is we own our stories. Freedom of speech permits us to share them. Honor and love demands we tell those stories with honesty, candor, and no hidden agenda.

Isn't the physicians' motto Do No Harm? That's not the writers' motto. But my personal writerly motto is Do No Harm Unless that Hides the Truth.

Only you can determine your own motto.

After all the hard work, I can stand comfortably beside my memoir. There are always criticisms of a writer's work. I've seen entire blogs written dissing on The Glass Castle. It's interesting to me because these are the stories of someone's truth. It seems that if anyone doesn't approve of your truth, that's kind of their problem. 

So if you're writing a memoir, I wish you all the best with it. If you have some tips, questions, or comments I'd love to hear from you. If you have criticisms, fire away. They might not have any power here, but I'd like to hear your truth.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Six Things Writers Need to Bring to a Book Signing

Writing, Book Signing, S.R. Karfelt, Nobody Told Me
The Glitter Globe/S.R. Karfelt

A few years ago I joined Toastmasters. I thought it'd be a good idea to brush up on speaking techniques for book marketing purposes. It seemed that every writer conference I attended was full of communications majors and I found myself lacking. Although I'm not shy, I do tend to speak just like I write—with a lot of thought, an explorers mentality, and an occasional meander down a rabbit trail. It's never a problem with the written word, thanks to rewrites and editors, but during a speech I didn't think it would work. 

Toastmasters is wonderful. I loved every meeting. In fact I'd about made up my mind to go to the international convention that year in Kuala Lumpur.

That's why I quit going. It took time away from writing and I found myself losing focus. Writing takes a lot of time, and I find protecting my writing time to be one of my biggest challenges. Since I write without any real outline, because I like to surprise myself as well as the reader when the story unfolds, it takes me a bit longer to write a novel. I still make my deadlines thanks to obsession and night writes, but I don't have time or resources to go to Kuala Lumpur, workshops, research trips, and write a book once or twice a year. 

In order to write I've had to give up things like television and a social life and cleaning my house. 

What I've found is that I don't need to be a communications major when I talk to people. I need to be genuine. It's about the readers, not me, and fortunately I'm a good listener. I'm an introvert but I love everyone one person at a time. I like to hear their stories, what they're reading, and what they have to say. So I ask questions, and listen, and when I'm asked a question I simply answer it. Honestly. 

Since I do spend an inordinate amount of time in the total immersion that is my writing style, I'm thrilled when the opportunity to chat with someone comes up. If we're going to be talking about reading or my books I'll be somewhere around seventh heaven. 

Tomorrow I have a book signing, and I've already packed up all the things I want to take with me. I wear one of the writing t-shirts I love and comfy pants that aren't in the least bit flattering. But this is me, and I need pockets for things like pencils, a pencil sharpener, a little notebook, and my phone, because even if I love to write with pencils I am into tech too.

My goal is to be approachable. Let's chat. I really do want to know what you're reading because I like to read too!

Since I wrote my last book my husband has taken to saying things like, "You look like a writer today." Since that usually means a couple scarves and pencils in my hair, I know he doesn't mean it as a compliment, but I take it as one just the same. This last book was non-fiction and took me many night writes and months to complete. I think it triggered some sort of epiphany where I accepted my inner writing nerd with open arms. It may have looked like I'd given up on looks entirely, but that was an illusion. I simply had to prioritize. 

Now that the book is out and I'm cleaning up the fallout of being so absorbed for nine months, I'm also focusing out getting out into the world. My plan is to catch up on current events (wait, that was a mistake so never mind about that!), hit book stores, and talk to people.

Yes, socializing and even housework are back for a limited time only.

The next couple of months I have several signings booked, and I'm looking forward to them before diving deep into the next project. I've spent some time thinking about book signings and planning what to take. My goal is to keep it as simple as possible, but these are the five things I think are important to take.

  1. Your attention. Listen when someone is talking to you. Don't worry about what you're going to say next. Listen. Ask questions. Be sincere. 
  2. For signing books I take a Sharpie marker. Some book stores provide them, but I take my own because I prefer the fine point Sharpie pens.
  3. Bookmarks. Readers of actual books like bookmarks. You can also give a signed one to those ebook readers in the crowd. I give bookmarks to anyone I chat with or who wanders by. I bring bookmarks to match whatever book I'm signing, and they have my contact information on them.
  4. Scrap paper. This is so everyone can write their name down and I'll get it right. When multi-tasking, I find this crucial. I take part of one of those little blocks of paper and tear one off for each person.
  5. A list for people to sign up for my mailing list.  
  6. A cheat-sheet for me with ideas on what I might want to write inside books I'm signing. When I'm talking to people, sometimes I blank on what I want to say. With this book in particular (it's about dementia) I want to write something different for someone who's lost a loved one to the disease, or works as a caregiver, or a myriad other scenarios. So I've spent some time thinking about this. 

