Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Thoughts on Parched and Memoirs

Ladies, my home internet was finally set up -- in my own home, at my own desk. It feels like old times as I sit here typing with a baby on my lap (and she sits too; that's how long it's been).

My copy of Parched arrived before Christmas, but Darwin seized upon it first. Thus I first encountered it in the snippets I read over his shoulder. I saw Heather exploring her grandmother's house, then I next encountered her in seedy bars, then suddenly her family was staging an intervention, then she was singing in the kitchen of the rehab house, and these were all isolated vignettes. I found it hard to imagine how the threads would be connected: how, from the wondering child delighting in snooping around grandma's house, did she descend to the sad woman hunched in the living room being confronted with the damage her drunkenness had done her family?

He handed me the book at 11:30; I put it down at 2:45.

Perhaps it underscores my self-absorption, but I spent the rest of the night laying awake composing my own memoirs. Although her descent into the depths was hellish, I knew by the very fact that I was reading her published memoir that she came out all right. But it was the format of the memoir that intrigued me. Right at the beginning I was seized by the minor detail, underlining her family's borderline poverty, of how the children wore plastic bread bags in their boots to keep out the cold. Heather King and I don't have many points of similarity (I'm a very slow drinker, for starters, so I've never been drunk in my life), but at that moment I was transported back into my own childhood, in the kitchen of our trailer, sitting on the peeling sheet vinyl floor, as my mother fastened bread bags around our socks with big rubber bands before we wrestled on our snow boots -- something I'd forgotten; something my own children will never have to remember.

Of course the problem with memoirs is that they necessarily involve other people; people who are often still alive and may disagree with one's interpretation of their actions or motivations. There are many episodes in my own life I wouldn't put into print until my mother was dead; I wondered how Heather King's family, and her mother, in particular, felt about her book. Did her mom feel that she'd been unaffectionate? Would she say that Heather was making a big deal out of nothing? I ask honestly; I loved the early family sections because family life is so universal that even without being like my own family (now or then) many sections rang true and clear. I don't have a similar paradigm for drunkenness.

I've been reading Heather's blog, Shirt of Flame; I wonder if we might contact her and ask her to comment over here on our reading of Parched. (Betty, you'd enjoy her current post, which includes a fine dissection of Jonathan Franzen.)


BettyDuffy said...

Oooh, I read the Franzen comments this morning. Love it when my beefs are affirmed by people I admire. Though I was a little nervous when she was talking about how only people who live the Gospels can create good art--until she clarified that she didn't mean living a moral code necessarily, but embracing suffering. At first, I was mentally calculating all the writers and artists whose work I admire, who would be excluded from her definition, and it made me feel a little frantic (Please don't flush Tolstoy!--and she didn't, so everything was ok again.).

Anyway, I hope you do write your Memoirs, Mrs. D. There's no reason to put off the writing--just the publishing.

Enbrethiliel said...


Betty: That "embracing suffering" part reminded me of an old observation by Barb Nicolosi. She had wondered why some of her favourite artists in the world were such notorious sinners--and whether an intimate knowledge of sin is necessary to good art. Then she realised that something else they had in common was an intimate knowledge of suffering. (I paraphrase, of course.)

MrsDarwin: I had a similar "laying awake" experience after reading The Liars' Club!


Hi there folks--please know how honored I am that you read Parched, and how gratified I am that you liked it (I think)...For me, the story of a drunk who gets sober is a death and resurrection story, and death and resurrection is the deepest, most interesting, most ever-astonishing story possible.

I've been reflecting lately upon the trajectory of the story of Christ in the Gospels: a very long lead-in to the Passion, then the Passion, then the fairly short "description" of the patchy, ephemeral, now-you-see-it, now-you-don't Resurrection. The Resurrection is inherent in the way the story is told. No victimhood, no whining, no anger, no blaming, no reproach, no glamorization of evil, no melodrama made out of (though no diminishing of either) Christ's own suffering. And I think that same trajectory, and that same approach, is what makes for a good memoir. If ever there was hero, it is Christ, but even for Christ, the focus was on the Father, and the Father's glory, not on him.

I agonized long and hard over the family member aspect of the book. One brother asked to be taken out completely, and when I talked to the lawyer from the publishing house (who goes over the memoir with a fine-toothed comb) I was shocked when he at one point asked: "Is there any chance that your mother would sue you?" I said, "WHY?" And the passage he quoted was the (obviously exaggerated for comic effect) one where I described my friend coming over for supper and my mother serving everybody a teaspoon of mashed potatoes and three peas! Which could apparently "damage her reputation in the community."

I replied, "Truth is an absolute defense to a slander claim and I have seven brothers and sisters who would take the stand and say it was more like TWO peas"...

But seriously, my mother loved the book, or said she did. I had a reading in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, next to the town where I grew up, and the whole family, or those who lived in the area, came. After all, I dedicated the book to my parents, profusely thanked them, gave my mother credit for saving my life, and took full responsibility for my actions during and after drinking. But it's true that different family members have a very different view of, and very different experiences of and interpretations of the same event. So I have been very careful in writing about my family, and in fact have hardly done so at all, since...

Thanks again, and here’s to more good reading, and true writing,