This memoir excerpt about discovering I was adopted was coincidentally published during November, which is National Adoption Awareness Month. The piece is also about the “secret mission” my adoptive father went on when I was ten years old.
If you’re reading this as an adult, you may already guess that the secret mission was not the heroic event I believed in as a child, but a story fabricated by adults to cover up a shame. Much as some adoptive parents (ncluding my own) kept adoptions secret to cover their shame at infertility or some other perceived inadequacy, the secret mission was a way of explaining a long absence. Hint: it invovled the FBI.
If you’re a writer who aims to be published, take heart from the publication of this essay. It was rejected at least 40 times before finally finding a home at Signal Mountain Review. From the time I first drafted it out in 2010 to this month’s publication, it went through many, many revisions. To some extent, getting published is about being tenacious and walking the fine line between believing in your own work and being willing to consider criticism.
November is National Adoption Awareness Month, which began in 1976 in Massachusetts to promote awareness of the need for adoptive families for children in foster care. While the “celebration” has continued to promote adoption from foster care, it’s also been co-opted by the for-profit adoption industry.
Every adoption begins with the breakdown of a family, and for this reason, a national celebration of adoption can bring up feelings of loss and alienation for adoptees and first parents. Adoption is complicated, and its effects are lifelong for everyone involved.
In my family, there’s a rich history of mothers giving up their children — most often to other family members, though. “Maternity Cave” is a story about how that history, and the tragedy of family breakdown, has played out for me and for one of my nieces.
Do readers earn the right to a snug, reassuring wrap up to a memoir? Must the narrative of a segment of a life (which is what a memoir is) unfailingly end neatly? And even if it seems to, neither we, nor the narrator, can know for example, if the recovering addict falls off the wagon the very day we sigh with satisfaction over the end of an addiction memoir.
I have to choose an endpoint, and maybe I should choose based on the memorableness of the end-point. So here goes with examples of how I might use image, action, and dialogue to conclude my memoir draft. Coming up with these examples may prove helpful, but right now they are just making me more indecisive.
My first instinct is to end on an image. In one scene from the middle of my current draft, I’m on the Tybee Island beach at night and the ocean has turned phosphorescent. My aunt starts telling the little kids that it’s magic fairies in the water, but my uncle starts explaining bioluminescence to them. When his wife objects, he says “They make their own damn light. Isn’t that magic enough?” I’d love to return to that image.
Writers are such vultures, by the way. Another reason I can’t decide is that events keep happening that make me think “This would be a great ending to my memoir!”
I have a very big family, and someone is always saying or doing something that relates to my themes of finding identity and figuring out what makes a family stick together.
Maybe dialogue would work. Like when I was with my nephew and two of my nieces just before Christmas. They had a playful argument about “whose story was best,” of the ones I’d written about each of them: Alan Michael, Theresa, and BeeBee.
The joking conversation they had touched me deeply. I’m very lucky that my family supports my writing unconditionally, even when they know I’m in vulture mode, thinking about how I can use something they’re saying or doing in a poem or essay. I could end the memoir with their dialogue about their stories!
Or maybe an action is how the memoir should end. I recently published a short piece with Shondaland about searching for an Elvis tapestry that belonged to the mother I never met. If I use that action — the searching — I might be able to slap that already-written-essay onto the end of of the 80,000+ words I’ve written so far. So tempting!
What are your thoughts — are stories best when all their loose ends are tied up? Or do you like some ambiguity at the end? What are some of the best endings you’ve read or written?
In writing memoir, one of the critical challenges is deciding what to leave out. I’ll use my current memoir project as an example. It’s about reuniting with my birth family, and how building relationships with them, especially my nieces, changed my identity.
A subplot of the identity theme is the question of who my father is. In trying to find that out, my half-sister, my aunt and I all spat in our own little tubes for a DNA test. A surprise result of that test was that my sister and I both had some African-American heritage.
