JACKSON: How did you get started writing memoir?
ASH: I started in 1999 in a hospital bed days after the stillbirth of my first and only child, Victoria Helen. Up to that point, I’d written thousands of articles as a journalist, a few published plays, and a few unpublished novels, all in third person.
After my daughter died, I reflexively started writing to process the experience. I reached for the notebook that my thoughtful husband had placed on my bedside table and jotted down images, aromas, snippets of conversation, and sensations. At that point I was still too grief-stricken and ill to string together sentences.
Later, when my emotions had just begun to settle and realign themselves with my new view of the world, I wrote about the horrendous separation my daughter and I had experienced.
I needed to witness what had happened. I needed to put language on it. Also, since I have a spiritual bent, I needed to search for meaning in what had happened and find a way to keep my daughter’s essence with me. What good mother doesn’t pine for connection with her child?
Stillbirth, up until the 1970s, at least here in the West, was mostly enveloped in silence. A few pioneers, including Sherokee Ilse, Joanne Cacciatore, Tim Nelson, Rachel Faldet, and Cathi Lammert, already had given voice to the experience of infant loss. The last forty years have been important ones in the stillbirth world—a changing point, and I wanted to be part of the change.
My story unfolded from my heart to my hands in the first person. Absolutely and unequivocally, I’d found a story to tell from the inside out. Memoir was the best possible genre for this story and so I wrote Life Touches Life: A Mother’s Story of Stillbirth and Healing, which, happily, has reached bereaved mothers of infants throughout the United States and in many countries. This year, around Mother’s Day, my memoir turned twelve years old.
One of the platitudes people love to tell stillbirth mothers is, “Not to worry. You’ll have another one.” There are a few things wrong with that statement, not the least of which it isn’t always true. I did not become a mother a second time. My husband and I had considered and researched both fertility treatments and adoption. We decided against both.
So that’s how memoir arrived in my life—through blunt force trauma by a Group B Strep infection that killed my baby and almost took my life as well. Reviewers have called my second memoir, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life, a sequel memoir since it follows my story past the point of loss into midlife. It’s about keeping faith in life as it is, not as we’d like it to be.
JACKSON: How do you know if your personal stories are worth developing as memoirs?
ASH: There is certainly nothing wrong, and everything right, with writing a memoir for a limited audience of, say, one’s descendants, simply to preserve the family history. But I believe you’re asking about memoirists who have commercial aspirations for their story. There is a literary litmus test for knowing if your stories have this kind of promise.
First, a memoir is, at its heart, a narrative driven by incident that gives rise to a life question the memoirist is burning to answer. The arc of the story, on one level, is a journey from question to answer. So would-be memoirists must first ask themselves if they have an incident, or series of incidents, of enough consequence to give rise to a truly significant question. The incident(s) need not be grand. Quiet occurrences, even subtle ones, can give rise to significant questions.
Second, a memoirist must ask, “Who would care about my story?” Defeatism is embedded in the question. In his brilliant book, Memoir Revolution, Jerry Waxler turns this attitude on its ear:
“The question, ‘Why would anyone read about me?’ might at first sound like a justification to never write a memoir. However, instead of letting this question stop your momentum, turn it around and use it as a starting point, exploring all the reasons someone might really want to read about you.”
Think of the incident and the question, and the narrative that flows from them as a house. Holding the structure, like a foundation, is a theme. Certain themes — abandonment, estrangement, betrayal, trauma, addiction, and many more — touch all our lives to some extent since they are part of the human condition. That’s how a story about one person can have a universal appeal.
When considering if a personal story is worth developing, the wise writer contemplates and understands the power, the depth, and the appeal of his or her theme. Why? Because others who are concerned with the same theme become a book’s readers. Life Touches Life, for instance, reached thousands of bereaved mothers of infants as well as some fathers and grandparents. They are a community of which I am a part. I understand the world into which fate has led them because it led me there, too. I wrote to them. They write to me. To this day, I get email and letters from readers who have gained perspective and comfort from Life Touches Life.
Overall, the point is: a memoir is a place where writer and reader meet. Most of us spend a lifetime inwardly processing the themes in our lives in an attempt to understand and come to peace with them. Indeed that’s why some memoirists write and, in turn, why many people read. The same can be said of some novels because they, too, are narratives with themes.
While a memoir and a novel may both be emotionally true, there’s a different quality to a memoir, which also holds itself out to be factually true. The difference means quite a lot to some readers, which accounts for the persistent popularity of the genre. (Sales of biography, autobiography, and memoir books were up 12 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to Publishers Weekly, ranking second in the adult nonfiction category only to the 15 percent increase in self-help books.)
A memoir is a container. All stories are. They are containers with shapes that help us explore, and make sense of, the chaos of our lives. Any memoir with a sound story, a significant question, and an identifiable community of readers is more than worthy of development. It also has a chance of succeeding in the marketplace.