My Story

being-investigated-by-child-protective-services-missruthelias-com

The second time that social workers turned up in my life, I was between the ages of seven and nine. I barely remember their visit except that they too surveyed the whole house and counted the beds. By this point, we had left Bayamon, the city in which we’d settled after moving to Puerto Rico, and had gone to Naguabo, a seaside town on the eastern side of the island.

Our family had grown in Bayamon. My siblings and I now numbered eight, and my father had a new wife too. B, as I’ll call her. She joined our family in 1999, sometime before that first visit from the social workers.

Our new home was beautiful. We called it the Green House. Our new neighborhood was beautiful, too – full of mansions and manicured lawns. Our neighbors were elitists, well-off, and clearly taken aback by the newcomers.

My father wasted no time setting up his ad boards – one for the front lawn, and a plethora of others for our car, a Ford minivan which we’d gotten in Bayamon just before moving. Our neighbors took offense at the ad boards and took it to the neighborhood council. They insisted he take them down. In the spirit of peacemaking, he did take down the one on the front lawn – but our car was another story. This was where much of our business came from, and my father was working to support a family of twelve.

Other complaints concerned the number of people he was allowed to have over at one time. Being both a salesman and a distributor, my father enjoyed hosting house meetings. This was soon outlawed as well.

We tried to make friends and succeeded in some cases. The couple across the street took a liking to us. The grandparents up the road had a granddaughter a couple of years older than us, and they allowed us to play with her. Another couple – a military family – was American. They had two daughters our age as well, and we quickly befriended them.

No matter how hard we tried, though, there was no softening the older couple that lived two houses up from ours. They didn’t want us there. And when their attempts at sabotaging our business didn’t go anywhere, they too called the Family Department.

I think its important to point out that the complaints these neighbors were making had nothing to do with suspected abuse. Every neighbor in that urbanization had the opportunity to observe us on a somewhat regular basis (we spent hours walking the neighborhood and riding our bikes) and no one was placing calls about bruises or broken bones. So what crimes were being committed? Was this not a free country?

At times, I think its necessary to take this kind of black and white approach, especially when we are confronted by things we don’t understand. Unfortunately, there are not many people who will prayerfully consider a matter according to the Bible’s standards, and these people should at least have the courtesy to remember that ours is a free land, where every man, woman, and child has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is not our job, nor is it our right, to determine the quality of our neighbor’s life based on our own uninformed prejudices. 

But back to the story.

The chief complaint, we suspected, was from the woman. She said that our lifestyle was affecting them so much so that her husband wanted another wife himself. Other complaints included our not attending school (no one seemed very familiar with the concept of homeschooling, unfortunately) and there not being enough beds. Having never been inside our house, they could have only hoped they guessed correctly.

They must have been very desperate for the Family Department to investigate.

The social workers came. They inspected our home. They counted a surplus of beds. They questioned my father. They left, coming to the same conclusion the other social workers had, that the complaints were unfounded.

“The children weren’t being mistreated or neglected and the Family Department could not take a position opposing the family’s religious beliefs: they were obligated to respect them.” This was the written conclusion of the third investigation that my family was subjected to.

Because there was a first, though I haven’t mentioned it. The first was when I was a baby, before we left New York. A former friend had called CPS when J’s pregnancy with my first half-sister became known. There were social workers involved, I am told, but I remember nothing of the event. I don’t usually count it since it didn’t take place in Puerto Rico.

The second was in Bayamon.

This was the third.

All three had come to the same conclusion.

All three would be ignored in the end.


Previous posts in this series:

» The Truth about the Family Department: Rescuers or Kidnappers?

» Moving to Puerto Rico

My Story

Moving to Puerto Rico | telling my story series | Ruth, Writer missruthelias.com

In Latino communities, the term “gringo” isn’t necessarily derogatory….. It’s what they, the Latinos, call the Americans – the outsiders, the white folks with their bad Spanish accents.

It’s what they called us, when I finally got old enough to pay attention.

I was born in New York to a Latino father and an Irish-Italian mother. I already had an older sister, Esther, and two half-siblings from my father’s previous marriage. And another half-sister on the way.

My father’s simultaneous marriage with J, as we’ll call her, was what the world today calls polygamy. It’s the one topic I have avoided writing about on this blog and it’s one I am hesitant to address even now.