If I stray from the paternity issue and include that information about race in the memoir, that opens up a whole new set of issues. My mother’s dark skin, her racism, her husband’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan, the true identity of her father, my siblings’ participation in forced integration in the South in the 1970’s, the diverse attitudes about race among my siblings, and on and on and on.
Oy. Every time I’m sure it’s best to leave the race issue out, I think of a reason why I should include it. If I don’t disclose it, I’m suppressing the truth that many American white people have African ancestors. If I don’t disclose it, I’m white-washing myself, “passing” as white as one or more of my ancestors must have done. If I don’t disclose it, I’m cheating the reader of another dimension of the story.
Opening a box often means opening another box.
Oy, oy, oy. I turned to Auntie Google for advice on what to leave in and what to leave out. Most of what I found was some variation on “leave out anything that doesn’t further your theme.”
Oy, oy, oy, oy, oy. Now I have to figure out what my memoir’s theme is.
Many memoirs have more than one theme, but if so, they are usually connected in some way. The main theme of my project is “Blood will out”: meeting my family in my thirties opened up greater understanding of my own identity. It also taught me a lot about family identity and family connections.
[Side note: themes are often clichés. That’s not a bad thing. A cliché gets to be cliché by being repeated — because it has some universal truth to it.]
If the memoir’s theme is about identity, then it seems I should cover all aspects of the DNA test, maybe even the Facebook chat I had today with one of my nieces about how her parents disapprove of her Honduran boyfriend, or her just-barely-teenage son’s African-American girlfriend.
And that’s another problem — figuring out where to end. Because we’re a colorful bunch, my identity and my family’s identity keeps changing. But that seems like a topic for another blog post. Heaven help me.
In the midst of fresh grief, or in the memory of grief, writing can be a way to move inward, and it can also be a way to come up for air.
Grief informs many memoirs, whether the writer is grieving the loss of a loved one, or the loss of health, or a lost innocence or a lost opportunity. In my current memoir project, the central grief is the loss of my mother, or, more accurately, the loss of the opportunity to meet my mother. We were separated by adoption when I was an infant, and she passed away just a year before I was able to find my family.
This past spring, the goal I set for myself was to finish a first-but-coherent draft of my memoir of reuniting with my birth family. It took an extra month for me to finish that draft, and the rest of the summer to revise it. It’s a bit over 80,000 words, most of which has been published as stand-alone essays.
My biggest challenge in combining these essays has been to locate the narrative arcs between the conflicts and the resolutions. Today, while working on revisions, I began to see the arc of my grief for my mother, which first cut into me when I learned I was adopted, and has never really ended.
Grief has an arc, but like most complex emotions, it often has more than one arc, and sometimes, one arc repeats in a story, over and over again. In writing about my family and how I fit with them, I learned that as each of my five brothers passed away, I relived all the regrets I had about not searching for my mother before she died. Those regrets, which began with my inaction or procrastination, sometimes resolved when I took a positive action. Sometimes they resolved in acceptance. And sometimes, a regret stuck, and didn’t resolve. These are all possible arcs.
But the main arc of my grief is my search for a ghost-woman who held me as a secret and who died young. I’ve found bits of her in the gestures and expressions I share with my siblings, in my own laughter, which they say mirrors hers, in the physical characteristics I see repeated in her grandchildren, and in our family’s legacy of addiction.
Will I ever find enough pieces of her to feel my search is complete? Probably not. I think this searching arc will keep repeating. Whenever I feel that I’ve found her, she slips away. Whenever I accept that we’ll never meet, I find myself denying that I ever missed her.
Maybe grief is an emotion that resists a narrative arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Real life happens chronologically, but memoirs and personal essays don’t have to. In fact, sometimes they shouldn’t if there’s some suspense or wisdom to be gained by juxtaposing events from various points in the past.
This technique is sometimes called using flashbacks. A more complex form of juxtaposing multiple times and threads is often called braiding.
Writers use several methods to alert readers to time changes in stories. The first involves simple signalling in phrases like “But ten years ago, I thought differently,” or “Two years before this event.”