Writing, Book signing,
If you're a writer, tell me what you think is important to take to a book signing, and if you're a reader, I'd really love to know what you think about author events? Have you attended one? Who'd you get to see?! 

I'd love to go to one for Jeannette Walls who wrote The Glass Castle or Diana Gabaldon of Outlander

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Loving Gummy While Dementia Storms the Castle

This weekend I hung out with writers. We talked books, writing, slept on couches, went to see The Glass Castle (debated the movie versus the book version), and in an unexpected twist, we all joined family for a Gummy lunch out. She wore her Steelers jersey. It says GUMMY on the back. The staff preps her on Sundays because Juan often takes her out to eat. 

Having a table full of people is one of her favorite things. It still is, although she's not often sure who is who or even if she knows us at all. The jokes are familiar to her and she accepts the love just the same.

Someone asked me afterwards, "Was this a good Gummy day, or a bad one?" 

When you're not used to dementia, how do you know what either looks like?

The thing is, that's a tough question.

Maybe because any day or moment in which Gummy isn't in the ER, angry, or in the depths of despair, is a good day or moment now.

It might not look like a good day, but it is.

She ate her salad and her food with little help. Occasionally she joined the conversation. Lowering my expectations has become a game plan.

Maybe I should say lowering my expectations has helped me get through this. Finding joy in those rare moments when Gummy remembers a name is how I'm rolling. If she smiles, it's a win. If she doesn't remember or doesn't smile it's not a loss. It's a time to look for something else to put on the joy list.

Throwing caution to the wind and taking her out in public is our Russian Roulette Gummy Game Plan. 

Not all days are good days to go out, but some are.

Being out among people going about their normal lives is good for extroverted Gummy. She slips into autopilot. She's doing something normal too. I can see her energy level rise.

Sometimes I take her out of memory care in a wheel chair and she walks back in. Not always. Positive energy isn't enough to make her stop forgetting how to walk. Positive energy can't help her remember. But it can stop dementia from draining her in any given moment. It can help her find her smile.

Being left alone in her confusion drains her. 

Watching life and laughter recharges her, especially when she's the one getting a hug or kiss.

If Gummy's outing goes poorly, therein the problems lie. Then getting her back to a comfortable place is paramount. Thank the heavens her comfortable place has become her room at memory care. 

When she returns she at first doesn't know this place. It's been going on a year, and she doesn't recognize the building from outside.
     Now where are we?
     Am I getting out of the car? Nobody told me.
     What is this place?
     You're not dumping me here, are you?

Physical Therapy rearranged her room again. She never notices. The idea is to make it as safe as possible in the hopes she won't fall. My biggest win this entire summer has been getting her a new chair she actually uses. 

Clothes, toothbrushes, even soap, can be ignored. Maybe she doesn't like it. Maybe it's not familiar so she won't touch it because she thinks it might not be hers. Maybe it is familiar so she packs it up and hides it. After the doctor visit this week, she sat in her new chair in memory care and talked to me. When I swung by for an impromptu visit the next day, she sat in that chair and ate a few bites of pizza I brought her. When I didn't come by because a rashy virus has been taking down family members like an army of Orcs, she sat in that chair and talked to me on the phone.
     I haven't seen you in so long!
     It hasn't been that long, Gummy!
     What are you talking about? It's been at least ten years!

The doctor said she needs more salt. Her blood pressure drops when she stands. Gummy loves what I call her pizza potato chip diet. When I visit I bring one or the other. 

Spoiling a child is a bad idea. I don't see the downside to spoiling someone with dementia.

Seize the day?
Hah. Seize the moments. Seize the nanoseconds. Seize whatever you can find despite the fact that we're laughing while the enemy is at the gate. 

I mean if you look hard enough everything has a silver lining.

The castle is under siege, but you can eat whatever you want until the dragon fire gets to this room! I mean this side of the room. How about this chair? 

Now I sit on her bed, and she sits on that chair and we talk. Her words are stifled sometimes, and they evaporate on her. She doesn't always know who the heck I am, but we talk anyway. 
     The guys are driving me nuts, Gummy.
     My car broke down today, Gummy.
     The baby has a fever, Gummy.
Semantics don't matter. We're two women talking. For a moment she focuses, and even when she doesn't know me this conversation happens. 
     Guys do that, you know. Mine drove me nuts. Do you know where he is?
     What kind of car do you have? I don't know where my car is.
     What baby? Is she okay? Is she here?

There's less space to maneuver in now, but we tuck our feet up under us. I've been writing by hand lately, so the tendon problem with my middle finger is flaring up again. It reminds me how to deal with dementia once more. I don't think Gummy has forgotten that part yet. Even if she does, I've got her back.