HOW TO WRITE ABOUT YOUR FAMILY when writing memoir is one of the great dilemmas facing us all, and when author Sheila Collins proposed the topic for her Writing Lessons post, I knew that you and I were in the right hands. Within this one topic are myriad questions, of course: “Whose truth?,” “what truth?,” and “what is truth?” are only some of those with which you will wrestle when you write about your family. The others? Instead of me counting the ways we all squirm, let’s listen to Sheila, shall we? And while we’re at it, have a good look at her beautiful book, Warrior Mother. It was recently published by the fairly-new She Writes Press, whose books are quickly gathering a well-earned reputation for all-around excellence.
How to Write About Your Family
By Sheila K. Collins, PhD
Writing a memoir is as much about what we leave out as what we include. And it’s highly likely that family members, who are characters in our stories, might make different selections than we do in what we chose to tell and what we chose to leave out. This lesson was driven home to me, as I was fretting over the potential reaction of one family member to the stories I was attempting to tell in my memoir. The family member was my son-in-law, my deceased daughter’s husband.
Not unlike the archetypical mother-in-law jokes, my son-in-law and I had some communication problems in the best of times, but when my daughter became very ill, the strain of our difficulties became more pronounced. Things did not improve much after my daughter’s death, especially since we didn’t have her to act as a connecting bridge between us.
As I worked on what became my memoir, Warrior Mother: Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss and the Rituals that Heal I wrote my version of scenes my son-in-law and I were both present for. I found the flow of my writing process frequently slowed down or interrupted by thoughts like, “What would Bill think about this?”
In a class on writing about your own family I was given an assignment that turned out to be most helpful. The directions were to choose a scene from my memoir and write it as I imagined my son-in-law would write it, from his perspective. I had no trouble selecting a scene, but genuine trouble attempting to write what I imagined his version would be.
I went to bed with “my imagined Bill’s” version of the scene unfinished. I awoke the next morning, surprised by another scene flashing into my awareness. This scene occurred in real life, the night before the one I was writing about. I had not forgotten the events of that particular night, but I’d not considered them important enough to include in my version of the story of my daughter’s illness and death.
After spending the night, both awake and asleep, struggling to see things from my son-in-law’s perspective, it was clear to me that the previous night’s events were crucial to “my imagined Bill’s” version of the story. Attempting to write the events of that night greatly increased my empathy for Bill and my understanding of some of what later transpired in our real lives. My final account of that night included something of his perspective in an improved version of the memoir.
My efforts to expand my understandings beyond my own perspective resulted in a clearer, more layered account, and some healing of old wounds for which I am especially grateful. Before my manuscript was published I invited my son-in-law to read it and he was able to point out some errors and a particular tone or attitude in one section that was annoying to him. Since both of these things interfered with the story I was trying to tell, I eliminated them, with much gratitude to him for his help.
Being able to clarify my own perspective, while understanding more clearly the perspective of others is another way that writing my memoir has enriched my life. I always knew that what my daughter would most want from me is for me to be able to get along with the man who is raising her three children without her.
Warrior Mother, an excerpt
People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”
But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.
So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.
Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.
Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”
People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.
Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.
Sheila K. Collins, PhD. is a writer, dancer, social worker, and improvisational performance artist. She currently directs the Wing and A Prayer Pittsburgh Players, an InterPlay-based performance troupe that assists human service agencies to accomplish their noble purposes in the Pittsburgh community. She writes about the power of play, dance, and the expressive arts on her blog Dancing With Everything which is on her website, www.sheilakcollins.com. Since her new book Warrior Mother: Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss and the Rituals That Heal was released by She Writes Press the end of August, Sheila has been “Performing The Book” with the help of InterPlay improvisational troupes in Edinburgh Scotland, Pittsburgh, North Texas, Atlanta GA and Oakland CA.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of the book is Pamela. Congratulations, Pamela! I’ll be in touch to send your book.