Memoir and Memory: When Your Story Turns On You

The Bark Peeler's Daughter

Most of us love it when we encounter an unexpected turn in a story. As readers, we love plot twists, especially ones we didn’t see coming.

If we are a writer, we ponder and plan and work our mischief so our readers are hit smack in the face with a startling event. Because we know it frightens them and seduces them at the same time, like a crazy-scary water slide ride at a theme park.

My first manuscript was just strolling along, minding it own business, not bothering anybody when, wham. The writer who created it began to see it in a different light.

Sure, I had worked long hours on the story to make it the best it could be.

But in the end, it turned out it was a different message all along.  The lens through which I told the story was the wrong one. I realized, with a sinking pit in my stomach, that it was not my daughter’s story I needed to tell, by my mother’s. That is the book that’s missing from the bookstore shelves.

Because what made Mama a ticking time bomb is key to finding the missing pieces to my own daughter-and-me story.  Perhaps that second story will come next. Perhaps it won’t.

But this I know. 

must write Mama’s first.

Plot twists aren’t always fun

This plot twist in my long, bomb-laden journey toward publication was a shakeup I couldn’t predict but one that now has me fully awake, like I’ve had four espressos.

My daughter’s struggle to find herself and her subsequent coming out as a lesbian was the tale I have invested two years in. I thought that was the story, intertwined with the horrific past my own mother hid until the end of her life.

But I see now that they are really two stories. Writing about my mother’s painful childhood—and how that affected me— is enough for now.

The sudden realization that this was what I had to do took my breath away—so much that I took down the Kickstarter campaign that would have funded my first book after just three days. It was a dizzying week.

My new book

The working title of my new memoir is The Bark Peeler’s Daughter. The name flew into my head one day without one cell in the logical part of my brain being involved. Because the thread running through it all is Mama’s ingenuity and steely strength. Her determination to survive. To live to tell her own stories.

The Bark Peeler’s Daughter is the story of the survivor of a harsh evangelical childhood who must come to grips with the unspeakable horrors of a past her mother has worked all her life to hide.

If you have a bad memory, give it up. Many people ask me how I recall the past, and I say if they don’t, they’re lucky—get a real job.” – Mary Karr, author of  The Art of Memoir

My memories of growing up are vivid. Like a technicolor dream. Sometimes I remember more than I want to. Even if I didn’t have the home movies, transferred first from 8mm to VHS, then from VHS to DVD, the spliced-together scenes of our  lives,  I would be able to tell this story.

The new road looms before me, climbs into uncharted territory. Yet, oddly, I do not feel disappointed by the prospect. It’s more like excited—and a little nervous— about what I might discover.

Hope you’ll stay with me for the ride.

Final thoughts: quotes on the role of memory in memoir

I leave you with some beautiful quotes I found about the power of memory, the substance with which we work as we write our memoirs.

On memory’s hold on the future:

“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” – Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winning author of the Holocaust memoir, Night.

On how your memory controls you:

“Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you—and sometimes summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you.” – John Irving, bestselling novelist and author of The World According to Garp

On how memory can be tricky:

“Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today’s events.” – Albert Einstein

On forgetting our most painful memories:

“We never had any kind of Christmas. This is one part where my memory fails me completely.” – Frank McCourt, acclaimed author of the Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes

Okay, I’m signing off. Until next week, Happy Halloween!

Make sure you don’t miss a post.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply