(Photo by Bob Karp, www.bobkarpphotos.com)
Today journalist, writing teacher, author, and activist Lorraine Ash joins us to discuss one of the great challenges of writing a memoir: examining an often-painful experience both honestly, and engagingly. She’s got a busy schedule, but has agreed to stop by from time to time and answer questions. If you’d like to ask her something, comment, or just say ‘hi,’ she’d love to hear from you.
Q: What prompted you to not just write privately about your experience, but to seek publication?
Lorraine: Life Touches Life is a spiritual memoir, a genre that works on two levels. First, the writer is healed by the connections made, sometimes in the act of writing. Perhaps an emotion hooks up with a new thought, or part of an experience juxtaposes with a particular reflection. Then, voilà. An epiphany bursts into existence on the page, or the author draws a larger circle of context around the subject matter. Either one can make all the difference in shifting her consciousness. That shift equals healing and often wisdom.
What comes to mind is an exquisite passage from Drinking: A Love Story, a memoir by the late Caroline Knapp. She recalls sitting in the hospital with her ill father when he looks up and says, “Insight is almost always a rearrangement of fact.” The quote flies its way into her mind during her darkest hour and she writes:
As I sat in Michael’s kitchen that morning, reading Esquire and feeling so paralyzed, I remembered those words. A rearrangement of fact.
Fact One: I drank too much.
Fact Two: I was desperately unhappy.
I had always thought: I drink because I’m unhappy. Just then, I shifted the equation, rearranged the words: Maybe, just maybe, I’m unhappy because I drink.
I love how that epiphany happens mundanely, almost incidentally, and changes her life.
Now for the second level on which a spiritual memoir works. Often such a book is a gift of presence to readers often grappling alone with the same subject matter in particular or in general. For instance, though bereaved mothers of infants are mainly the readers of Life Touches Life, the book also is meaningful to others who know large griefs that may subside and morph over time but never go away. I’m talking about addicts, veterans and cancer patients.
There’s another reason, though, that I sought publication for Life Touches Life and it deals with the nature of stillbirth. Stillborn babies never were part of the social order and generally were seen, often for mere minutes, only by their parents. So these babies are literally invisible. Culturally speaking, whatever is invisible is easy to forget or ignore. By definition, stillborn babies also are voiceless. Politically speaking, whoever has no voice wields no power.
A book, however, is a physical presence in the world. It travels. It raises consciousness. Its existence helps to gain acknowledgment for the pain of stillbirth parents, which often is minimized and always misunderstood, and to gain attention for the importance of funding medical research that may one day prevent some stillbirths.
On a personal level, I must add, there was and is profound healing in being able to hold in my hand the story of Victoria. For an entire lifetime, after all, I cannot hold Victoria.
Q: Did you have second thoughts about going public about something that touches so close to the bone?
Lorraine: No. Topics that touch close to the bone are the ones most worth writing about. Ernest Hemingway once said you have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. He is correct.
Q: What sorts of considerations played into the way you told your story?
Lorraine: There were a few self-imposed rules I followed.
My first rule, which probably comes from my decades of experience in journalism, was to start the story by simply telling what happened. It’s a great rule, especially if what happened isn’t simple. Powerful experiences of all types speak for themselves and somehow embellishment and the insertion of extra emotional language detracts from their power.
Here’s an example. As a young reporter, I covered the appearance of the Dalai Lama. I was filled with reverence to talk to him and, frankly, even to look into his eyes. When I returned to the newsroom, I wrote nine leads and had trouble continuing. No lead seemed adequate to capture the emotion of the story. I was paralyzed by my desire to make the reader feel the story – not just see and hear it. Yet it was just the seeing and the hearing that had inspired me.
I’m not sure what would have happened that day if an old-time city editor hadn’t looked over my shoulder to see how the story was coming along. He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Just write what happened.” I did, and it worked.
