Connect with Your Audience - Human Stories
I told you a lot just now about a memoir that I published, one memoir that I published and the story I wrote. I wanna now look at yours and locate some of your journeys. And not just what happened, but what it meant to you, how it changed you. And what that means is finding the theme, the through line that connects all the seemingly disconnected events that happen over the course of our hopefully long lives. And I'm gonna begin with a few lines from somebody who's part of our audience talking about introducing herself to me. When I was five my father died. I spent my life striving to fill in the void of the missing parent. Now she said many other things in her note to me, in her bio, but when I saw that, I saw her theme. I saw what connected all the other things, probably not all, but a whole lot of things. Dale, why don't you take a microphone here. Can I ask you a few questions?
Tell us the story first of all. It begins...
It begins in the summer of 1952 when I was five y...
ears old and there was a big polio epidemic in the Midwest and I lived in Sioux City, Iowa, and my father contracted polio. He left the house, went to the hospital and died I think the next day or soon thereafter.
Oh my gosh.
There were not enough iron lungs. There were lots and lots of people.
You were five years old?
So now, here's a point of view question. Dale is going to tell the story one way as she sits in this room today looking back on this event 60 years later, more than 60 years later. What do you remember at the time?
I remember being told by my aunt.
You didn't see any of this?
No, I didn't see anything.
Where were you when he fell sick, when he was taken away?
It was in our home.
It was in your home.
At the time that he was sick, I don't think they knew he had polio.
Your mother just disappeared?
I don't really remember anything special about his leaving as if he was going to work or something. There was nothing dramatic--
Did you ever see him again?
You never saw him again.
So totally normal life. Is there anybody who wonders why this... Do we have any difficulty recognizing why this would be an event that Dale would spend her life looking at and trying to address? I won't say it's not just a death. A death is a pretty huge thing, but it is a disappearance as if some hand had just plucked him off the face of the earth and he disappeared. And what else does a five year old child deal with if her father suddenly dies from one day to the next? A heartbroken mother, I think. Yes.
Yeah, and your mother was very young probably.
And heartbroken grandparents.
And heartbroken grandparents, yeah. Were there other siblings in the family?
Yes, I had a younger brother. He was two.
So there are two young children?
Did you mother have a job?
No, not at the time.
No. Is there anybody who doesn't wanna hear this story first of all? Absolutely wanna hear this story. I happen to be, the polio epidemic is a fascinating story that I've read a lot about because I do remember just barely, I was born in 1953 at the tail end of all of that. I have one of those vaccinations that's very obvious cause they're like early ones that they didn't have it down very well. But there was this terror. And everybody was worried about their children so they weren't expecting the husband to be the one to go probably, right?
They didn't send their children to pools. So the context is an important part. It's an important part of all your stories, but it's certainly an important part of this. It is a historical context. We're not gonna hear this story from anybody ever again. We are the containers of history and the implications of history on our lives. You know, I went to a restaurant where the restaurant (mumbles). It was a slow night at the restaurant and so we were able to talk and it turned out that the guy was from Turkey and within a minute or so I made some reference to the politics of our country in this sort of abstract way that I experienced it. It hasn't directly affected my life as it has so many people except to upset me. And he said his fiancee was back in Damascus and next Monday he would find out whether she was going to get the visa or not to ever be able to come to this country. That is the intersection of history and the personal. And that's one of the things that our memoirs give us. It is a glimpse, a very human glimpse into the big fabric of the story of our country and other countries and other cultures and our world, but told human being by human being, which is the way that we relate to it. And when we get the stories that way, this is me being kind of idealistic, no doubt, I believe it's a lot harder to turn away and make the heartless decisions when we are looking at the story of one family at the border or one person who doesn't get the iron lung or one mentally ill individual who's released from the hospital because funds have been cut and he's out on the street as a homeless person. So great context. One thing I will say about, and I think that the story does begin there, if you're going to write a story about loss, in your case, you're going to be haunted for the rest of your life by the disappearance of a man you only knew for five years. First we need to see what was lost. What do you remember of your father, Dale?
Well I have three or four actual memories of interacting with him.
Imagine that, just that sentence. Three or four. For the people who have been lucky enough, mostly we're lucky to have our parents stick around. Sometimes it's a little complicated. To have millions of memories. For somebody to say I have three or four memories.
But mostly what I have are what other people had to say.
What other people had to say.
About him. And most of all my fantasy.
And that's been huge. What I imagine, how perfect he was, how close we would have been, et cetera, et cetera. How much I'm like him.
You know, I just was talking about my first memoir at home in the world and a lot of that story had to do with giving up an idealized vision of a person which set me free to do so. I was able to knock at that door. You're not able. There's no door you can go knock at. So what do you do about this fantasy?
Well, first of all, I've lived a life and become a person and been aware of how much of what I'm doing is imagination when I'm trying to do this. I've spent my life looking for men to fulfill me and give me things in a relationship. A lot of failure there, by the way.
And I bet you know that, that sentence will never appear in your book, but having spoken that sentence is crucial for you to be able to then tell the stories. You know, it may be possible to be a quite screwed up individual with a lot of issues and problems and be a brilliant writer of fiction. And a few names might even come to mind. But a crucial element of writing a good memoir is self-awareness, self-understanding. And every once and awhile I'll read the memoir of somebody who I feel is just not coping to what's really going on in their life and it has a smell to it of falseness. So you have just identified very correctly the theme and now what you have to do is you're looking for the man, a life of looking for the man, that is going to establish an arc, the search, the quest, remember? Dale's quest is clear. Where is my father? Where is the man? And the story is going to be your efforts to find him, your failures at finding him. Either I don't know because I don't know, Dale, whether you did eventually. Nobody finds a perfect man, but find resolution in that, which is actually a more believable landing place to your story. But that feels like a book length memoir to me and I think you're correct in seeing it not as an essay. It's a lifelong quest that probably does not look like this. It looks like da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da. But do you know where your landing place is?
Well, you know, it's also it was looking for the man to fill that, but also who am I because the big piece, you know, I only have half of where I came from in terms of a parent. So the looking for myself has been the other piece of it equally strong.
You didn't know him well enough to know.
Exactly, exactly. What influences did I get from him both nurture and nature?
Yes, you know, there's this new thing, this amazing thing now, 23 and Me and all these others where you can find out your genetic heritage and that's very interesting. I haven't done it, but there's another whole piece that's not about the what part of the globe your ancestors came from, but what traits, what piece of you?
Might have been him?