We are not Mormon – gather from that admission what you will. They – my parents and J – simply obeyed the call they felt the Lord was making on their lives. With this call – as with most calls the Lord makes, I would think – came the loss of man’s good opinion. It came with much persecution and censure. It came with much suffering. It is the undercurrent to nearly every event that has transpired in my life. Easily understood? Never. Of great responsibility? Always. But Jesus Christ has been the center and the mainstay.

I think when people first hear about my family, they might wonder what rock we climbed out of under. Do people outside of the openly Mormon Sister Wives still live like that? It seems both too strange and too antiquated of a concept to fit into today’s society. And I get it. I do. I will say this, however, that nothing about my family seemed strange to me until I got old enough to notice how strange it was to other people. This was around the same time that I caught on to the gringo label.

My younger half-sister and I would tell people we were twins when we were little – it saved us the difficult task of explaining that yes, we were only eight months apart, and yes, we had the same father, and yes, we grew up together, but no, we had different mothers… Being that my father was a distributor for a multilevel marketing company, we were always around people – but not everybody knew. Though a great deal suspected, I’m sure. The neighbors who would eventually wind up calling social services on us certainly did.

When we left New York to settle down in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, I was just under two years old. I don’t remember the snow-lined, sooty streets of New York City or the small, wallpapered apartment where I learned to take my first steps. But I remember the burning sun that baked the streets of our new neighborhood, the heat of the sidewalk beneath my bare toes, and the long walks to the supermarket to get our groceries before we could get a car.

Our life, in the late 90s and early 00s, was relatively normal. My childhood was idyllic compared to other kids – especially the kinds of kids I’d get to know as I got older. We were homeschooled. My dad worked from home. We weren’t well-off but we had enough to get by. My sisters and I shared a room; my mother had her own, which she shared with the little girl who came along soon after our arrival to Puerto Rico; J had her bedroom with her newborn boy; and my father had his own. We were a small but well-functioning family. Both my mother and J were in their twenties – young, bright-eyed, and intelligent. My mom handled the groceries; J supervised our preschooling. My father knew Spanish and my mother and “step-mother” picked up on enough of it to handle small talk. We played at the local playground and took plenty of walks to keep ourselves busy. We made a few friends in the neighborhood – one even undertook the task of teaching J how to make proper arroz con gandules.

As a kid, my world was full of books and games and movies and the occasional loud-mouthed child that raced through my house – ours to entertain while my father pitched healthcare products to their parents. Occasionally, that world contained business meetings in lavish hotels back-dropped by glittering casinos and scores of well-dressed customers. Other times it was not so glamorous – we went a month without electricity when I was about six because of a backed-up bill we’d been unable to pay.

Our neighborhood was suburban and jammed between another, fully crowded urbanization and the bustling, over-packed city of Bayamon. We lived next door to a well-to-do dentist and across the street from a middle-aged couple that gave us the kinds of sideway glares reserved for brothels. We got our fruit from street-side vendors and spent our spare quarters on limbers.

And yet, there was no doubt about it – we were the outsiders, the weird Americans, the gringos. And we weren’t like everybody else. We were a gaggle of little girls and a solitary boy – a sweet, wide-eyed, fragile tot – a dad, and two moms. And our incredulous neighbors weren’t having it.

And so, sometime in the middle of 1999, I met my first social workers.

My Story

announcement (3)

Like I wrote in my Announcement post, I’ve been looking at my blog and reevaluating why I’m here and what my goals are.

And the truth is, I think I started blogging for the wrong reasons.

When I finished my memoir last year, I naively thought it would be as simply as printing out my manuscript and shipping it off to the big publishing houses. Surely they would appreciate the compelling story it contained and agree on publishing it. When I actually started looking into the process of publication, I realized that it isn’t as simple as that.

So I decided to learn as much as I could about it. I did a ton of research. I read articles. I talked to different people. I studied a publishing program kit. And everywhere, everyone was saying the same thing. Build your platform. Your message, your story, everything about you, is essentially pointless if you don’t have a following to share it with.

I was told that unless I built this following, unless I attracted an audience, no publisher would be interested in my book.

With this daunting knowledge weighing upon me, I hurried to set up my social media sites. I started a blog on Blogger. With the sense that I had already wasted years of potential audience-building in my ignorance, I felt like I was in a race against time.

