Richard Von Hippel has written a memoir with a woman whose very difficult life experiences--and fight for recovery-- he has found singularly inspirational. Iris Ann Cullimore is the subject and co-author of Not again!
Here Richard shares some of the back story of their inspirational
Pam to Richard: Was there a specific moment when you knew you would write a memoir with Iris? Please describe what that was like.
Richard to Pam: Like most things in my life, writing a memoir with Iris was more of an accidental/ coincidental process. I’d only ever met one other person in my entire life with the raw courage and determination of Iris and I’d thought for a long time that her story ‘deserved’ to be told, if only for its inspirational value. But I never thought for a moment that I would be the one to help her write it, until a few weeks after I received a phone call ‘out of the blue’.
The caller was an old school friend of mine who’d been trying to catch up with me for 47 years. He’d finally caught up with me on the exact anniversary of the last time we’d seen each other.He still met regularly with several of our old classmates and our subsequent emails revealed he worked as a freelance journalist for an Irish newspaper in Philadelphia, as well as being a poet and Editor.
Strangely, during that very first phone call and in all the subsequent emails he kept remarking on how well everyone remembered my writing from school and how convinced he was I ‘had a book in me’, which I didn’t take seriously, at first.
Pam to Richard: How did you know you were going to do it?
Richard to Pam: The more I thought on my old school friend’s claims that I could write, the more I realised that if anyone was going to step forward and write Iris’s memoir, with her, it would have to be me – and the rest is history!
Pam to Richard: What kept you working on it when the going got rough?
Richard to Pam: There is nothing related to Iris that is not a challenge! Disaster seems to walk one close step behind her – hence the title Not Again
. However she is something of an enigma, insofar as that anyone who ever works with her never quits. Perhaps it is the admiration we all have for her fighting spirit. Perhaps she’s just been ‘sent’
to test us all! Whatever her ‘secret weapon’ no one of any worth ever gives up on her.
Even the hospital Consultants and Specialists who have treated her, along with their Secretaries become such good friends she can bypass the system and ring them direct – there is no referral and no waiting –if they can’t do it, they always know someone who can. Pam to Richard: You have had several roles in bringing Not Again! to publication. How did you balance the roles of healer, therapist and ghost writer/ storyteller to bring Iris' story to us in the form of a book?
Richard to Pam: Perhaps the easiest, though not the most enlightening answer to this question is that Iris is just Iris, treating her is just treating her, and writing her story is just writing her story, in the same way that night and day or the Seasons are what they are. You just dress differently and get on with it, without thinking about balance.
All my stroke survivors are treated in their own home, I never charge any stroke survivor full price and I never set a time limit for their treatment. If they have emotional issues, we address them. If they just want a laugh, a joke and a cup of coffee, we have one. Apart from the fact that Iris was one of my first case studies in stroke treatment, and I’ve treated her free of charge ever since, all I did was add a Dictaphone to her treatments. Then, apart from getting her to clarify events, places, people and situations I just let her tell her story, over many days and many cups of coffee.
The only real problems we had were that she often ‘got ahead of herself’ - in her own words - and then I had to re-write the affected Chapters. But when you consider how often I’ve had to repair her, after yet another mishap, I suppose that’s just par for the course!
Pam to Richard: The instinct of curiosity that drives us to peer into some of the most devastating moments of another person's life. . . the reader's motivation: does your experience tell you that it's a positive thing, a negative thing?
Richard to Pam: I believe that knowing the realities of life, through other people’s experiences is an essential part of eventually attaining true civilisation, as a species. All aspects of today’s society have become so sanitised that nothing outside our own, personal lives is ‘real’, any more.
When we lived in small and ‘nosey’ communities we saw grief, pain, joy and celebration on an intimate level, and so we learned to feel and empathise. Today, our lives are more remote from each other than if we lived in another dimension, or galaxy. Thus, the memoirs of ‘ordinary’ people are essential, if we are to fully realise what goes on in the world we live in, which is the only way to change.
Pam to Richard: Clearly you are a very sensitive, ethical person yourself. What personal values do you apply to the delicate process of exposing these vulnerable memories?