A second method is to switch settings once you’ve already established a primary setting. An example might be found in a memoir about serving in the military in Vietnam. Whenever the writer flashes back to high school in America, we the readers will know that time has shifted too and that the high school is not in Vietnam.
Strong images or memorable characters associated with particular time periods can also serve as signals to the reader. A memoir that covers two marriages is one type of story that can use this technique, toggling back and forth between the two spouses or between two strong images like a granite fireplace in one marriage and a concrete swimming pool in another.
I’ve written a number of braided essays, and ironically that has made it difficult to compile them in my current memoir project, which is chronological. Maybe I should re-think that. But currently what I’m doing is chopping those essays up into their discrete times and threads in order to weave them back together in a chronological timeline.
One example of a braided essay that I’m currently chopping up is “Maternity Cave,” included in the March 2017 issue of Hippocampus. Like most of my publications, I worked on writing this piece for several years, and worked for even more years trying to figure out what the events in the story meant.
I don’t usually intend to braid different time periods, but it happens a lot. Every so often, a phrase or an image or a small event in daily life captures my attention as being connected to a phrase or image or event from the past. Those little a-ha moments are often the beginnings of my stories.
The maternity cave story begins in 2006 on a visit to a bat cave in Central Florida with my teenage niece Candi, where we saw thousands of little brown bats swirling up into the dusk, then it wiggles around in the 1990’s between my first marriage, my experience of infertility, and finding my birth family, and then it shoots ahead to a family picnic in 2016, when Candi is a grown woman with two children of her own. There was a moment at that picnic that lit up the past for me.
Memoirs and personal essays are time capsules, freezing us in a series of moments. But they can be time machines, too, taking us forward and backward, allowing us to grab on to the hindsight and foresight in someone else’s experiences, even when that sort of wisdom escapes us in our own lives.
Why shouldn’t we include photographs in memoirs? The only reason I can think of is that some (maybe many) publishers don’t want the hassle. Publishing images is more complex, more expensive than publishing text only. Unless, of course, you’re publishing on the internet.
That damn internet. It’s changing everything.
Some publishers are welcoming work that combines text and image. Some can be found in this list of cross-genre publishers curated by New Pages.
Here’s my attempt at a cross-genre piece combining photographs I took of trees with text about family trees.
Maybe it was me who doctored this photograph, trying to give it an heirloom appearance.
I see a “B” in this tree. Or maybe a “D,” or a sideways “A.”
Or a man, hanging face down with his arms extended, reaching for something on the ground.
Or a lizard with its tail curled up behind it. Or the predictable snake.
Or a tree, twisted by snow and ice, and the deaths of other trees, and by forces I cannot imagine, putting forth the predictable new growth in spring.
I leaned against trees, wrapped my arms around trees, swung from trees and hid in trees, and walked on limbs as if they were tightropes. I prayed to trees, I raged at trees. Far away, the half-brothers I now know cut trees down for very little pay.
In my private forest, which isn’t mine, but belongs to the town, I watch this tree, and the spiral of fungi around its trunk that curves around in question marks and other symbols. It might be my family tree: no hierarchy, no single ancestor, and certainly no single pattern.
This tree took the earth with it when it tipped over in a windthrow. It is the only tree in this quadrant that fell. Maybe another trauma, like heart rot fungus, affected its anchorage and prepared it to let go.The letting go starts a new creation story: a hole opens in the canopy, and sunlight pours down on the forest floor. Saplings stuck in the pole stage may wake up and start to grow gain.
New stories mean new names. The earth ripped up with the tree is now called a tip-up mound.
This tree has been dead for so long, you can see right through it in spots. How did that happen? I imagine the branches fell first, then the crown, and then the bark sloughed off like the skin of a snake, and then the core collapsed on itself. What’s left is a suggestion of the strong column it once was, a gesture toward how the column once spun upward in helix fashion.
What’s left of the tree has the pocked and scored look of the karst limestone under the ground around these parts. Maybe the tree has taken on some characteristics of the stone.
Even long dead, and even taking on other characteristics, the tree is still a tree.
