Guest blog by Elizabeth Anne Wood
The very act of sharing our experiences with one another has the power to transform lives. Sharing stories gives listeners/readers the comfort that they are not alone and offers them new information or perspectives with which to approach their own challenges. Sharing stories spreads empathy. Memoir is only one way of sharing stories, but it is one that I love. Getting lost in a book that provides a window into a writer’s life feels like a gift: a new way of seeing something familiar, or a way of seeing something new to me through the eyes of someone who’s lived it.
All memoir is deeply personal, revealing innermost feelings, examining relationships, and reflecting on the lived experience of the writer, but some memoirists also bring a critical and analytical eye to the world through which their stories move. These are the memoirs I love most: the ones that achieve this balance of personal storytelling and social analysis.
I wrote my memoir, Bound: A Daughter, a Domme, and an End-of-Life Story, for a couple of reasons. One reason was intensely personal: I needed to write as part of my own healing, and I felt an obligation to my mother, who wanted so badly to write her story herself. A second reason, of course, was to share a personal story that I thought would make many other readers feel less alone as they navigate complicated caregiving situations or live through the aftermath of same. But a third reason I wrote this memoir was because I knew that the story spotlighted some of the serious problems with the U.S. health care system, and I believed I had something important to say about that.
I’m a sociologist by training, and so I often look at social situations with a critical eye. I often ask why things work the way they do, even when these are things that are generally taken for granted. In the case of health care, I think that lots of us find the system confusing, nonsensical, and even organized counter to its goals. I wanted Bound to help people feel reassured that their confusion was not because of any lack of intelligence on their part. I wanted to plainly expose some of the flaws in the system so that people would be less likely to blame themselves when they struggled with it, and so that those who are in the process of becoming leaders in the world of health care would have more light shining on the parts of the system they need to fix.
The first draft of the book was quite different from the one that made it to publication. It was organized in seven thematic chapters, each focused on a particular problem or situation, and early readers let me know that it seemed too unapproachable. The story was halting. There was too much analysis and exposition; not enough scene and dialogue. It was confusing, too, because sometimes the same events would occur in different chapters, but with a different part being highlighted. I was told I should consider rewriting it as a more conventional memoir with a clear narrative arc, and while I saw the wisdom of that advice, I worried that the sociological insights would not come through.
I needn’t have worried. I’ve learned a lot about craft in the process of writing, revising, and publishing this book, and one important lessons is that the best way to make complicated issues easier to grasp is to tell a truly engaging story about them. Doing that would strengthen the analytical message, not detract from it. People didn’t need to be told what the story meant. They needed to read the story and let it lead them to understanding or give them new ways to think about what they already knew. If I was able to do that, it is in no small part a result of reading memoirs like these:
The Space Between, by Virginia A. Simpson, and To Love What Is, by Alix Kates Shulman, can both be described as caregiver memoirs. Simpson writes about caring for her mother as her mother experiences illness and then dementia in her last years of life while Shulman writes about caring for her husband after a traumatic brain injury. Both examine what it means to be women balancing professional work and care work, facing frustration and finding new ways to love, and both highlight flaws (and occasional bright spots) in the provision of health care in the United States. Both also examine deep questions about quality of life, longevity, and happiness.
The Liars Club by Mary Karr, and All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg each use memoir to tell stories about their childhoods and, especially in Bragg’s case his rise to success as an adult, in ways that depict the deep structures of class, and the cultural challenges of moving between classes. They also unveil cultural differences between north and south in ways that challenge stereotypical assumptions.
And just as there are memoirs that incorporate social analysis, there are some great social science and other nonfiction books that incorporate a lot of memoir-like storytelling.
Atul Gawande and Haider Warraich, in Being Mortal and Modern Death respectively, use liberal doses of anecdote to help readers understand the complexities of dying in the United States, and paint stark pictures of what we as a society need to do differently in order to help people die as well as they live. Advice for Future Corpses and Those Who Love Them, by Sallie Tisdale, does much the same thing, and even more personally, by focusing on the very micro-level questions about how we can best take care of those we love as they are dying, and how we, as we are dying, can be as clear as possible about what kind of care we want.
Elizabeth Anne Wood is a SUNY Chancellors Award–winning professor of sociology and Chair of the department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY. She is also Senior Strategist for Woodhull Freedom Foundation, the nation’s only human rights organization working full time to protect sexual freedom as a fundamental human right. She earned her PhD at Brandeis University in 1999 and has written critically about sexuality and society ever since. Born on an Army base in Kentucky, Wood grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and now divides her time between Queens, New York and Jamaica Plain, Boston. She is a devoted fan of Amtrak and an avowed cat person. Her first book, Bound: A Daughter, a Domme, and an End-of-Life Story, was just published by She Writes Press. Visit her at elizabethannewood.com