On Making Memoir, Finishing a Chapter and Trying on Mid-Size Queen
“Makers of memoir shape what they have lived and what they have seen. They honor what they love and defend what they believe. They dwell with ideas and language and with themselves, countering complexity with clarity and manipulating (for the sake of seeing) time. They locate stories inside the contradictions of their lives—the false starts and the presumed victories, the epiphanies that rub themselves raw nearly as soon as they are started. They write the stories once; they write them several times.”
— Beth Kephart, “Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir”
“But nobody I know who’s written a great one described it as anything less than a major-league shit-eating contest. Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved.”
— Mary Karr, “The Art of Memoir”
I do a lot of reading. As an author, editor, marketer and former journalist, that’s probably not surprising. It’s not all high-brow either. My guilty pleasure is the Daily Mail UK, which I balance out with (maybe, depending on your views) the New York Times.
Right now, since I’m contributing a chapter to a multi-author book publishing this spring and writing my own memoir, I’m spending a lot of time reading memoir and reading about the craft of writing memoir. It’s been a lot of fun to see how many different ways there are to slice and dice personal narrative. I’ve included a few of those reads below.
This week, I turned in my first draft for “Show Your Work: Successful Women Share the Bumpy Roads to Their Biggest Wins,” and I’m doing an itty-bitty happy dance. I’ve gotta say, it’s been wonderful to have a tribe of women going through this experience with me, even if it’s virtually. Having that extra support and encouragement each week has made the experience of putting myself out there a little less scary.
I’ve struggled a lot with what story or stories to tell, how much to reveal, what to conceal and how to craft a story that reflects the message I’m trying to convey. There are so many themes to my chapter — survival, resilience, making tough decisions and overcoming obstacles. Ultimately, my story is about recognizing that in order to save myself, I had to be willing to be vulnerable and let go of the expectations I had for myself and my body.
“Show Your Work” will be released April 11. We need all the support we can get for this project. If you’d like more information, please check out my author website and sign up for updates!
Interesting Reads from the Last Two Weeks
As mentioned above, here is a small snippet of what I’ve been reading the last couple of weeks.
“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls
I downloaded a sample because I was looking for memoirs with great opening hooks. This one did not disappoint. I had read Walls’ novel “The Silver Star” a few years ago but had not explored any of her other works, including this memoir. The hardcover spent 260 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list and the paperback spent 440 weeks there. The writing and storytelling is provocative, gripping and raw.
I got to the end of the sample and wanted to keep going, but instead I went down another rabbit hole (very common for me) and Googled the author to find out more about her and what she’s up to now and learned the book had been made into a movie (I spent a lot of my life under a rock) starring Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson, whom Walls said nailed her father so well it was scary. After dinner that evening, I tried to get my kids onboard with watching it. My oldest daughter stuck around for the first 10 minutes and then told me she has already seen too much abuse and manipulation of children in the opening scenes and couldn’t handle anymore. I stayed for the end and then read more of her interviews, including this New York Times piece, “How Jeannette Walls Spins Good Stories Out of Bad Memories.” Also, what a headline!
There were so many elements of this story that hit so close to home. I had a particularly hard time watching the scenes of the young Jeannette begging her father in one form or another. I haven’t gone back to finish the book, but it’s still calling me.
“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanith
Another best-selling memoir and emotionally difficult read, this is a more esoteric approach to memoir. Kalanith was a Stanford neurosurgeon already grappling with the meaning of life when he discovered he had stage IV lung cancer. I had myself a nice big cry when I got to the end.
“The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr and “Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir” by Beth Kephart
There’s no sugar coating it, writing memoir is its own form of self-torture. I think that’s why I’ve been so drawn to it.
Both of these were highly recommended reads on the process of writing memoir. I wanted to understand the mechanics of writing memoir and to answer some practical questions. How much of the personal do you reveal? How do you reveal truths that involve other people, often your own flesh and blood? How much of memoir must be verifiable facts versus perception of what happened?
Small Fat, Mid-Size Queen … Learning the Lingo
Since I started down the path of no longer pursuing weight loss, I’ve had a lot of learning to do. At first, most of it was personal. I had to unlearn all of the crap I had put myself through. And I’m still going through that education. But I’m now in a place where I can start looking beyond myself. I guess you could say I’m at the intersection between the personal and popular culture.
Until these last few months, I pretty much ignored the body positivity movement. I applauded the idea of body acceptance, but it didn’t apply to me. I saw it as something other people were doing. I was in such big-time denial about my body and the size it could naturally be and just thought I just wasn’t working hard enough. Now I’m seeing there is so much overlap between the intuitive eating, body positivity and Health at Every Size movements, and it’s been eye opening to learn about the systemic discrimination of those living in larger bodies. Even in my larger body, I am still on the smaller side and as such enjoy privileges that people in much bigger bodies don’t. A few weeks ago, I discovered there is a name within the plus-sized community for people like me who can still sometimes pass as “straight” … as in wearing straight sizes. Small fat.
And this week, I learned another label that could apply to me. Mid-size queen. By the way, this label, which has been trending on TikTok, is for someone who falls within mid-size fashion, anywhere from sizes 10 to 16 or sometimes 8 to 16. That’s quite a range. Many would argue the lower end of this belongs to people who are normatively thin (but probably don’t think they are thin enough). Most of the women I know are in this category, which largely I think reflects my age and socioeconomic background. So I guess we’re all queens. I wanna love it. It sounds empowering. But is that empowerment coming at the expense of those who are larger? Virginia Sole-Smith explores the mid-size queen, what she symbolizes and what she stands for.
Finally, in my junk reading on the Daily Mail UK, I came across an article about plus-size influencer Remi Bader, who wrote a personal essay for the Cut talking about her discomfort with being the poster child for the body positivity movement. Bader says she’s faced backlash within the body positivity movement because she’s not plus enough and because she openly talks about not always loving her body.
That’s a lot of pressure.
Many of my concerns in the early months of rejecting diets were around my body image. I had made all of this progress in letting go of food rules and diet culture, but I didn’t like my larger body, much less love it, and I wasn’t sure I ever would. I shared my concerns with my therapist, and she assured me that we were working toward body neutrality not body positivity. That’s a more reasonable goal. As time has passed, a lot of my initial panic about my changing body is now gone, but there are still days of struggle. I could write an entire post about how I felt about my body yesterday, and it would still be conflicted. But one major improvement in my life is that my self-worth is less tied to my self-image. That tie is probably not 100% gone, but it’s much much less pronounced. And I do feel the more I can decouple self-worth from self-image, the happier I will be long-term. But still … how I feel about myself, how you feel about yourself, how Remi Bader feels about herself, they are our individual prerogatives.
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