It’s sometimes called Creative Nonfiction, sometimes called memoir. There can be controversy over how ‘creative’ this genre can be. Some say it’s okay to change names to protect the innocent, but most agree that whatever happens in the nonfiction/memoir genre must be absolutely true.
Jane Gari is the author of her own memoir, Losing the Dollhouse, of which three adapted chapters have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In this Q&A with Irena Tervo, Jane speaks on her process as a memoir author, and what it means to write in this genre.
Q – Give a little of your background. Do you consider yourself a person who became a writer because of the burning story she needed to tell, or a born writer who happened to have a story she needed to tell?
Jane – When I was 5 I lived in Connecticut and the small pond in our backyard sparked my imagination. I’d tell the neighborhood kids a shark lived in it, and it would leap out and swallow them whole if they stood too close to the water’s edge. I gave the shark a name and a backstory—the works. Seeing the awe and fear in my friends’ eyes made me realize the power of story. And although I got in trouble for my story, I was secretly proud of how I’d captivated an audience. I didn’t think of it as lying. I thought they were in on the game. As I grew older, I learned how to write my stories down to ensure everyone was aware of the game I was playing.
Q – What made you decide to write Losing the Dollhouse?
Jane – There really came a point where I could no longer hold off on writing the story. When I was 19, I told my mother about my stepfather’s sexual advances that took place mostly when I was in high school. My mother didn’t believe me, and it nearly destroyed me. I’d kept journals since I was in sixth grade, but the idea to tell this painful family story didn’t come to me until I was engaged to be married—when I felt I’d finally have a logical place for the story to end because I felt a chapter was closing in reality.
The other impetus was the startling number of girls who wrote about similar incidents while sitting in my English classes over the years. And there was one girl in particular who was sexually harassed by the same teacher who harassed me. It was the proverbial straw that broke the back of my silence. I wrote the book to channel my outrage and to give a voice to all the girls who remain silent when they’re violated. I also wrote the book as a way of working out all the psychological and emotional loose ends I wanted to make sense of because I was convinced it would make me a better mother to my own daughter.
Q – Often in memoir, authors must expose other people’s deeds or misdeeds, which in itself can be an obstacle to overcome. Can you explain how you were able to overcome any feelings of doubt while writing your memoir?
Jane – When I first thought about writing down my experiences, I was still very angry. But it was good to put it down on paper where the rage could be productively and safely channeled. Then I left those angry pages alone for seven years. I was very afraid of how my mother would react to my exposing this family secret and exposing her. I worried about my stepfather or his family suing me. Eventually, I sifted through those pages and shaped holistic portraits of the people who’d betrayed me. You have to treat everyone in your story with compassion. To do that I had to wait for perspective only time, maturity, and motherhood could give me.
My husband was very supportive of the concept I had of framing the narrative—each chapter is organized as a box whose contents spark memoires. Since I’ve moved 19 times in my life, it seemed an appropriate way to lead a reader through the events I wanted to weave together. But I still feared my family’s reaction. My friend and screenwriter, Heidi Willis, saw the beginnings of my first draft and convinced me to write the memoir and finally bring it to market. And I kept thinking about all the girls in my classrooms, and how many of us let our silence purchase the impunity and comfort of our perpetrators. My last doubts about putting the memoir out there were squashed by putting my own sanity and healing first.
Q – What advice do you have for an author who has a true story burning in their soul and who feels like they need to tell, but is experiencing ambivalence? Where is a good place to start?
Jane – Start by evaluating why the story is an important contribution to a larger human conversation that brings about healing and understanding. If you feel you can contribute positively to that conversation, don’t let anything stand in your way. Truth is on your side.
Q – How ‘creative’ can Creative Nonfiction be?
Jane – Creative nonfiction for me means writing about real events with the same literary style and sensibilities with which you approach fiction. That doesn’t mean lying–it means careful editing and presentation with the reader’s experience in mind. It means compressing a timeline so you’re not dragging a reader from point A to point B in a pedestrian way. It means you’ve crafted a narrative with all the gardening tools with which you’d craft a fictional story. You choose a compelling hook, theme, characterizing vignettes…the works.
Q – How do you make the transition from personal journaling, or recollecting, to actually telling a story meant for other people to read?
Jane – I write for myself, then edit with the reader in mind. You have to pick a compelling beginning, middle and end just like you would for fiction. Write the truth so the pace and points of entry and exit of the story read like fiction. Otherwise, you have yourself a diary—and there’s nothing wrong with that, but a memoir has to be a carefully paced narrative with a unified theme that sheds light on larger human issues. For me those are the delineations between writing memoir and journaling.
Q – Was there anything during your experience of writing your memoir that surprised you?
Jane – The first thing that surprised me was discovering the story was much more about my mother and me than what my stepfather actually did to me. It was more about the unraveling of the relationship between a mother and daughter and how you reconstruct your life in the wake of betrayals. The other shock was how supportive my mother was of the memoir once I told her it would be published. She hasn’t read it, but she wasn’t angry that I wrote it. That’s been a relief. She also has changed the language she uses when she talks about our past with me—she doesn’t accuse me of lying anymore. She’s still married to my stepfather, but she respects my decision to not include him in my life or my daughter’s life. Those boundaries used to be a constant battle for me to maintain.
Q – What has been the biggest struggle in writing your memoir?
Jane – The biggest struggle was telling my mother about it. I agonized over it for over a year. When I finally got a publishing contract I knew I had to tell her. I didn’t want her to find out about the book from a friend or Google or Facebook.
Q – What has been the best thing for you in writing your memoir?
Jane – The best thing has been the reaction from readers who shared their experiences with me after reading the book and who thanked me for giving a voice to those experiences. While it’s sad how common my story is, it’s heartening to know people take comfort in knowing they’re not alone.
Q – Can you tell a little about your upcoming book? Is it also nonfiction?
Jane – My Idiot’s Guide to the Healthy Gut will be released by Alpha Books (a division of Penguin/Random House) in May. It’s a prescriptive nonfiction book about how to heal your gut and mitigate disease with nutrition.
My other project is a novel called Shakespeare’s Daughters—it’s repped by Michelle Johnson of Inklings Literary Agency, and is about to go out on submission to find a publisher. The novel is about a woman haunted by a ghost who wants to reunite her with the love of her life while she’s still married to somebody else.
Q – Fun question- Do you have any routines that help you in your writing? Or any go-to drinks or food?
Jane – I drink a lot of water and tea while I write. This serves two functions—it keeps your brain and body hydrated, but it also forces you to get up and go to the bathroom frequently. Sitting for too long while staring a screen is detrimental to your health. You have to get up and stretch periodically and look around the room.
I also listen to ambient or classical music while I write. It can’t have any words or I get distracted. The exception to this is if they’re singing in a language I don’t know. I wrote Shakespeare’s Daughters while listening to one song on a continuous loop every time I sat down to work on the manuscript. That sounds really crazy when I admit to it. But it’s true. It set the perfect mood—creepy, spiritual, strangely haunting, and uplifting all at once. The song is “The Host of Seraphim” by a group called Dead Can Dance. The vocals are in no particular language. The singer, Lisa Gerrard, just sings to create melody. The results are spectacular, and it was just the mood I needed for inspiration. Google the song. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Jane Gari lives in Elgin, South Carolina with her husband and daughter. Her webinars can be found at: http://myscww.org/scww-webinars/
Jane regularly visits www.writerswin.com for useful information on the craft and the business of publishing. She also belongs to SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance) and NCWN (North Carolina Writers Network) and finds these organizations invaluable for support, networking, and advice.
For more information on Jane Gari, please visit her website.