All I succeeded in doing was overwhelming the life out of myself.

And I mean that literally. The creative force and inspiration that had aforetime spurred my love of writing withered and died. It became all about the numbers. Once, I had enjoyed blogging. I had been a part of a blog as a teenager for a fitness group. I had blogged regularly and loved it. But not anymore.

On my Facebook page, I would often joke about my spinning head and splitting headache because I was so overwhelmed all the time with trying to make everything work right from the get-go. I had no room left to enjoy the process. It was a chore. A requirement. A job. And when I look back at my old posts, I see that reflected in my writing.

The worst part was, I felt like I fraud. I wanted to write more about my struggle with blogging than actually blog. (And I do realize this is ironic given the current subject material of this post – bear with me.) An element that kind of robs from the over-all magic of the experience. Bloggers are almost like entertainers, at the end of the day. And the show they pull off, from the actual writing of the post to the images embedded, the keywords they tag it with, the catchy headline and the subtle but persuasive promoting is an art in and of itself. And I felt like some kind of one-woman show trying to pull it all off behind the drawn curtains when I wanted nothing more than to pull that curtain back and reveal my struggle.

Having reached a point where I’d rather not blog than blog just to fill up space, I’m revealing that struggle now.

It’s not the popular approach. It’s not the recommended approach. I’m tempted to let the (poorly executed) magic live on. But I don’t think I was fooling anybody. I think anybody could tell that I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it (if the infrequency of my posting was any indicator, at least). I felt like a fraud because I knew that I was only blogging to build a platform. And that isn’t a bad motive, necessarily… Everyone’s trying to sell something. But it’s not the motive I wanted to start out with and it’s not the motive that was doing anything for me. It was killing my creative juices and I felt like I was throwing together content that I didn’t really care about – and because of that, I doubted anyone else was really caring about it either.

When you take all these elements and mush them together with the very integrity-oriented nature of yours truly, add a healthy dollop of good, old-fashioned insecurity, and a personality that veers toward the high-strung, sensitive, and shy, you get a proverbial mess.

And that mess was me.

In my recent hiatus, I’ve had a lot of time to think. And I’ve come to this conclusion.

I’m not going to blog with the aforementioned mentality anymore. Sure, SEO and engagement is important. Always will be in this crazy Internet world. But if I’m going to blog, I want to enjoy it. And I want to know that I’m sharing something that’s worthy and valuable – not just created with the intention of attracting views.

I figured I should circle back to the beginning – no, not the beginning of time, but the beginnings of me. The back-story that I’ve purposefully left out, the one I’ve alluded to so often but have yet to really relinquish. It’s the why behind my memoir. It’s the reason I am who I am today. It’s what I thought would come out little by little but instead remained firmly locked in the archives of my mind, under the section that reads I Dare Not. And subtitled No One Will Care.

It’s my story.

Life

why I disappeared

When we started out the year, I set my sights high. Life had been painful for awhile and I was looking forward to a new start, a new season, a new chapter. I made my resolutions, wrote optimistic blog posts, and tried to fill my mind and heart with anything bright to mask what had become a constant depression.

And then came February.

Hardly two months into the new year, my worst fear was realized when social workers appeared at our front gate, their white car’s ominous insignia igniting the dread and fear that had colored the years of my childhood and early teen years. I wrote a blog post on it but later took it down. I’m not sure why – only that I’ve found it easier to write about what’s already dead and gone than it is to write about what’s alive and pulsing.

The following weeks were everything you can imagine them to be. We went into hermit mode, so concentrated in our own pain and memories that we could nothing but think, suffer, and pray. A week after that first visit at our gate, another catastrophe unfolded – no less painful… I gave up trying to blog or update my Facebook page. It felt like everything was in pieces. There was now a case in court and every time the dogs barked it meant that they were there – the social workers, the court marshals, the police. If we didn’t immediately attend them, they would turn on this whoop of a warning sound. My heart would fall through the floor. I was convinced I was developing some kind of long-term stress disorder because of the frequency of my heart racing.

