Twelve years ago, I worked as an assistant to a geriatric physician in academia. He was a Freud lookalike and a very kind man who took many naps in the course of a workday. He had very few patients and mostly had the need to escape his wife in the day. My workload became minimal. Let’s just be honest and say there was NO workload. So, I had a brainstorm that would keep me busy for a semester. It was time I put the literary fodder I collected from owning a dysfunctional family to work and put it on paper.
I did have experience writing business articles for a local newspaper in my hometown, but describing food in a diner compared to depicting my Viennese family whose snobbery and superiority were outmatched only by their neurosis was a huge writing challenge. Because my book is a memoir, I had to have a very unique, strong voice as I aged and morphed into a different personality in each chapter. This is not so easy when you must put on your 5-year-old thinking cap. How you speak and think has to be translated on the page meaning you must be your authentic child self. No matter how embarrassing you think it may be, be yourself and not fake.
I like to inject my first-person voice because I am both the narrator and character in the story. The first-person point of view gives us an intimate look at the characters and is used in many autobiographies and memoirs. I feel like I am giving credibility to my story by taking on certain voices. When I wrote in a child’s voice during my first few chapters, I had to remember that a child’s dialogue is unreliable, exaggerated, and uses slang and sentence fragments. I found this to be lots of fun. It was so challenging, what with being an only child and not around children at this time in my life. Finding voice is also a very cathartic experience and capable of bringing on negative memories. So fasten your seat belt while going down memory lane, it’s a bumpy ride, but it can be a very cleansing experience for the soul.
As you write, stay true to your character. My age changed throughout my book, but I wanted to stay true to who I really am. There are some things in childhood we carry on to adulthood. If we had a case of shyness as a child, there would be bits and pieces of that memory left in our personality. It is who we are, and we are all different. It’s necessary to be brutally truthful in a memoir. And while I could not possibly remember details of conversations in my life, the characters helped me bring to fruition the voice communications. The how or why surfaced in different ways in order to pull the reader into my life. Of course, I want the reader to not be able to put my book down but realistically I would like to keep them as mesmerized as possible.
As I continued writing my memoir, I found myself in the middle of many emotional family upheavals and it was amazing how many uncomfortable memories still existed in my brain. By choice, I had to be honest about every character and about how I felt. There are emotional consequences to writing a memoir and at times when the characters jumped off the pages, I had to put on the brakes and stay away from writing for a few days. It was a writing sabbatical for me. You must take care of yourself before you go any further. If I am a writer, I must share my real-world view and all that surrounded me. Not an easy task, and I did not find peace until the very ending. Portray your characters just as you see them. You are not doing revenge writing at all. For me, I wanted to deliver my unique, dysfunctional family to others so that they know they can survive a train wreck of a life by laughing all the way to sanity. My personal intent was to turn negative events inside out with humor.
The only research I had in memoir writing was looking at family photos and talking to people who remembered my family. It is amazing how photos can trigger thoughts you felt were forgotten. A childhood photo can also help you in finding that inner child voice for your writing. You look at the picture of a place and it helps you remember how you felt. This is all ammunition toward being an authentic writer. Our memories are unique to us and belong only to us. I focused on telling my story, with and without the scabs of my life. I trusted myself, there was no self-doubt and no matter how painful some chapters were, they helped me find and express my personal truth. If I can help one person who reads my book know that surviving a dysfunctional family is possible, then I have accomplished the most important task in my life.