My second rule: Don’t protect the readers from the fullness of the experience. To leave out pivotal parts for fear of scaring or overwhelming them would have diluted their experience of my experience. Why is that bad? Because it’s untruthful. If an author is not going to write the truth and bear full witness to whatever corner of the world in which fate has placed her, why write at all? Also, readers intuitively sense when they are being protected, which can lead them to distrust the author. Once that happens, the spell between author and reader is broken.
My third rule: No self-pity. If a writer feels this emotion, it’s important to process it, perhaps in a journal, before it spills into the text of the book. Some readers, including mine, will pick up a book to get themselves out of a self-pitying emotional loop.
Q: We’ve been talking about what makes a story that’s “worth the telling” into a story that’s “worth the hearing (or reading).” What do you think it is about your story that makes it “worth the hearing” for so many?
Lorraine: The story has the inherent value of opening a window into a corner of the human experience that most people will never see.
Also, though, it is a story of the triumph of the divine spirit that resides inside every human being. No one expressed interest in the book when it was titled Life Touches Life: A Mother’s Story of Stillbirth. Publishers started reading the book and entertaining the idea of releasing it after I changed the title to Life Touches Life: A Mother’s Story of Stillbirth and Healing. The “healing” part bespeaks a resolution and suggests pulling something positive out of something dreadfully negative.
The truth is that the death of an infant is one of the worst fates to befall a human being. The promise of the book, however, is that the divine light can shine even into that dark place. If that’s not a message worth hearing, I don’t what is.
Q: How did you balance the need to be true to your experience with the need to tell your story in a reader-sensitive way?
Lorraine: While giving the readers the fullness of the experience is important, it’s equally necessary to regulate the intensity of the narrative by rolling out the experience in pieces. For instance, break up an intense scene with a calm moment or reflective prose. Presenting too much closeup action too fast can make a great story read like melodrama. It also can overload the readers’ proverbial circuits and even confuse them.
Another way to be sensitive to readers is to make one of the threads in a memoir purely educational. It’s a mistake for an author to assume all readers know a great deal about the subject. For instance, many people believe stillbirth does not happen today. They think it’s something from a Charles Dickens novel, an unfortunate fate that befell people in times gone by when medicine wasn’t sophisticated enough to save babies. Not so. Today 26,000 American babies a year are lost to stillbirth, which means they die after at least 20 weeks gestation. Worldwide, the number is four million. Staggering.
So I infused my narrative with facts to enlighten the average person and let them know stillbirth happens to women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, even those with top-notch medical care. I educate them about Group B Strep, the infection that killed my daughter and almost took my life. I educate them about other causes of stillbirth, too. I unroll information as my own story advances, which also lets readers know I’m not one woman who had a freak experience.
Recently I read Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria, a memoir by Jennifer Traig, who did a superb job of broadening the appeal of her story by offering splashes of information about hypochondria and how it was treated during different historic eras. Traig also brought the theme into the present by pointing out that so-called “symptom finders” on the Internet have helped increase the incidence of hypochondria in the twenty-first century. This new development in the history of the disorder is called cyberchondria.
The interesting information – and the author’s humor – give Traig’s readers a break from the sometimes disgusting disease-oriented obsessions that filled her mind for most of her life. Her readers won’t understand her obsessions if she doesn’t state them. So she does, but not without mitigating them.
Q: How did you go about finding the right publisher for your memoir?
Lorraine: The search for a publisher, or editor, is the search for a single individual who “gets” the story and feels at least one aspect of it with conviction. At first I was represented with a particularly communicative and gracious agent who interested a number of editors at various publishing houses in the story. But none felt the level of conviction required.
Eventually, I took the book back and approached individual independent publishing houses. I selected them based on the feeling I got when surfing their websites. When I found NewSage Press in Oregon, I sensed both compassion, courage and intelligence in the selection of the titles and the treatment of the subjects.
I’ll never forget what Maureen Michelson, editor and publisher at NewSage Press, said in our first conversation. “Stillbirth is just another woman’s story that hasn’t been told,” she said, “and I’m in business to tell those stories.” So there was the fire of conviction that sparked the book’s journey.
Turns out, it’s a long and ongoing journey. Readers of Life Touches Life come from across the United States as well as from the Middle East, Australia, Europe, China, Canada and Mexico.