The days crawled by, each presenting some new challenge or trial. Somehow we made it through. It’s a blur to think of now. There was a lot of praying. A lot of crying. A lot of pain. Shame, too – I never meant to cry the day the social workers brought court marshals and insisted upon being let into our home to interview the kids, but cry I did. They filled the living room and watched in confusion as I sobbed on the couch like a little girl. It’s a memory I’m still trying to repress. To the social workers (and police) that watched me cry that day – I hope one day you stumble across this post. Then maybe you’d know that it wasn’t forced or fake – that when I saw you fill my living room I was suddenly in another time, another place, where social workers and police equated removal, a nightmare I went through when I was a little girl – a nightmare that trails me to this day, even as I cross the threshold of adulthood.

My father requested in court that the judge would order social services to refrain from more visits to our home, that it scared his children. The judge assented, and I haven’t seen a governmental car at our gate since. It was a relief. There is a reason that an entire chapter of my memoir is titled ‘Strangers at the Gate.’ It was the event that triggered the nightmare.

The whole of the experience lasted about three months. It felt like longer. And yet, I can hardly believe that we are in July – the year is flying by so fast. It has held so much unexpected pain. But it has held answered prayers, too. The archiving of the case last month was an actual fulfillment of a word the Lord had given us. The gifting of a new car was a much sought-after blessing. My heart has stopped racing and I no longer jolt with fear when the dogs start barking.

And so my heart has turned to writing once more – to chronicling the stories and the thoughts that tumble about my psyche. My striving to see my book published has been laid to rest, much like my fears. It will happen in its time – in God’s time. In the meantime, I want to write. I want to fill this space with evidences of myself as I am now – because I won’t always be a twenty-one year old girl navigating the fuzzy realities of looming adulthood. One day it could all change and I will wish I had left more traces of myself to remember.

It has been a year full of the unexpected so far. But God has a way of bringing beauty from the ashes, so I’m looking forward to the beautiful things He will do in the coming months. This year may not have been what I was hoping or looking for, but God knew what it would hold, and if it has done anything, it has shown me that God has not forsaken my family, no matter what some people may think. Only He knew how much I needed to know that.

Only He knew.

Writing

announcement

Hi, friends 🙂

I’ve been really thinking hard about blogging lately – about committing myself to it and deciding once and for all why I’m here and what my message is. Taking a blogging course last month inspired me a lot and it gave me a good deal of sorely-needed direction.

I realized that I’ve been trying to do too much… I’ve been trying to be too many things, when in reality, all I needed to worry about was being me. Connecting with like-minded writers and creating content that reflects my message should be my sole focus – and it’s one I’m honing in on now. I can’t pretend I have all the answers yet, but I feel like I’m coming closer. And I’m excited about writing again… I’m looking forward to what this could be and what God could do with it.

I don’t want to call myself an aspiring blogger anymore. To aspire is to be ever-hopeful of reaching, but never quite attaining. Why not take the leap and stop hiding behind aspirations? I know what kind of blogger I want to be – a blogger that shows up, that writes with intention and purpose, that knows what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. I had a few tumbles and I had to forge my way but I was learning all along and that’s the part that matters.

Ultimately, I want this to be a space that reflects not only the heart and thoughts of an emerging writer, but a place that holds traces of myself as I am now – standing on the cusp of adulthood, slightly bewildered and unsure, with my arms full of dreams and my head full of ideas, peering into a future littered with untold hopes. A space that gives voice to the unheard crimes of the past and present. Taking the plunge and making the commitment is scary – but it holds promise and purpose and I know it will all be worth it in the end.

So here is my official announcement: I’m back and I’m here to stay. I’ve been purposefully vague about why I stopped posting back in March, but hopefully my next post clears some of that up… To those people who wrote me and told me they’d be praying for me and my family, thank you so very much. You’ve no idea how much your support meant (and means) to me. God definitely heard your prayers and the issues we were having have been largely resolved, praise the Lord. Still in a position where I’d appreciate prayer – because you can never get enough prayer! – but the trials have eased up some, and I feel like I can breathe again.

I’m looking forward to what’s to come and I hope you stick around for the ride. God bless you. I’ll see you here next time!

Writing

So the title of my last post was adventurous on my part since I didn’t actually start posting again (which I did fully intend to do). Allow me to explain.

Soon after publishing that post, I got an email forwarded to me by a family member, saying, check this out! GoDaddy had partnered with Shaw Academy (an online school offering live courses) and was offering free classes to whoever joined within 24 hours.

I checked it out and saw right away that they were giving a course on blogging and content marketing.

