How to choose the right story to tell? It’s a great question, and one that plagues every memoirist. But it’s the essential question, because if I could pinpoint the one common problem of all memoir writers, it would be the rush to tell us too much. So choose. How? I suggest you start here, reading this fine post by C. A. Wittman, as well as the excerpt from her new book, Synanon Kid. See how she faced the issue of choosing, what she did and how she wrote her wonderful book.
What Story Do You Want to Tell?
Memoir can be tricky enough, mining one’s memories for those nuggets of truth, but how do you handle writing a shared childhood history, which may involve dozens of siblings and adult caregivers? When I decided to write Synanon Kid, I found this aspect daunting. It had been close to thirty years since I had seen any of my peers. While I maintained powerful and surreal impressions of my experiences in the cult, I realized that, with so many of us children sharing the same past, any memory could break off into multifaceted recollections of the same event. To make things more complicated, a rich body of literature, over a dozen books and hundreds of articles, already existed about the cult. While this made for great research on background information of Synanon, I had to work to maintain the focus of my theme: what it was like to grow up in the commune, against the tide of politics, history and other memoirs written about the community.
There are a plethora of biographies about cult living. Often, because of the dynamics I outlined above, a personal story can turn into a dry narration of episodic accounts with so many characters that the central idea of the memoir becomes lost and the protagonist’s goal or mission obscured in a timeline of facts.
In tackling the first issue, I wondered whether I should reach out to other children like myself who had lived in Synanon, to collect their stories and cobble together some form of the truth; I decided against it. Instead, I wanted to preserve the authentic form of my anamnesis and distill in my writing the effect I’d been left with, even if the memory was flawed, which, in most instances, it is. I did interview one person: my mother. For the simple reason that my mom was the catalyst in my involvement with Synanon, our relationship became a secondary theme. I believe most memoirists, especially newer authors, suffer from trying to stuff their writing with extraneous information, every close person and every little thing holding some importance and finding its way into the prose. Ask yourself, “What story do I want to tell?” In my case, it wasn’t about the cult overall, rather my own personal story within its context.
An Excerpt of Synanon Kid
by C. A. Wittman
“I am a demonstrator,” Linda said. “My job is to demonstrate to you how to be a good Synanon member. There is a lot to learn, but your buddy will help you.”
Sophie stood by, fidgeting while Linda gave me this speech. We were in the room Sophie and I shared, where I’d spent the last two nights lying beneath a thin gray blanket on a hard narrow bed, with Sophie chattering incessantly. For the last few days I had scarcely been able to do anything without her shadowing me.
“Will I see my mom?” I asked.
“You mean Theresa?” Linda waited for me to say my mother’s name, but I stood before her, silent and sad. She squatted so we were at eye level. “Here in Synanon, all adults are your parents. You don’t need a mom and dad. Whenever you want something, you can come and get me or another demonstrator.”
I was beyond bewildered and couldn’t seem to make sense of anything. Before I’d been brought to Synanon, my father had driven me to my Uncle Danny’s home in Riverside to spend the weekend. We’d arrived in the afternoon, and my father and uncle had spent an hour or so talking and drinking coffee while I’d played with my cousins. Before my father left, he hugged and kissed me and shook my uncle’s hand, thanking him and my aunt for their hospitality. Later that night my mom and Mary Ann had stopped by and taken me with them when they left. I’d thought she had told me we were to visit Synanon. Had she said we would live here?
After the party celebrating my Synanon birthday, my mother had vanished. I couldn’t remember her saying goodbye or telling me when she might come back. I went over the events again and again like a connect-the-dots picture, searching for something I’d missed. How long would I be in Synanon and why hadn’t my father called to see how I was?
The second night I inevitably began to cry as the enormity of the situation weighed on me, and try as I might to contain my sobs in my pillow, Sophie eventually woke up and tiptoed across the floor. Her weight sank into the mattress as she sat down and leaned over to stroke my brow.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I want to see my mom.”
“Don’t worry. Theresa will come back.”
Sophie’s words did not console me.
My limited possessions that I’d brought to Synanon, not only my clothes, but also my most treasured baby doll, had been confiscated. In place of my own things, I’d received a stack of clothing that matched that of the other children.
Linda pulled out one of the drawers in Sophie’s dresser. All of her white t-shirts were rolled tightly into tubular forms and stacked neatly end-to-end.
“This is how we keep our clothes,” Linda said. “Sophie will show you how to roll them.”
Linda pulled out another drawer, which held all of Sophie’s pants, rolled the same way. Before she closed the drawers, Linda glanced at me. Then she said, “Sophie, I would like you to show Celena how to roll her clothes. I’ll be back later to see how she’s getting along.”
Sophie, ever smiling, opened my dresser and grabbed a stack of the drab gray overalls and blue jeans, clothing very different from the short, colorful, knee-length dresses I was accustomed to wearing. I found that I’d subconsciously developed the habit of raising my hand to the smooth surface of my scalp, sliding over the whole of it as if to receive further confirmation that all my hair actually had been shaved off.
I looked down at the baggy overalls I wore. They reminded me of the nursery song “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” I watched my roommate’s puffy small hands as she expertly folded, rolled and tucked a shirt into its own self-contained tube. Laughing, she tossed it and it fell to my bed, bouncing off the blanket that was pulled tight and wrinkle-free with the corners folded over like pockets.
“They’re called ‘hospital corners,’” Sophie told me.
I practiced rolling the clothes until I had a shirt as smooth and cylindrical as those produced by my ever-ebullient buddy.
As promised, Linda returned to examine my work. She picked up a rolled shirt and ran her finger under the fold. It held. She set it down, her gaze flicking over the rest of the tubular clothing. “Very good.”
That I’d pleased her gave me courage. “When will I see Theresa?” I hoped that using my mother’s name would produce the desired effect of getting some information from Linda. Instead, the pleased smile left her lips, her mouth tightened with disapproval.
“The sooner you are used to being apart from Theresa, the better. I told you, mothers do not matter here. We are all your mothers. Isn’t that better than just having one?”
I did not want a group of mothers I didn’t know. My mother, Theresa, loved me. It showed in her eyes and body language. But after our reunion, she was gone again, replaced like a pair of shoes. I did not know what to say to Linda, who coldly demanded that she, in a sense, was now my new mom. A feeling of terror came over me. I clenched my fingers into my palms to fight back the tears that filled my eyes.
“When we have another game, you can talk about it,” Linda said. “That’s when you get out your feelings.”
I took a deep breath, not daring to move.
“Tell Sophie ‘Thank you,’” Linda said.
I couldn’t speak. Afraid that instead of words there would be just an uncontrollable wail, I held myself very still.
Linda gave me a minute. “It is important when someone shows you how to do something properly that you thank them.”
“Thank you,” I whispered.
HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each weekly installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Monday, October 23, 2017. Unfortunately, only readers within the US domestic postal service can receive books.
PLEASE NOTE: The contest is now closed. Congratulations to Joanne, winner of the book. Please come back for more soon.