So often, memoir includes writing about other people in our lives. How do we make those others come alive to readers?
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that in writing memoir, we should try to see ourselves as characters who have strengths, weaknesses, motivations. And that’s true for writing about others in our lives, too.
But if you’re like me, not everyone you write about in your memoir is a person you have only good feelings toward. In fact, we might feel resentment, rage, disappointment or even hate toward certain people who appear in our stories.
In my experience, it’s difficult to write well while experiencing negative emotions.
Also, if we write our negative feelings into these unpleasant other characters, two unfortunate things can happen to the memoir:
We, the writers, begin to sound unpleasant at best, or full of resentment at worst, both of which will turn most readers off.
The unpleasant others come across as one-dimensional, which is boring, especially if they occupy more than a very minor role in the story.
One solution to this difficulty of writing about unpleasant, disappointing, or toxic people is simply this: do not write about them. Cut them out of your story, just as you may have wished to cut them out of your life. You have the power. It’s your story, and no one else’s.
Another solution is to get in touch with the love you feel or felt for the person. See that person in your mind’s eye and imagine your heart opening. See the person as he was as a child. See the person as she was when you loved her most. See the person as a fellow struggler against suffering and despair.
Human relationships are so very complicated, and it’s so very possible to feel both love and hate for one person, even at the same time. And that is never boring.
When I reunited with my birth family nearly thirty years ago, I found I had five brothers and a sister. My brothers all suffered from addiction, and if you know anything about addiction, you know that it’s a family disease. Everyone in the family suffers. My feelings for my brothers were a mix of love, frustration, and even rage, especially when their addictions damaged their children.
Are you feeling bored yet? If not yet, you would become bored soon if I kept on in this vein. And you wouldn’t see my brothers as individuals; they’d become stereotypes.
My youngest brother, David, was the most severely addicted one. Here’s a scene I wrote while trying to touch the love I felt for him, even while he was at his weakest. In the scene, my sister Belinda and I are visiting him in the nursing home he’d been sent to when he was thirty-eight years old.
David’s nursing home allowed patients to smoke in one common room, and in a chain link fenced yard, so we’d bring him cigarettes, too. There was no point in denying him anything he wanted as his life inched toward its certain end, although we didn’t know how quickly that end would come.
I can still see him now in the chain link yard where we went to escape the air conditioning that was too much for all three of us. Wrapped in a thick sweater, he sat beside me and Belinda in his wheelchair with a lit cigarette in one hand, while pawing at Belinda’s arm with his other hand, saying, “Give me a cigarette, Belinda.”
The only thing left besides his restless cravings was his love for his sisters, and his daughter Brandi, and the rest of the family. The diabetes, the heart disease, and the years of active addiction had whittled him hollow, from the inside out.
Other men and women like David inhabited the nursing home, people who should have been in the prime of their lives, but whose brains and muscles and bones and nervous systems had been decimated by chronic drug use and the violence that so often comes with it. I’d expected beds full of frail little old great-grandmas and great-grandpas.
But instead, there were vacant-eyed people in their thirties and forties prowling the hallways like zombies. The man who’d lost a leg to an infection caused when he’d tried too hard to open up a collapsed vein to shoot heroin. The woman whose head had been bashed in by a john when she was out tricking for money for crack. The semi-comatose overdose victims.
An orderly was stationed in the smoking room to prevent fights, and to stop the stronger patients from taking advantage of the weaker ones like David. Belinda worried constantly, and I did too, but this place had been the only one that would take our brother.
When Brandi met us there one day with her newborn daughter Paris, she passed her baby to her father without any wariness. David held his granddaughter, looking at us all with a new wonder in his eyes, stronger than what he greeted me and Belinda with each time we visited as if to say “You came for me, for me, for me.” He cradled the baby gently as his muscle memory resurrected itself and all the fatherly tenderness he’d showered on Brandi returned.
Something in his peripheral vision distracted him, and he reached toward Belinda with one hand while still protecting Paris with his other arm. “I want a grape soda from the machine, Belinda, a grape soda.”