I couldn’t bypass such an awesome opportunity and signed up right away!

Here’s the thing. I’m learning a lot and I’m getting some clarity on some concepts that always overwhelmed me. Naturally, I want to apply some of what I’m learning to the blog, but it doesn’t make sense to me to start overhauling things right away when I haven’t even finished the course.

So is Ruth, Writer still on? Yes and no. Blogging is on temporary hiatus but I’m here if anyone wants to reach out! Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is creating a little bit more of an interactive community for writers, specifically those writing memoir. It’s still a dream in the works but I’d love it if you left a comment telling me what you think about it!

Thanks for reading and God bless!

Writing

Where I’ve Been

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged here. I had a series of very difficult situations take place within my family and for that I found it necessary to take a long hiatus from blogging and whatnot. But, learning to function even in the face of difficulties is something I’m learning so I’ve decided to come back and get back to writing again!

It’s been a little over two months and like I said, I’ve had some very tough times as of late. Have had to trust in the Lord and take it day by day and believe that God would see me and my family through. I’d like to write about it a little more in depth someday but I’ve noticed something funny – it’s much easier to write about things that are already gone and past versus the things we go through in the present. Can anyone relate?

My Writing

The publishing of my memoir has been postponed indefinitely while we work through the family issues we’ve been having. It’s the tides of life and I’m trying not to fret. It will happen in God’s timing.

As of late, my writing has suffered. I write here and there but not as much as I would like. I feel like I need to sit down and read some good books or read some inspiring posts on getting back into the habit. If anyone has any recommendations, I’m all ears! I used to feel so inspired and on fire with ideas and dreams and things I wanted to put into words but lately, all I want to do is journal or write letters or not write at all.

Inspiration? 

It has been awhile since I’ve found a good blog on writing. Have you read any lately? Let me know! I usually find myself fired up with the urge to write after I’ve gotten my hands on some good literature or some contemporary pieces. I’m currently reading The Amethyst Box by Anna Katherine Green (free for Kindle) and I just finished The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (also free for Kindle!) This was my first experience reading Oscar Wilde and I found this play hilarious and so clever. Will definitely be reading more of his work!

Updates Regarding My Blog: 

As you can see, I’ve redesigned my entire website and have removed some of my earlier posts. This blog and what I share here is something I’m constantly seeking to refine and perfect. In some ways, I feel like I’ve yet to find my stride. There is a lot that I want to say but should all of it be said here? That’s something I’m figuring out right now. In any case, I’m working on creating content that falls in line with the theme of this blog. With these changes, I’ll hopefully be able to produce a site that reflects my message and the story I’m telling.

Thanks for reading. See you here next time! 

Memoir

It’s strange the things that stands out in one’s memory. I can remember the sun blazing down on the top of their car and how the stocky, mustached man and the petite, brown-haired woman squinted as they came to stand in front of our gate. It was a hot day.

The man called out a greeting in Spanish. Nervously, my eyes shifted to meet Hannah’s and I could see my uneasiness reflected in her expression. Who are they? A few seconds passed and then he called again but this time it wasn’t a greeting: it was my father’s name. How did he know Daddy’s name? I wondered. A moment later, our front door slammed.

Daddy was walking down towards the gate.

A prickle of unease ran the length of my spine. Our house seemed unusually silent. Why couldn’t I hear anyone talking? Why weren’t the little ones laughing? Why wasn’t Mommy calling for lunch? My heart pounded faster as I shifted uncomfortably on my knees.

We could see the strangers were talking to my father, though we couldn’t hear them. I could only see the side of Dad from where I knelt but I could tell that he was frowning. Hannah wondered aloud if they could be customers but I shook my head. No. There was something different about these people. Daddy’s customers didn’t look like that.

It’d been several minutes. The strangers didn’t go away, even when Daddy left them there and returned to the house. We watched them in silence for a few seconds, wondering. When the door behind us opened, we all jumped, startled.

It was Jenna. Gone from her face was the reproof and hidden amusement we’d seen only moments before. Now, her eyes were full of fear and a barely concealed dread. Her mouth was a grim line as she went straight to the bureau and began rummaging through the clothes. Matthew stood behind her. His blond hair brushed his long eyelashes but he didn’t bother to push it away, only stood quietly, watching his mother. I stared at him. The strangeness of the moment kept me silent but questions burned in my mind. We watched as Jenna pulled out a blue, button-down shirt from the dresser.