Richard to Pam: I must admit that I was surprised by some of what Iris was prepared to publicly reveal, but apart from asking her “are you sure you want to make this public?” I never questioned her, or her motives.
After all, it will always be her story, and it will always be her right to tell it how she wants, for whatever reason she wants to tell it.
Pam to Richard: What in your life experience led you to believe you were the person to write Iris' memoir?
Richard to Pam: Being a therapist, and not being a woman! Before I even began to learn the psychological/emotional therapies I fully understood the principle that: “We are, all of us, unique individuals, fashioned in our own way, by our own unique circumstances, experienced in their own unique way”. That, together with my not being a woman meant I had no way of transferring my emotions to her experiences, which essentially meant I couldn’t put my own ‘spin’ on her story. This is why NOT AGAIN is exclusively Iris, through and through. Only the language with which events are recounted comes from outside of Iris.
Pam to Richard: What do you intend this memoir to accomplish in the minds or hearts of readers?
Richard to Pam: My greatest hope is that by showing the reader the true strength and resilience of the human spirit, as demonstrated by Iris, it will also give them the strength and courage to rise above their own adversity, and to fight even harder.
Click here for Richard's website: http://memoirsonly.com/
Shirley Hershey Showalter is writing a book called Blush: Mennonite Girl in a Glittering World.
Pam: Shirley, What is critical for your readers to know about you and your life before they pick up your book?
Shirley: I'm a farm girl who grew up "plain" and has had a love-hate relationship with required plainness while admiring genuine humility all my life. My ideal reader has an interest in Mennonites (and probably Amish also). She wants to know what a Mennonite farm childhood is like. She might be attracted to the black and white picture with rosy cheeks and be curious about why the title is "Blush."
Pam: There is something about memoir that puts us at double-jeopardy. We not only reveal ourselves through our craft, we put our lives and deepest joys and fears on display. Why did you
Shirley: Why write memoir? I am doing it for the same reason I spent most of my career as an educator. To know myself better and to help others do the same. Blushing comes from having a gap between our outward image and our inward feelings. I want to explore when and how that gap arose in my life and how it closed. My second reason for writing is to leave a legacy of reflection on values for the sake of my grandchildren and others who come after. I also want to inspire others to write their own memoir, whether or not they publish it.
Pam: Tell us about the sorting process: identifying the pivotal memories. How
did you know when you had found yours? What distinguished them?
Shiley: This is a great question, Pam. For me, a pivotal memory is one that changed me and/or others. It also has touched me deeply at a feeling level, whether that feeling is fear, love, loneliness, determination, or sadness. For this reason, a pivotal memory is also a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Pam: A memoir has within it a "little book" of our life memories, and a "larger book" of our life themes. Can you discuss how you use the little book of memories to support the larger themes of your work?
Shirley: I like this description. Thomas Larson speaks of the me-then and the me-now. This is another way in which a good memoir layers meaning, time, and perspective. One of the hardest things for me to do right now is to move between these two. It's hard enough to establish a chronological chronicle of pivotal stories as accurately as possible. Then one has to read the whole chronicle through the lens of theme, purpose, higher and more universal values. It helps to make note of possible themes as you go. For me, choosing a title commits me to finding a way to unfold meaning about my rosy cheeks, my propensity to blush, my desire to be loved and recognized, and my heritage as a Mennonite farm girl.
Siirley: Thanks for inviting me to be your guest, Pam
Pam: You're most welcome, Shirley. I aplogize for the delay in posting your blog entry. I have just been discharged the hospital following a stroke. I promise never to do it again, if I can help it!
You can have the pleasure of following Shirley's progress writing and publishing her book on her website at: www.shirleyshowalter.com
. She also shares vast stores of useful information about writing memoirs on her blog
I have the honor of interviewing author Jade Kerrion, the muse who inspired me to start this blog to promote other authors. It's something she does on her own blog: http://www.jadekerrion.com
. I admire her ethics in extending this opportunity for recognition to others. Since she has been putting others first, she is the first author I'm interviewing on this new blog. Jade is the author of several books, most recently Perfection Unleashed
. This book belongs to the genre of Science Fiction. Because Seeds Born to the Light emphasizes the theme of memory in our work, this interview focuses on some of the ways memory is used in Jade’s fiction writing.
