Monday, May 6, 2013

Linda Gray Sexton: Extraordinary Memoirist

Reviving this space feels like returning to my old town for a visit.  Looking around, there are definitely things that are the same, but time has moved on, and with that has come change.  I'll draw comfort from the relationships, support, and confidence this space provided me in the most difficult time of my life, and I'll use that strength to help me get through the process of reliving it as I pen my memoir.  I've got some great plans and ideas for this space, but I want to start out with this most amazing interview, which brought me to tears as I read it and contains some of the best writing advice I've ever gotten.  Enjoy, and then stick around for what lies ahead, my friends.

Linda Gray Sexton is a writer and the daughter of poet Anne Sexton.  Her memoirs speak directly to my heart and are written with an honesty and purpose that I hope to recreate as I forge my way through the process.  I cannot thank Linda enough for taking the time to answer these questions and providing me an encouraging boost as I begin writing.  You can find out more about Linda, including links to her published books,  at

What first prompted you to write a memoir about your experiences with your mother? Was it something you knew right away when it came to you, or did you struggle with the decision?

I was laid up after having had surgery on my both feet and I couldn’t walk, and was forced to simply keep to my bed.  As a get-well gift, my husband bought me a new computer—a laptop Mac rather than the desktop PC I had been using for many years—and I starting just fooling around and getting used to it.  Within the space of a few days, I discovered I was actually writing about thoughts and emotions I hadn’t considered since adolescence, except in therapy sessions.  This “journal” was just the beginning of Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey  Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton.  Over the next several months I poured my heart and soul into the then garbled sentences, which rapidly became a book-length manuscript. Within the space of half a year, I had a full memoir written on the new computer.  I had never finished anything so quickly, so easily, as this, as ordinarily it took me at least two years to complete a book, and I had always considered myself a fairly fast writer.  This book just flew onto the page.

I did not struggle with the decision to write about my life with my mother.  It seemed as natural as waking up in the morning.  I knew she would have encouraged me, and that, in and of itself, did encourage me.  I knew the rest of the family would be opposed to what I was doing—revealing the secrets long kept private—but I believed it was my story to tell, and thus, that I had the right to tell it.  I tried hard to be kind, balancing this with honesty, and believe I struck the right balance between telling what my mother called “telling it true” and telling it with compassion for all those involved.

What prompted me to write Searching for Mercy Street, and the memoir that followed, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide?  Once I began to consider making such private experiences public, the knowledge that others had experienced similar situations gave me courage. To know that others had had the same highs and lows as I had as my mother’s daughter and that they needed to learn how to forgive, to know that others had also felt the same terrible pull of suicide, and that many of them could not put these experiences into words, or even into conscious thought, made it an imperative for me.  I felt I was doing it for myself, but I also believed that I could bring illumination and comfort to others. 
Currently, I am struggling with writing those terribly painful scenes without feeling overwhelmed. What does your writing process look like?

Painful scenes are hard to write about, there is no doubt.  Yet, somehow one must persevere in order to “tell it true.” There is absolutely no point in writing at all, if the desire for truth is not at the bottom of the well of inspiration.  I did struggle with the terrible truths of my experiences as both a child and adult.  Sometimes I sat at my computer and cried.  Sometimes I laughed.  Sometimes I became lost in memory and startled to the present only when one of my children tugged at my shirt.  I try to tap into the recall process and stay there.  As to my process: sometimes I just blurt words out onto the page in a free association manner and don’t try to “write” in an orderly sense at all.  After I’ve milked my unconscious for as much as it will give up in that session, I go back and begin to work with the material.  This is the only way I know to get over the hurdle of the conscious repressing the unconscious or painful memories.  We don’t willingly want to enter a scene that was tough in any way for us, whether traumatic or just plain difficult.  Laughter and good memories come much more easily.  Yet without the layer of truth that lies beneath the surface of our recall, there is no point in writing memoir.

Oftentimes, when a memoirist is tackling tough topics, there is a healing associated with writing. How did writing about your mother's illness affect you?

Often people ask me if writing either Searching for Mercy Street or Half in Love was cathartic.  I reply that it is not cathartic, as the catharsis must have occurred long before I am ready to put the emotions into words.  I would say that the writing is healing, however.  It helps you lay to rest the final dregs of an experience that once troubled you, or helps you to celebrate the aspects that brought you joy.  All in all, the writing process invigorates me, bringing me fully awake as a person, a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister and a wife.

What advice do you have for writers, like me, who are just beginning their memoir writing experience?

As a new writer of memoir, I would first advise you to read as many memoirs as possible to get ideas about how you can best tell your story.  Should it have a chronological structure, or a thematic one?  Will you use flashbacks or flash forwards?  What will link it all together?  What really, beside yourself, is your topic?  All these questions, and many more, can be found by looking at examples of those who have done the job successfully.

At the very beginning, make an outline.  Writing a memoir is much more complicated than writing a diary, or writing a journal.  These other forms of written expression may give you the fodder for your field, but they cannot be the sole structure you use.  An outline is a real help for those who are beginning, as it forces you to get a handle on the structure, that elusive mechanic.  After you have an outline, begin to think in terms of “scenes.”  Summaries of what happened are boring.  You need to make your memoir come alive by writing it the way you would write a screenplay.  Make scenes of the events that shaped you, creating dialogue (stick as closely as possible to memory, which isn’t that hard to do—many of us remember quite well how and what people said to us in important situations), create action, tell us how you felt, how the room looked, how the wind blew across your face.  Make it come alive.  Don’t just tell us what happened, show us.  This old adage is perhaps the most important one I’ve ever heard about all the different kinds of writing.

Tell us about your new memoir. What is it about? When will is be released?

My new memoir is more light-hearted than the last, and definitely less dark.  It will be released in the spring of 2014 by Counterpoint Press.  It is about how my family—both my childhood family and the one I share at this time with my two children and my second husband—has been changed by the love of an active tribe of Dalmatians.  Right now the working title is Where the Dogs Go: How Thirty-Eight Dalmatians Shaped My Life.  It is drawn from a quote by Will Rogers, which goes like this, “If there is no heaven, then when I die I want to go where the dogs go.”