Q: Looking back, are there things you’d do differently if you were writing LTL now?
Lorraine: I’d make an outline before starting to write.
Q: What sorts of responses have you gotten to LTL?
Lorraine: By this point I must have received some 800 personal letters from individual stillbirth mothers. The vast majority fully enter the spiritual place the book opens to them. They like the peace that comes with maintaining a spiritual relationship with their deceased children, which is one of the themes of Life Touches Life. What pleases me especially is that I receive letters from mothers of all religious and spiritual persuasions and they all report resonating with the spirituality of the book which, like its author, draws upon the wisdom of many traditions.
The bereaved mothers also feel their emotions are validated by the book. The validation is key because most women report they do not find it elsewhere.
Some mothers, mostly those who do not live in metropolitan areas of the United States, also write me asking questions about what happened to them. Here’s an example: I recently received an 11-page handwritten note on yellow legal paper from a 25-year-old cosmetician in a Southern state telling me about her experience losing her son in an umbilical cord accident. She was obviously unaware of a huge body of research and resources available on this topic, so I wrote back to her with information that could truly help her in her next pregnancy. Of course, she and I also related fully on emotional issues as well.
Other reactions to my book come from nurses, social workers and therapists who are enthused about having a story to put in the hands of their patients whose lives have been touched by stillbirths. A sizable excerpt and photograph from the book are featured in the seminal textbook used to train nurses in the United States; they appeared and remain in the first edition to include a chapter on caring for patients who have endured a perinatal loss.
I’ve been approached by bereaved parental groups in several states to make presentations on writing for the purpose of healing. I’ve been asked to endorse some ten other books about stillbirth and write the foreword for one – Mourning Sarah by Theresa Huttlinger Vigour, which was released in the United States and United Kingdom. Sometimes, believe it or not, bloggers ask for interviews, too.
Now a word about my response to my readers. I’ll put it this way: I love them. I’ve learned in the almost seven years that Life Touches Life has been available that my patience with and passion for stillbirth mothers is actually boundless.
Q: How did you go about marketing it?
Lorraine: During my years-long book tour I’ve spoken at more book signings, “walks to remember,” and hospitals than I can remember. I’ve done lots of radio, magazine and newspaper interviews and talked in person to numerous Compassionate Friends groups – from local chapters to the national conference in Michigan.
I’ve met at small gatherings of bereaved parents in living rooms and churches and, on one occasion, around the dining room table at a Victorian bed-and-breadfast in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
These scenes from my tour should help you capture its scope and nature. I recall:
► Reading to 500 people in Las Vegas during an outdoor event that opened an international conference on perinatal grief. The mountains that surrounded us seemed endless and, as evening fell, the scene was illuminated by hundreds of candles floating in pools of water;
► Walking the halls of Congress with a contingent of lobbyists during First Candle’s Advocacy Day for Infant Survival. We made a case for funding stillbirth research. At each Congressional office I gifted a copy of Life Touches Life to every senator and representative who met with us;
► Hugging a particular woman at my table during the Missing GRACE Foundation conference in Minnesota. Later she wrote to me that she considered that hug a kind welcome into the club of stillbirth mothers, a club she never wanted to join;
► Preparing for the television cameras at News 12 New Jersey, where I was interviewed for a half-hour segment on stillbirth that had my phone ringing for months.
Q: How has your life changed as a result of writing this book?
Lorraine: There is an unspeakable and deep confidence and satisfaction that comes from writing one’s own story. In my 29 years as a journalist, I’ve chronicled hundreds of other people’s stories and, oh, how I love that.
But my own stories are the only ones I can tell from the inside out. To do so is to clean out the psyche, to deepen oneself, to pull compassion and wisdom from pain and adversity. There is nothing like that feeling and from it springs more writing and the desire to help others write their own stories and witness their corners of existence.
I teach memoir a lot now. With every weekend retreat, with every afternoon workshop, my love for memoir grows.
Writing is magic. For the self and for the culture, it is the ultimate alchemy.