Families fascinate me—how they evolve and what ignites the personalities that develop as a result of a particular family dynamic. As I began writing scenes and chapters of my book Nobody Home: A Memoir, I had no idea where they would lead me. I only knew that, as I delved into memories of my mother, recollections I had thought long-buried flooded through me and onto the page. It was a profoundly pleasant experience re-connecting with all those mental images, grappling with the less pleasant ones, shaping them into chapters, and forming them finally into a book. I was compelled to keep writing—shared experiences with my siblings, my mother’s baffling words and actions, my own life challenges—there seemed always more and more to write about. And perhaps with my mother, long-gone from this world but always in my head, guiding the pen. As I wrote, not only did I remember so much more about my childhood and early adulthood, I came to understand so much more, about my mother and myself.
I’ve read quite a few memoirs, both before and after I wrote Nobody Home, and I can’t help comparing them to my own. Written by authors with many more literary credentials than I, many of these books have one thing in common—finding a way to make sense of connections to parents. The drama of the memoir expresses itself in many ways—each author has his or her own take on it—but since our parents are the source of all that we are, going on a journey of parent- and self-discovery has great value.
On my bookshelf I see Wild (Strayed), A Good Enough Daughter (Shulman), Elsewhere (Russo), Dreams from my Father (Obama), Bettyville (Hodgman), Jesusland (Scheeres), Lit and The Liar’s Club (Karr), The Glass Castle (Walls), Angela’s Ashes (McCourt), and Growing Up (Baker), among others. All are stories of adults trying to capture on paper what it was like to be raised in a certain type of household with a parent who had a particular way of making life difficult. The author’s reflections on that relationship take readers to an amazing place. What a charming set of talented authors, what fascinating parents! And yet these writers all survived their ordeals, gained perspective on their lives, and came to be successful despite their haphazard upbringings.
When I present my author talk, I speak not only about Nobody Home. I also encourage my audiences to write their own memoirs. I believe everyone should examine their life stories, whether they are accomplished writers or not. Everyone, I think, should try to set something down on paper to memorialize the bond between themselves and their parents. There are many benefits to examination of this crucial connection, not the least of which is passing down family history to the next generation. And the task need not be done alone; there are lots of writing classes out there, some addressing memoir specifically, that can help one shape his or her story.
So, have you ever tried it? Writing a true story about your relationships with the people who raised you? If not, I highly recommend it.