Willa Cather once said that nothing is more exciting in life than to get inside the skin of another person. Sometimes I get that feeling when I make a new friend or have a deep conversation with an old one. Other times books transform me in a similar way. I love reading just for the pure pleasure of entering other skins and other worlds.
But I was also an English major and an English teacher, so I have also learned to read like a critic and a professor.
Now I am trying to learn to read like a writer.
Each type of reading has its own merit. Jerry Waxler, who has his own memoir blog, led a teleconference last night for the National Association of Memoir Writers about the role of reading in teaching the memoirist to write. He made the point that writers can learn about how to do any part of writing from reading others who have gone before them on the memoir journey. He reminded me of the first inspiration for this blog in the first place–the goal of reading 100 memoirs in preparation for writing my own.
So, I thought I would share the experience of reading as a writer this book, Don’t Call Me Mother, by Linda Joy Myers. The writerly question I asked as I read this memoir about a pattern of mother-daughter abandonment was, “How much will Myers tell us about the outcome of her struggles, and when and how will she do this?” Will she “hold ’em” or will she “fold ’em”? How will she keep us turning the pages if we already know she is going to be abandoned and that the reason will be undiagnosed mental illness (all on the book jacket)?
The book begins with a vignette–a scene that takes place in Kansas when the author is four years old and her mother is leaving her on the first of many long, wrenching, separations. We see and hear the train as both an enormous physical object in a child’s eyes and as a symbol that will have evocative power forever: “The train whistle cries its lonely song, lingering in the wind that crosses the plains. It will call for me all my life, in my dreams and while I am awake. The train song, the train’s power and promise, are etched deep in my soul from this day forward.”
This short scene achieves two things–it sets up the important theme of mother-daughter abandonment we already expect and suggests a mystery larger than the scene itself. The train whistle haunts the child (and the woman she will become ) just as all the hidden secrets do.
Myers build scene upon scene of oscillation between moments of freedom and security and long patches of terror as her younger self seeks refuge, sometimes finding it and sometimes discovering cruelty instead. We begin to know the “what” of her mother’s abandonment but not yet the “why.”
Once all four generations of mothers and daughters have been introduced–Blanche, Gram, Josephine, Linda Joy–the author foreshadows the ending while maintaining mystery. Here is the final sentence in a chapter called “Mother’s Shadow” about a third of the way through the book. Referring to her mother and grandmother, she says, “They kept picking at each other with small, sharp implements, unconsciously honing the tools that will some day tear them apart.”
When the first stable, encouraging, male figure appears in her life in the form of a music teacher who comes to the school Linda Joy attends in Enid, Oklahoma, she calls him the Pied Piper who will save her life, but does not say how. Instead, she hints: “He will save me from the town’s obsession with class but will also make me more vulnerable to it.”
As she enters her teenage years, the author loses her trust in her father, who becomes aggressive sexually on one of her visits, and she flees him. Afterward, back home with Gram in Enid, she chooses not to tell anyone about her father’s misdeeds and instead sits down to play Bach at the piano. This time she foreshadows a conclusion that does not, in the end, turn out to be exact: “I can see that Gram and I are destined to be together for the long haul, until I graduate from high school. My father is lost to me for good.”
Finally, after graduation, it is Linda Joy’s turn to get on the train to Chicago. She imagines what lies ahead: “Anticipation zips like a current through my brain. I sleep very little as the train rocks me back and forth in its wonderful way. As the night passes, I imagine all the great thing that lie ahead: a loving mother and father, a husband and children of my own, music and art and literature, the further ripening of all my gifts.
“Some of this will indeed come to pass, but life is never quite as we imagined it.”
As the book, like the train, continues to its destination, many mysteries are unraveled but new ones also appear. Myers reconciles with her father, despite her earlier belief that he is lost to her forever, and records his words in his hospital room, “You’re a Myers after all.” She does not know what to make of them. “His cryptic comment will haunt me for years, until I finally find out what he must have meant.”
While this and the other mysteries above find resolution, new characters and new clues arise even as the book draws to a close. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I think you will agree that the author has learned how to bait the reader with both reliable and unreliable clues.
Being mysterious without being coy or deceitful as a writer takes practice. Linda Joy Myers worked on this memoir for 15 years. One of the skills she perfected was suspense. As a result, we can both go inside her skin and study her writing strategies of foreshadowing, hinting, projecting, and redirecting.
Do you pay attention to the pacing of a story? To what is revealed and what is concealed? What do you enjoy as a reader? What challenges do you face as a writer?