Writing Replacement Child; a writer’s talk about building a memoir
Meeting with a group of writers at the Westport Writer’s Workshop last night was such a great evening. It’s always instantly apparent when you have writers talking together who have an understanding of the task of creating good writing. The discussion was deep around how to shape a memoir.
What if you weren’t there?
One topic that delved into a pivotal issue I faced when writing Replacement Child. What do you do when parts of your story happened when you were not there? Is that still memoir when you fashion a scene from the facts you know, the stories you were told and even the newspaper articles about an event? Since much of the story of Replacement Child happened before I was born, I faced this dilemma immediately as I started writing the book. The plane crash, my parent’s dealing with the grief of losing their eldest daughter, the first treatments and surgeries for my critically injured two-year-old sister, all happened before my birth. But, they were an integral part of my story.
The example I gave for how I approached it was how I built a scene around a newspaper article I found that featured a photo of my father just after the accident. The headline was: This is the Day He Must Tell Wife Plane Killed Donna. The article went on to describe how my father had waited all night for word that they had found Donna’s body in the wreckage. How my mother was recovering from burns she had gotten during the accident, and how he was waiting for her to wake up to tell her the news. From that newspaper account, my knowledge of the events and my intimate knowledge of my parents, I fashioned that scene as part of my memoir. I believe it is as true as anything could possibly be regarding that moment in their lives.
Piecing together your story
We talked about how you go about unearthing your memories and piecing together the themes that develop the characters, arc and conflict in your story; just like a novel. I told them how I lined my hallway with index cards of each chapter of Replacement Child to figure out how they fit together to tell the story. I’ve shared a picture of that here.
In the small group of women, I was surprised to also learn that two were connected to replacement children; both a mother and a daughter. We also talked about that term and how I adopted the use for my book title after reading about replacement child syndrome being coined in 1964 in an article by Albert Cain and Barbara Cain entitled “On Replacing a Child.” I explained how I immediately identified with some of the characteristics noted in that research. No, I said, my parents would not have liked the term. But it didn’t make it any less true for me.
Thanks to the Westport Writer’s Workshop for a lively discussion that brought me back to thinking about the real work of writing. Write on!