Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Author Insight: An Evening with Jeannette Walls

I didn't know what to expect when I walked into the conference room at 4:30 pm on October 5th. I had signed up for my company's Author Lecture Series a couple weeks before and was reading The Glass Castle in anticipation for Jeannette Walls's talk. I'd been meaning to read her memoir for ages, but it sat on my shelf gathering dust until the moment I signed up. I knew if I were going to see her speak, I better read her book.

So, I read it--I laughed, I cried, I'll never be the same. My boss jokes with me by saying that every time something ridiculous and insignificant happens that someone is blowing out of proportion. But just now it wasn't a joke. JW's memoir was one of the most interesting, compelling, and inspiring stories I'd ever read. She had a childhood of such struggle, I never would've been able to imagine it had I not listened to her words as she shared her self-declared "source of shame" with strangers like me all over the world.

I could tell just from her memoir that she was a remarkable and resilient woman. But when it came time to listen to her speak, I wasn't sure in what shambles I'd meet her. As soon as I walked in the room though, it was clear she was more put together than I.

Tall and thin, JW dressed in a tailored black suit with a single strand of pearls around her neck, her wild red hair just tamed enough to make me incredibly jealous. She exuded beauty and confidence. Frankly, I was in awe. It was clear she was a force to be reckoned with. And then she spoke, and I was blown away.

For the hour long lecture, JW discussed a vast array of topics, all of which came back to one significant concept: truth. With all the memoirs that are on the shelves these days, it's easy to forget their purpose, particularly when the authors themselves aren't writing for anything other than money or fame. But JW's purpose was refreshing, admirable, and extremely worthy. She just wanted to tell the truth.

"The truth is a liquid and not a solid," she told us. "It takes many shapes, and everyone's truth is different. But basically, we're all the same. Underneath it all, we are so much alike, and it's that commonality that unites us all."

She never believed anyone would buy a story about her "little white trash life." She feared that "no doubt that once people knew the truth about me, I would lose everything.” She asked herself why she would ever expose herself like that, to write her story down on paper where she could never take it back, where her dirty laundry, as it were, would be hanging out to dry for all to see. But then she realized it didn't matter. Her "fantasy for the book was that a rich kid would read it and understand what it’s like on the other side and have empathy, but then my fantasy evolved and I wanted to give the same hope to poor kids too." That was the heart of it all.

The Glass Castle has far exceeded anything JW ever expected. It's gone on to become perhaps one of the most well-known memoirs in history and has caused reactions that JW never thought would be possible. Children read her book in classrooms to learn about poverty, and people JW knew as a child have even come out of the woodwork to apologize for looking down on her and putting her down. As JW said, “people are just trying to understand what other people think. It's all about getting to the truth."

JW went on to discuss her next book, Half Broke Horses. Using Norman Mailer's phrase "a true life novel," JW tells the story of her extraordinary grandmother Libby and her ordinary life. While technically fiction, HBH is as close to the truth as JW could get. "That magic that visits writer's when you make stuff up, that magic doesn’t visit me," she admitted. "I dig.”

And that's exactly what she did in her second book. Through research and interviews she pieced together her grandmother's life, "dramatizing rather than fictionalizing," she explained. "A memoirist is allowed to make up nothing. We can only have a different perspective or impression of the situation." She kept that philosophy with HBH and while I was reluctant to read it when I first heard of its publication, I am now intrigued to see JW's version of the truth through the eyes of her grandmother's successors.

Throughout JW's dynamic lecture, I couldn't stop smiling, the reason for which is two-fold.

First, I was given the opportunity to read a memoir that gets back to and fulfills the true purpose of a memoir. As JW put it, "people these days think memoirists are exhibitionists. It’s not that at all. This is my life. And maybe you can learn a little something about it without having to live it.” That is what memoir is all about, should be all about. It was rejuvenating for me to see that reality live on.

And then, on top of that, I was grateful to be able to meet this woman who had been through so much and somehow still cared so immensely about everyone else. I can't imagine that after what she'd been through, I would've been nearly as capable as she. I likely would've crumbled, and I certainly wouldn't have been able to be as open, as honest, and as caring as she seems to be. But "we’re all very strong and very resourceful," she shared. "We all come from hearty stock.”

And maybe we do. We just have to remember that as we move through our lives. And we must never forget, as JW reminded me, that "there’s no shame in failing. The shame comes if we tell ourselves we aren’t strong enough to get back up.”

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