Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Two lives, and one secret journal: how a memoir writer struggled withthe challenge of a dual story line.(Writer at Work).

Journals and notebooks, originally uploaded by renmeleon.
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Establishing focus in memoir is probably the most difficult aspect of working in this genre, but it's even more challenging when there are two voices or story lines you wish to weave together as the book's framework.

I learned this the hard way in crafting my first memoir, Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal. My idea was to use the discovery of my beloved grandmother's secret writing as the focus of my graduate thesis and subsequent published memoir. Grandma, who had committed suicide in 1964, had left behind a journal describing her life as an orphan in Poland during World War I. My parents found the 50-page yellowed document in her closet late in 1983 when they moved from my childhood home. One day I knew I'd make something of it.

The time arrived when I had to decide on the subject of my thesis. I reread Grandma's journal and realized what a treasure she had left. Little did I know that my writing journey with this project would not be chronological, but filled with many deviations and paths.

My first task was to do some minor edits to the journal. My grandmother's native tongue was German, and although she was educated in English, the document needed some tweaking to make it both readable and suitable for publication. My next decision was what to do with the journal and how to make it a full-length book.

I realized I needed more than the 50 journal pages Grandma had left in order to make a book-length manuscript. But a poignant question surfaced, too. Was this meant to be my story, or was it simply my grandmother's story?

Memoir implies a historical account written from the author's perspective, but who was the author here? Surely my grandmother was the author of her journal, but since she was no longer alive, this had become my project. To make the book work, I needed to make her story my story by weaving our voices and stories together.

Once I decided to present two stories and points of view, I had to figure out the best structure. My graduate-work focus was on creative nonfiction, so a partly fictional approach was out.

My initial thought was to make her journal the memoir's focus. I began to reminisce about our special connection for the first 10 years of my life. This led me to create alternating chapters--her entries interspersed with my own life story, which would highlight my battle with breast cancer and how the writing passion was one we both shared, particularly during tenuous times.

This approach, however, presented another major dilemma. I realized while writing, that the intensity of my life experiences paled in comparison to Grandma's. Much of her journal depicted her life as a young girl growing up in war-torn Galicia while witnessing horrific events, and watching her mother die of cholera. While my diagnosis with cancer deeply impacted my life and others', the overall contrast between our lives was much too jarring.

The end result of this structure was a choppy narrative, making it difficult for the reader to follow. Century-hopping between chapters simply did not lend itself to a free-flowing narrative.

When faced with structural problems, there are a number of techniques to try. You can simply write to see what form evolves, study other memoirs for a template, or brainstorm with colleagues. I tried all of these approaches and, much to my dismay, was still left with an unstructured memoir.

As a writing teacher, however, I understood the value of a good opening, and from my own writing experience I knew that once the beginning was drafted, the rest of the narrative would fall into place. If I were to weave my grandmother's and my story together, then the beginning would have to include both of us as characters, or more specifically, depict our relationship during the first 10 years of my life.

One of the best ways to begin a memoir is with an inciting incident-a riveting childhood moment that has changed the author's life. For me, that event has always been my grandmother's suicide. That day, more than 40 years earlier, had remained vivid throughout my life. It not only changed my life but posed many questions about my grandmother, our relationship, and my own mortality. We often do not realize the effects of childhood wounds until we are much older.

Until I was 10, both my parents worked full time and my grandmother was my primary caretaker. After my cancer diagnosis, I reflected on whether my grandmother had also been diagnosed with a cancer that led to her suicide. These were some of the questions that inspired me to study her life.

William Zinsser says successful memoirs are usually driven by an event or circumstance outside the norm. He believes the event usually alters the writer's world and encourages her to study its details. Thus, my instinct told me that finding Grandma dead in my childhood home should open the book.

After numerous drafts, I had a beginning that pleased me. I then faced yet another dilemma: As I moved deeper into the writing, how would I deal with the alternating voices while weaving our stories together? The answer would be another key element in determining the memoir's structure.

Most modern memoirs are written with a composite voice, a blend of the child and adult voice that incorporates wisdoms, reflections and musings. In dealing with two main characters in a memoir, however, this is no easy task. My grandmother's voice was only depicted in her journal entries; my voice needed some deep literary thought.

After many drafts, I realized that for both of our voices to be heard, my voice had to remain that of a granddaughter, not daughter, mother or wife. It was an important epiphany for me.

Focusing on my own voice as granddaughter allowed me to respond to my grandmother's journal and any issues she raised in her entries. It also helped me stay within the memoir's focus; I had to make sure my reflections were pertinent to my granddaughter role.

Writing a memoir is a process of trial and error. It is not simply a matter of stating facts and events in order, regardless of how interesting they are. There must be a theme or focus to the life story. Furthermore, trying to figure out how to weave two stories into one is similar to writing a short story or novel. As writers, we need to find joy in experimentation and the writing journey. It is important to stay patient and positive with our intuition. Eventually, life's important aspects, the story that is meant to be shared, will emerge.


THE WORK: Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal (Beaufort Books, 2007)

THE PROBLEM: How to build a memoir structure around a journal left from World War I.

THE SOLUTION: Author finds a way to weave two lives into one story by exploring parallels and differences.


Making it more than a diary


While creating Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal, I was given the challenge of how to weave two memoirs--my grandmother's journal and my discovery of her journal after her death--into a story with structure and flow between our two voices.

My grandmother's journal began:

I am a war child and here is my story. I was born an undesired
child, a girl added to two brothers. When my mother [Ethel], after
her delivery was told I was a girl, she fainted. When she came to
her senses, she said she would gladly kill me because of me being a
girl. She said she would have preferred six boys to one female,
because, she argued, a female suffered much in this world. I grew
up and quickly distinguished good from bad treatment.
My temptation was to transcribe the journal entries without including my voice. But if I did this, it would simply be my grandmother's diary and nothing more. I had to figure out how to weave two voices into one memoir.


To do this, I interjected my voice after segments of her journal entries. In this way I could share my reactions to and musings about what she said, developing my own story about our connection as well as the contrast between our lives. Here, for example, is what I wrote in response to the journal entry just quoted:

Reading my grandmother's journal I noticed how revealing she was
about her mother neither wanting nor loving her. From an early age,
my grandmother had an incredibly free spirit, and she exerted it
whenever the opportunity presented itself. I'll never know if that
spirit was a result of her not sensing motherly love or if it was
simply a part of her inborn personality. I speculate that it was a
combination of the two.

Because my grandmother didn't believe that her mother loved her,
she sought attention and adoration from other adults. She reached
out to those in her village by running errands and assisting them
with their chores. Later on in life, I believe that she transferred
this need for attention and love to my mother and me. By giving
herself completely, she received our love in return.

Diana M. Raab has written six books of nonfiction and poetry; her second memoir, Healing With Words, is due out in June. She teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. Web: Blog:

Source Citation
Raab, Diana M. "Two lives, and one secret journal: how a memoir writer struggled with the challenge of a dual story line." The Writer Mar. 2010: 36. General OneFile. Web. 17 Feb. 2010.
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