 “Honey, let’s put this on,” she said to Matthew, helping him pull off his plain tee-shirt. “Listen to me, sweetheart, you don’t have to answer any questions if you don’t want to. You know that, right? You just smile and hold Daddy’s hand and everything will be alright.” He nodded and she straightened his shirt, brushed at his hair. His eyes were round and solemn. He took his mother’s hand when she reached for him and followed her from the room. The door clicked shut behind them and I looked at my sisters in bewilderment. Their eyes mirrored mine. Together, we turned back to the window and saw that strangers were still standing there… except now, Daddy was walking down the driveway towards them, and he had Matthew with him.

Matthew looked like a sheep being led to slaughter, shuffling along slowly behind our father. His eyes were on the ground, his hand clutched tightly around Daddy’s. I shot Hannah another look filled with dread. What now?

The strangers stared at Matthew and the man questioned our father. Daddy’s face was unreadable. He didn’t let go of Matthew’s hand and at some comment of the man’s, he turned quickly and brought Matthew back inside. I felt a stab of relief. Safe again, he’s safe.

But would the strangers never leave? Daddy had gone back out to them, now carrying Matthew’s basket of supplements. I shook my head, frustrated.

 “How come they wanted to see Matthew?” I asked Hannah. “Who are they anyway? What do they want?”

She shrugged, her eyes darting to mine and then away again. Something’s not right. I understood the glance as easily as if she’d spoken aloud. I nodded slightly and looked at Abby to see if she had noticed our exchange. Her eyes were wider than usual and her mouth was slightly open as she stared out the dusty window screen. She hadn’t.

We watched Daddy show the strangers Matthew’s medicine and we watched as he showed them proof of Bernadette’s graduate’s degree in nursing and we watched as he showed them the doctor’s notes on Matthew’s condition and progress. It seemed like forever before the strangers finally got back into their car and drove away, leaving as quickly and as suddenly as they’d arrived.

The car hadn’t even disappeared down the road before we were off the bed and running from the room.

MISS RUTH® All rights are reserved for the creator and owner of this work and any unauthorized copying, broadcasting, manipulation, distribution or selling of this work constitutes as an infringement of copyright. Any infringement of this copyright is punishable by law.

Memoir, Writing

reflections

Just over a year ago, I wrote this post on my former blog a couple of weeks after completing my first memoir. I thought it’d be fun to share it here as it has inspired me as I begin writing the second half of my story:

• • •

Jan. 5, 2015

I finished the book.

It’s so weird and awesome to say that. I finished it. It’s taken me several years (6.5 to be exact). I started writing it just before turning fourteen. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long if I didn’t need to learn so much, if I had already had within me all the experience and skill that years of writing brings, if life hadn’t gotten in the way multiple times, and if I had had a fully-functioning computer from the start to it’s finish. (As it happens, I’m still bumming off of my sister’s fully-functioning laptop, ha di ha.) It’s something I have worked towards for so long. How can it be finished?! Gahh.

And it’s only ever been real in my head. That’s the weird part. Friends have drifted in and out of our lives for as long as I can remember and I’ve never spoken about my book, not unless asked (my father would make a great agent: he tells everybody and anybody!). Even speaking about it amongst the family is something I’ve shied away from: the subject (and all the memories it brings with it) is a sure way to shut down their faces and bring that certain look of silent torment to their eyes. I have avoided it at all costs. Did I have their full support and the constant assertion that if I ever needed help it was mine? Absolutely. But writing this book was still lonely. While life went on and we taught ourselves to forget, I went back. Over and over again. I went back while we struggled to make ends meet with no income, living off coupons and our friends’ charity. I went back while we welcomed two more babies into the family. I went back while the owner of our old house brought us to court and marshals stalked our gate and the electricity got turned off (…and stayed off). I went back while we moved into the apartment of a friend and hunkered down for three years of cramped living while looking for a new home. It became a silent world within my head inhabited only by me, something I couldn’t share with anyone else… no one but God.

