Guest blog by Francine Falk-Allen
My book, Not a Poster Child: Living Well with a Disability – a Memoir, was challenging to write, taking me several years. I revised it eighteen times, and then revamped it with a capable editor. But it wasn’t just the writing and editing that was difficult to accomplish, it was navigating emotional territory and old wounds that I was divulging to the public, and writing about people from my life who might read the material, plus making the topic of disability palatable. I had to consider repeatedly how I wanted to tactfully express the truth of my story, and I re-wrote several sections that pointed out how others (mostly strangers) had been inconsiderate, or parts that conveyed my occasionally annoyed attitude. I emphasized humor whenever I could, though disability is not intrinsically funny. In this process, I discovered what may be a deeper compassion waiting to evolve in myself; I evolved with the writing.
Other memoirs have traversed rough territory successfully as well.
Vanya Erickson’s Boot Language is a memoir about a dysfunctional family dynamic, with a bad dad who kept her and her siblings wary if not terrified much of the time while growing up. Her descriptive capability is remarkable, and I could easily envision their California home, their mountain retreat, the horses she rode to escape her fears, and her father’s threatening and critical presence in the scenes she created. I was also impressed by her ability to keep me in a state of heightened apprehension: What’s he going to do next? – even though in fact there was not constant physical abuse. She truthfully told her experience as it happened to her, and described the emotional toll it took, without saying, “This took an emotional toll upon me.” She told the wrenching story in a way that did not involve self-pity or a maudlin attitude.
In Off the Rails, Susan Burrowes recounts her teenage daughter’s severe struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol. Susan chose an unusual form to tell this heartbreaking story, that of alternating edited journal entries written by herself and her daughter as they made this hard journey through a couple of years. I at first wondered if the format would work, but it flowed seamlessly; I could not put it down, despite my not being a parent. I was so invested with all the family members, and cried with relief and joy at one reunion scene when I, too, was on pins and needles waiting to see how a mother-daughter meeting would go. Susan’s honesty, humor, personal expression and insights were the invisible glue that shaped a vivid portrayal of the angst, the worry, the search for solutions, the devastation of not knowing how this crisis would resolve, creating a narrative that pulled me into the family dynamic. Her ability to craft in this way and also be respectful of her daughter made the book (a potential guide for other parents on navigating similar experiences) not only a revealing saga of the issues but a courageous lesson in familial loyalty and perseverance.
In a very different kind of book, What is the What?, back in 2006, Dave Eggers partially fictionalized the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” who fled their country while it was overrun by militias, essentially an ethnic cleansing which obliterated entire villages in front of children who hid terrified in grain bins and trees. Achak told his story to Mr. Eggers, who then composed it. Achak was only six when his tribulations started, so all conversations were manufactured based on his rough memory of the subsequent years. Situations were elaborated but represented the truth of the story, illustrating events that happened to most refugees if not directly to Achak. Thousands of orphans and other refugees walked mostly barefooted, a thousand miles across the desert to Ethiopia, pursued not only by men but by wild animals, eventually settling in a refugee camp where they at least had food, water and shelter. Although the book covered heartbreaking material, there was joy and hope carrying the tale, along with cultural insights. Gradually, some Sudanese emigrated to the US to start new lives, including Achak, having lived at the refugee camp for decades. When he obtained a home and work in the US, he started college, and then came home one evening to be beaten and robbed – by American blacks, desperate and disdainful of the foreign ways of Africans. Although the story is a difficult one, and the book walks the line between novel and memoir, it illuminates the indefatigability of the human spirit. This was another page-turner for me, and with its straightforward style, helped inspire me to write my own memoir.
Authors Susan Burrowes, Vanya Erickson and Francine Falk-Allen, who are all finalists for various best book awards, will present a memoir panel discussion entitled “Writing the Hard Stuff,” moderated by She Writes Press publisher, Brooke Warner, at the Bay Area Book Festival on Saturday, May 4, 2019, at 10:00am, Shattuck Boiler Room, Hotel Shattuck, 2086 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA.
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