Friday, September 21, 2012

Writing Memoir: Interview with Author Angela M. Graziano

The recently published memoir, A Vision of Neon, is insightful and beautifully written. Thanks to author Angela M. Graziano for discussing the process of writing this very personal story about two teenage friends, one of whom struggles with mental illness. 


One of the themes throughout the book is your quest to remember details from your past. What actions did you take to work to remember?

To be honest, the act of remembering was one of the most difficult (and also therapeutic) aspects about writing this book. When I first began writing the early drafts of this manuscript, I think I was a bit na├»ve to the complete process that (an ethical) memoirist must follow. In other words, it took me a long time to transition away from what was essentially journaling and to enter a stage in my creative process where I was willing to actively “research” my own life (the concept still seems so strange). However, it was one of (if not the most) important steps I took in writing this book.

Just like fiction writers often conduct research about the respective topics or landscapes they are writing about, I find it really important that memoir writers engage in research as well, for two main reasons. First, the act of “researching” was often where I found my best material; in other words, the act itself often brought to my attention vital “scenes” from my past that I had previously overlooked or, in some cases, nearly forgotten about entirely. Likewise, I believe it is vital that memoir writers meet certain ethical standards; that is, they’re not just making up or embellishing stories for the sake of “plot.” My research is what encouraged me to stray away from that sort of temptation. There were many materials that proved to be very helpful. I’m lucky that, since childhood, I’ve saved almost every journal I’ve ever owned (nowadays, they’re all neatly organized in a large bin that I store in my home office). Often, I would craft a chapter or a scene from memory and then afterwards, skim back through those journals and find entries from the respective time period I was writing about. In a few cases, doing so helped me to recall further details about specific events, which I was then able to integrate into my manuscript while revising. In some other cases, those journal entries helped confirm the fact that my memory had been a bit off and, therefore, much greater revision became necessary.

In addition to journals, I spent quite a lot of time at my parents’ home, sorting through all their old boxes filled with my high school mementos – handwritten letters and photographs were especially helpful. I also spent quite some time speaking with family members and would often ask them to tell me (from their own perspectives) about particular events I was writing about. This was a great way for me to crosscheck information -- if multiple family members had memories that “matched” my own, I felt confident tagging those memories as “truth.” In situations where that was not the case, I knew I had to cut out certain scenes. Lastly, I found music to be a huge help to me. I downloaded a tremendous amount of music that Kelsey and I listened to when we were kids, as well as certain songs I remember listening to right after she passed away and so forth. This music helped me to time travel back to that period in my life and made my emotions from that time period become very real to me again. I listened to music while writing (and editing) nearly every single page of this book (Oliver Sacks’ book, Musicophilia, proved to be a very interesting read in regards to the topic of music and memory).

When writing memoir, it can be hard to silence the many voices of the people involved in the story. While you want to work ethically and morally, you also want to tell the truth. What kinds of decisions did you make in the writing of this book? In the author’s note, you write, “(…) some scenes have been compressed or excluded. Many of the names of people and places have been changed.”

This is a great question and it is ultimately the question (which I long ago posed to myself) that shaped my entire book. The very early drafts of the book are quite different from the final product in that those early drafts contain many more “characters” when compared with the very few “characters” that appear in the final manuscript. At some point in the writing process (about the time when I realized I was no longer drafting out a series of essays or disconnected scenes but was, in fact, writing a complete book), I began to realize that (gulp) one day people might actually read it! Of course, this is when I became concerned about “outing” certain friends from my past and revealing information about their lives that they might not feel comfortable having revealed. That was when I began to really contemplate the worthiness of my subject. I certainly did not want my manuscript to feel narcissistic (i.e.: to be exclusively about me); however, I also did not want it to feel (to me or to people who know me) like a sophisticated form of gossip.

So I had to make a choice: what do I keep, and what do I delete? In retrospect, I’m very glad I reached that point in my writing process because (at least for this particular project) once I began to brush away many of the other characters and details, I gained the clarity I needed to really see – that is, to really understand – the story I was trying to create (which, I realized was not a story about a group of teenage girls, but rather, a very specific story about two very close teenage girls and the troubles they endured together). I decided to only include other characters when I felt it was absolutely essential to the plot (as in the case of the slumber party scene, which I felt revealed a great deal about the narrator and Kelsey). In many of those instances, it didn’t matter who those specific characters were; rather, what often mattered were their very brief exchanges and how those exchanges helped to define the narrator and Kelsey. In those cases, for the reasons I’ve described, I felt comfortable creating composite characters or blending scenes (in other words, the goal was not to detail every single second of the narrator and Kelsey’s exchanges with these other characters, but rather to highlight a particular feeling or a specific conversation that was important to the larger plot).

But then, of course, there were other characters (namely the narrator and Kelsey’s respective family members). Admittedly, this was somewhat tricky. In the case of these characters, I couldn’t simply create composite characters because the family members were far too vital to the movement of the story. For me, what it boiled down to was this: Do I feel that something within this story is significant enough to share with the world? Will it help others/teach others/possibly bring a small bit of positive change about in our world? And if the answer to any of those questions is “yes”, is the subject absolutely significant enough that it is worth risking others’ feelings? Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you view it), in the case of this story, I answered, “yes” to all of those things. At the end of the day, I felt I had a duty to the world to share what I feel is a very important story that (I hope) will resonate with and educate readers. I was very cautious in how I constructed the family characters (specifically Kelsey’s parents) to be sure I was absolutely describing them correctly and detailing facts (not my emotional perspectives in regards to particular situations). I was cautious of these things while writing the entire manuscript, of course, but I guess you could say I was hyperaware while constructing Kelsey’s family members.

As far as my family goes, I am lucky that they were very supportive of this project from the start and very much agreed with my philosophy: this story should be shared with the world. I asked my mother to read the book in its entirety before it went to press to be certain I had her blessing (i.e.: she didn’t object to the way our family members or any other characters were being portrayed). As far as name changes go, this has never been something that has personally bothered me. What has always mattered to me is that the characters themselves – the true essence of them – is very real. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet,” right?

I really liked the brief switch to the second person, addressing your friend directly, towards the end of the book. Can you share your thoughts on changing the point of view there?

I have to be completely honest about this: the point-of-view switch was entirely unintentional. Due to the content of these final chapters, they were by far the most difficult for me to write (from an emotional standpoint, that is). While crafting these chapters, I tried very, very hard not to think too much about the act of or the quality of my writing (at least while composing the early drafts). Rather, I tried very hard to allow myself to become lost in the world I was writing about so that the emotions came through in a very authentic, non-contrived way. While I tried to do this throughout the entire text, I knew it was most important that I did it effectively for these final chapters, which directly deal with Kelsey’s death and the narrator’s subsequent grief. I guess, in some ways, writing these chapters was a very meditative process for me: I was far less concerned with achieving a certain structure or a certain sense of flow and style; I was much more concerned with creating a very truthful feeling. As a result, when I first began to write in the second person I didn’t even realize I was doing it (until I went back to read over what I’d written). It just sort of happened naturally, I suppose, which I think is a big reason why these chapters really work.

I think there is a strange lesson here for memoir writers. While, of course, it is necessary for us to be very conscious of our craft and think about our subjects and the direction our stories are ultimately heading, we need to occasionally give ourselves permission to push those things to the side and focus exclusively on the real task at hand: recreating a true story, one we personally lived through and felt and experienced, and allow our true emotions or instincts to shine through without trying too hard.

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