He was patient with me. Whenever I would hit a rough patch and stumble into a memory I wasn’t prepared to face, I would pull a Jonah and run to the land where procrastination thrives: the Internet. I would remain there for several weeks and then come crawling back, stricken with guilt. I was plagued with a sense of inferiority: how could I write a book? Having grown up an avid reader, books were something I was only too familiar with… I read anything I could get my hands on: Austen, Dickens, Alcott, Bronte. As a teenager, my horizons broadened: E.M. Forster, John Steinbeck, Salman Rushdie, Irving Stone. My standards were high; my expectations even higher. I didn’t want to just tell our story – I wanted to write something epic, something revolutionary, something life-changing. Something that would climb its way into its reader’s heart and stay there. I wrote and rewrote the manuscript multiple times. It was never good enough; it could always be better. I wrestled with my sense of duty: why was I doing this? Was there a point to all this private torture? Would it do any good?

Towards the end, the real thing that kept me going was digging deep into the nitty-gritty details of what Matthew [my brother] suffered and realizing all over again the absolute anguish that his last five months of life contained. Don’t I owe it to him, to tell his story? Isn’t it the least I could do? To make sure that people don’t forget, to make sure that his name and his existence doesn’t get swallowed up by time?

This year is going to bring so much change, I can feel it already. It’s daunting, but I’m praying that God gives me strength to face it…

Last year did bring a lot of change, but it wasn’t the kind of change I expected. I learned so much though, and I’m praying that God gives me the means to go forward with self-publishing my memoir this year.

I hope this post inspired you… there’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment that comes after completing this kind of project, especially one that lasted as long as writing my memoir did. God willing the second doesn’t take as long – ha!

Memoir, Writing

 

fd5f121b9209ff4c25b346d5d340b30f138b488769fd8841bdcc6c036a68daba-cNPlDO

While I was writing my first memoir, I remember Googling phrases like how to write a memoir, how to write an emotional story, and how to write an impacting book. I had no idea what I was doing, but being an avid reader, I knew what I wanted to do:

I wanted to write in a way that impacted my reader.

I wanted to make sure that I achieved the kind of story that left a lasting impression.

Finding the answers to my puzzled questions proved difficult. I couldn’t find much on writing a memoir, let alone writing an emotionally impacting memoir. In the end, I had to find out for myself the answers to my questions.

It’s my hope that this post can offer the kind of useful and practical tips that I wished someone could have told me way back when!

So, without further ado, let’s get started!

Determine your why

First things first, you need to determine your why. Why are you writing your story?

Are you writing about the death of a loved one? Why? To heal? To find answers? To share what you learned through it? What is the reader going to take away from your account?

Discovering the answers to these questions is a process, I think, and you may not find them until you’ve reached the end of your tale. That’s okay. But it’s important that you know why you’re writing your story and what you want to achieve with it.

As hard as it is to swallow, our life-changing moments may not seem that big of a deal to other people. From what I’ve learned, there has to be a redeeming element, such as:

  • incredible writing
  • a lesson learned
  • the quality of forgiveness
  • the process of overcoming something, etc.

Don’t write just to say “this thing happened to me and it was awful/amazing/horrible/incredible.” Your reader will go, “yeah, and?” Dig deep within yourself and find the triumph, find the lesson learned, so that your reader can walk away feeling enriched by the experience of reading your story.

Let’s look at The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, for instance. Semi-autobiographical, this memoir relates the traumatic experiences that Lomax underwent as a Japanese POW working the Burma-Siam railway. Lomax was tortured by his Japanese captors, and though he survived, suffered from PTSD for the fifty years following WWII. While this is a tragic and remarkable story in itself, what makes it absolutely unforgettable is the redemptive conclusion given at the end of the book: this man not only finds it within himself to forgive one of the men that had participated in his torture, but ends up becoming friends with him. How amazing is that?!

This is the quality that you need to find in your story. The one that makes the reader say, “Wow, this really inspired me” or, “this so perfectly describes the grieving process – I related so much!”

What do you think the reader is going to take away from your story?

Answering this question is the first step towards writing an emotionally impacting memoir.

Read other people’s memoirs

Reading is so important when it comes to writing – and this applies to all writing, not just memoir. How else will you know what’s good or what works or what impacts you and gets inside you and imprints itself on your heart?

In answering these questions you are developing your taste. You are fine-tuning your palette. Read everything you can get your hands on, but when you study memoir, try and figure out what it is that gets to you.

Why did such-and-such a book make you cry? What was it exactly? How did the writer set the tone of the book? How did it make you feel?