Pam to Jade:
Jade, you began with fan fiction and now write science fiction. Most people would assume those genres are about as far from real life as you can get. Can you give us some ideas or examples of how you build on real-life experiences and memories in your work?
Jade to Pam: I think all of us incorporate our real life experiences in our writings. For example, Perfection Unleashed
leverages very heavily on my background as a biology and philosophy major, but more intimately, Perfection Unleashed
explores issues relating to fairness in society. I was born and raised in a country that practiced reverse discrimination. Students from my ethnic group who had straight As were rejected from medical school, and students with straight Cs were accepted because they were academically on par with the "top" students of another race who were admitted to medical school. That lesson had a tremendous impact on me and was one of many reasons that inspired me to leave that country and seek a home and future elsewhere. I incorporated my lingering questions into Perfection Unleashed.
How does a person who is naturally talented, naturally gifted compete in a society that is dominated (politically and socially) by those who view your talents with skepticism and even
Pam to Jade: I long for an egalitarian society, too. Yet natural gifts are distributed unequally, and that seems to be a cause of friction in any society that values cooperation above innovation. I believe your theme is one many gifted individuals will identify with.
Jade, among your many background experiences, how do you mark specific memories to reference in your writing? How do you filter the rest of your memories from the keepers, and how do you know which ones belong in your work?
Jade to Pam: The ones that (in spite of two decades of distance and "wisdom") get my hackles up in record time are clearly the ones to include. :-) The memories that draw a smile and a chuckle, those too I include. There's a tendency to think of life as a sequence of events. It is that, of course, but that makes for a dull recollection of life, in my opinion. Instead, I prefer to think of life as snapshots of memories that were worth remembering. I've read lots of "I did this, then I did that" memoirs, but have uniformly preferred the ones that focused on sharing the memories around certain themes, noting how they evolved over
Pam to Jade: Surely your characters also have memories that affect the way they react to present circumstances. How do you draw on them in your novel?
Jade to Pam: There are many tools available to tease out characters' memories. Flashbacks are commonly utilized, and many novelists write whole scenes around them. I prefer to use the memory to explain how it changed the character, such as in this scene, in a conversation between Galahad, the perfect human being, and Zara, the mercenary who freed him from Pioneer Labs. “Would breaking into Pioneer Labs fall under the completely illegal or partly illegal category?”
“Neither.” She laughed again. “That was just light-hearted mischief, until, of course, I absconded with you.”
“How did you get into this line of work?”
“That’s not important,” she said, casually dismissive. Her tumultuous childhood, the many wars that had eventually ripped the heart and soul out of the Mediterranean paradise of Lebanon, the years spent in the squalid conditions of a refugee camp, the harrowing journey to America—to the one land that still held out the promise of freedom to any who came to its shores—none of that mattered anymore.
The actual events of the past, she had reasoned with brutal clarity of hindsight, were not important. Only the outcomes mattered. She had survived, become strong, and then worked tirelessly night and day to ensure that what she had could never be taken from her again.
If in the process, she had lost a bit of herself, she considered it well worth the price. The bright-eyed, sunny-faced child who had once danced with artless innocence in the courtyard of a Lebanese home and counted everyone a friend would never have made it in a world brimming with brutal realities, anyway.
Life didn’t work like that.
Another tool I use is dialogue. In this scene, Danyael Sabre, the protagonist, and Jason Rakehell learn that they are brothers. I wanted to showcase Jason's memories of his long-lost brother, and fortunately, I have characters that make sharing those memories easy. Miriya is a telepath, she reads thoughts, and in this scene, she is communicating telepathically with Danyael. Danyael did not resist when Jason roughly grabbed his left hand,
the bones subtly misshapen from an unremembered injury that had not healed
correctly. He could not read his brother’s thoughts, but he could sense Jason’s
emotions as disbelief gave way to towering anger and hatred. At this point, I
think it’s a toss-up as to whether he hates me or Galahad
Miriya smiled thinly, not amused. This isn’t funny, Danyael.