Sugar, and alcohol, and pain pills, and crack cocaine. Love had been enough to relieve him of his cravings for months at a time in the past, to keep him focused on his daughter without falling prey to distractions. But now, love didn’t work for but a few minutes.
Why have so many memoirs of recovering from addiction been published in the last fifteen years? I’d say it’s because addiction and recovery are significant issues for many contemporary families. In other words, those memoirs are personal stories touching on a big-picture issue. As such, they become more relatable for people who are concerned about those issues.
People read memoirs to identify and clarify their own stories, as well as for the beauty of language, the pull of story, or the memorable characters. Touching on significant issues in the context of a personal story helps to alleviate any “me, me, me, it’s all about me!” in a memoir, and it also makes the personal more universal. Or, to quote the second-wave feminist movements, it shows us that the personal is political.
Currently, I’ve divided my memoir draft in three sections. The bigger issue in the first section of my memoir is family separation and reunification. In the second section, it’s addiction’s impact on families. I haven’t figured out what it is in the third section, which so far covers the deaths of many family members, DNA testing, what happens when kids who were in foster care have kids of their own, and mass incarceration in the American prison system, among other things.
Maybe that’s a heads up for me that I’m covering too much ground in that third section.
Or maybe if I choose one significant issue, that can become my organizing principle for the third section.
But because I’ve had editors tell me (sometimes) that I sound like a bossypants, I know there’s a danger for me in deliberately exploring a significant issue in a memoir.
The danger in tying your story to a bigger issue is that you might fall into didacticism, better known as being a bossypants.
And no one likes a bossypants. So let’s say I decide the third section of my memoir is connected to the issue of mass incarceration. It’s tempting for me to haul out my old lawyer identity to argue against mass incarceration using evidence like studies showing how expensive it is, or international comparison statistics.
But my memoir is a personal story, not an editorial. Instead of taking the easy way out by arguing the evidence against mass incarceration, I have to rely on the details of the story.
So let’s see — how am I doing? What are your thoughts about the prison I describe in this scene from an essay about visiting my niece BeeBee at a women’s prison in Florida? Am I being a bossypants?
It was no place like home, but it was a place for families. They sat on metal benches in the processing room, waiting for their loved ones, hoping the next face would be the one they’d longed to see. As if to extend the suspense, the guards released inmates one by one through a gate in a chain-link cage. My niece BeeBee strutted out in a yellow t-shirt and chinos, and I stood up to hug her.
Like every woman I’ve ever known who’s done time, BeeBee had put on weight. This is usually a good thing; most women who get sentenced to prison have worked their bodies to the bone for drugs. When our hug ended, she stepped back and bounced on the balls of her feet like an athlete. Her thighs were thick with muscle and her arms were round, but her waist was still trim. When she lived on the outside, she’d made a living selling drugs and dancing in strip clubs; in prison, she made her way by winning dance challenges, and by winning fights.
We walked outside to the visiting area in the prison yard. Concrete tables squatted under a roof for shelter from the rain or the hot sun, but we didn’t need protection that day. The sky was clear, and the air was warming, but I already felt locked in and ready to leave.
Across the yard, on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, a massive concrete block building was going up, a construction project that wasn’t visible from the road. BeeBee told me it would be an addition to this women’s prison, and it looked as if it would be ten times as big as the current facility. The grapefruit I had for breakfast congealed in my gut, rose up, and burned my throat, as if I already knew that once construction was completed on this monster, it would rank as the largest women’s prison in the entire country.
Then she started talking about the times when I used to rent a beach house on Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia, and our whole family stayed together for a week. In those years, my nieces and nephews — eleven of them — were all children, running wild on the sand, rampaging through the ice cream parlor, and tearing up the rental house. I’d sometimes get the middle-class heebie-jeebies when they were too loud in a restaurant, or too daredevil on a playground, but mostly I sat back and admired their untamed joy.
How about you? What bigger issues do you grapple with in your memoir, whether it’s written or planned or somewhere inbetween?