Writing  Tip:

When you find yourself impacted by a particular writer, go back and read their writing over and over again until you determine what it is that impressed you so deeply.

Was it the evocative imagery? The unforgettable story? The particular writing style? You can learn from both the good and the bad. Where did such-and-such a writer go wrong? Why didn’t the recounting of their tragic story leave you in tears?

Going back to The Railway Man for an example, I can say that while the story is incredible and while I felt deeply for the writer, I didn’t cry and I didn’t feel particularly invested in the story. This was, I believe, mostly due to the fact that Lomax’s writing gives off a kind of distant air – it’s completely understandable, don’t get me wrong, considering what he experienced. But it doesn’t make for a very emotionally invest-able story. Dialogue is at the absolute minimum. He tells the story from beginning to end without showing us very much of what happened. Which leads me to my next point.

Showing and telling

When it comes to memoir, I have a theory.

My theory is that the writer must be a very masterful storyteller. One must learn how to bring their reader to the very edge of an emotional precipice and display the churning waters of anguish below without shoving the reader off the cliff into it’s depths. To do that would be to lose the reader forever; how will you draw them back into the story if they have drowned in the pathos of your memories? It takes skill and a good deal of thought to learn how to visit those churning waters while always giving the reader ample oxygen to breathe.

To do this, I believe, is by alternately employing the methods of showing and telling in your writing.

My interpretation of showing is this: “Showing” is when you paint a picture in the reader’s mind. You don’t just say, “We had some bad times and I wasn’t handling them well.” You show, when you say, “After the baby died, I stopped eating. My stomach knotted whenever I tried to put food in my mouth. Haunting memories of his last moments tormented me in a slide of gruesome images.”

Do you see the difference? It elicits an emotional response in the reader. It paints a picture in their mind. It leaves an imprint, and helps them better relate with the character.

In memoir, both showing and telling have their place. It boils down to the writer and their own particular style, of course, and some writers do very well with only telling their story. Their writing is so clever that they can get away with it. Others manage showing very well. Personally, I think the best writers are those who can masterfully blend both. 

For me, the stories leave the greatest imprint on my heart are those that cleverly employ the method of showing. Show me what it was like the night that your life fell apart. I want to hear the cicadas singing outside your bedroom window and feel the chill of the night breeze on my skin before the pounding of your heart sets the hairs on the back of my neck on end. Do you see? It is not enough to say “I was lying in bed when my mother came into the room and gave me the worst news of my life.” Bring the moments to life. Paint a picture inside my head so that I’m there with you, experiencing every shift of fate as if it were playing on a television screen in my mind.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Anton Chekhov

Trial and error

At the end of the day, it all boils down to this:

Write.

Write badly. Write until you learn to write better, and then keeping writing. Don’t stop. Don’t let your inadequacy hold you back. You may never feel fully satisfied with your writing, but I promise you, if you keep at it, you will come to a place where you find your rhythm. You’ll figure out what works.

It’s in the wrestling, in the endless rewrites, in the exhaustive edits, in the constant revising, that you find your style. 

I wrote several drafts of my book. Like Eric Lomax of The Railway Man, I often resorted to telling my story rather than showing it. Showing is, admittedly, more arduous to the writer, especially when it comes to relating painful memories. It requires reliving the experience in a very profound way. It is easier to say, “My father died and I was devastated,” than it is to dig deep into your memories and reawaken those painful moments that encompassed that tragedy.

Learning how to write is a part of telling your story. You want to do it justice: I know I did. To write badly would be an unjust tribute to my experiences. So I learned how to write… how good of a writer I am now is something I don’t think I can determine but I know I’m better than when I started, and maybe that’s the only measure a writer can allow herself.

Here are some bits of advice, as well as suggestions that will help you in your quest:

  • It helps to work in other genres, to experiment and see what works.
  • Try writing a short story or work on a fictional novel. Wattpad is a great online tool for this.
  • Share your stories and get feedback. See what other people think. Ask for their constructive criticism.
  • Be patient with yourself.
  • Don’t write to write a bestseller: write to tell your story as best as you know how.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Learn from your mistakes.

You can do this!

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.

Anne Lamott

If this post helped you at all, please let me know in the comments below! And, if you’re on a quest to write your own memoir, let me know how it’s going for you. 🙂