It’s laugh or cry, Miriya. What does he remember?
He remembers when your mother struck you, and her ring tore the gash in your
cheek. He remembers when your mother used a pestle to smash your hand after you’d reached for one of his toys. She obviously failed parenting class. I
wouldn’t have trusted her with a goldfish, let alone a child.
Pam to Jade: The next question that occurs to me is, what functions does the fiction author lend to the character's memory? (such as: back story, tension, foreshadowing, etc.) Can you give an example of how that works?
In fiction, all memory is by definition, back story. The real trick is deciding when to share it and how much of it to share. There are a few guidelines I use. I don't know if they're applicable in memoirs, but here goes:
1. Does the memory add tension and conflict to the story? Tension doesn't need to involve buildings blowing up. Tension and conflict can happen internally as well. Tension keeps readers turning pages, so you share only as much as is needed to keep them reading. Too much, and the pace could slow, or you could lose the reader in details.
2. Does the memory result in internal and/or external change? In addition to tension, readers want progress. Something needs to happen in the scene that shows the plot progressing or the character developing. Does the character's memory facilitate that internal and external change? If it doesn't, why is it in the scene?
3. And even if the memory adds tension and conflict resulting in internal and external change, you never, ever dump the entire back story on the reader all at once. It's fiction, not a biography, and I only share as much as is needed for the reader to know. Sometimes, the reader will need to know more...eventually, and in that case, I dribble it out over time. Readers enjoy the process of discovery, so allow them to discover the truth. Slowly.
Pam to Jade: I'll bet those pointers would work very well for constructing a memoir. What else did you want to tell us, Jade?
Jade to Pam:
Thank you so much for hosting me on your new blog. I know it's a stretch to get from fiction to memoirs, but I hope these few insights have been helpful. I invite you and your readers to visit my website at http://www.jadekerrion.com
. I do talk about my novels, but I also have two features that I hope may be useful to your readers some day. I host a section on my blog called 'An Author's Journey' which I use to describe what I did to publish and market my novel. This work-in-progress could be helpful once you head down the path of getting those memoirs into the hands of readers. Secondly, I host author interviews, guest posts, etc. on my blog. For those who write memoirs, I invite you to contact me once you’ve published for some free publicity and an opportunity to share your work on my website.
The purpose of the memoir is to tell a true story about events that actually happened; memoir is cathartic, transormational. . .and best of all, memoir is non-fiction. People are drawn to these stories (I know I am!) because someone has lived them out. Perhaps we want to learn what someone else has learned, to live in someone else’s skin, or to feel something we haven’t felt before.
Memoir is a risky business for the author. We face the same fears and challenges all artists face when revealing their work to the world. Factor in the additional risk of personal rejection: because we are being transparent about the events of our lives, some members of our audience will never approve of, nor appreciate what we have done. Many writers brave enough to publish would run shrieking from such a lifting of the veil. So there must be some compelling reason authors decide to share their experiences in a memoir. I think it is because when we come down to it, those who write memoir believe that truth is the most important, the most powerful gift we have to share with the world.
At times, someone claims they have written a memoir that is later found to have no correspondence with factual events. Memoirists get peeved by these fake memoirs, because once the facts are discovered, the deception practiced by the “wanna-be” reflects poorly on the genre and casts all of us under suspicion.
While journalists traditionally have been trained to present “just the facts,” like so many kleenexes folded into a box, a memoirist also wants to tell a story that will interest the reader. There are a number of tools at hand to create and maintain the reader’s interest. Writers of memoir are aware that many of the techniques of fiction can be applied to memoir. Creative non-fiction is still non-fiction, but told in a way that allows the reader to slip his feet into the author’s shoes.
This blog is written with the objectives of the memoir-writer in mind. I will be interviewing memoirists about their writing experiences. I will sometimes interview fiction writers on this blog, with a focus on how they bring their own memories into their work, and give them an opportunity to demonstrate some fiction techniques that can enhance memoir.