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.


  1. "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." S.R. your writing is umami-sweet/sour/bitter/salt and tastes a bit like lavender.

    1. That is the BEST compliment! Thank you Kimberly! That is how I think of Gummy. :)

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