BY MINDY GREILING
Mental health advocate and former state legislator
Describing my personal feelings was the hardest part of writing my memoir. My writing group nurtured my fledgling attempts to capture the story of son Jim’s mental illness and my legislative work, but after offering encouraging compliments, they would invariably ask things like, “But, Mindy, how did you feel when Jim thought you weren’t his real mother? How did your belly feel when your mental health bill didn’t get a hearing?” I tried, I really did, but they pulled little out of me.
“Oh come on!” said my first professional editor, when she read the part where Jim drove 100 hours per hour, weaving in and out of traffic, when he was first getting ill, without any mention of how terrified I was. I added a few emotions here and there to placate her, but mostly we focused on other important things, such as book and chapter story arcs, character development, setting and dialogue. My beta readers largely left me alone when it came to emotions. Mostly editors and journalists and a few people dealing with schizophrenia, they provided invaluable input, but focused on the story and writing.
My final editor, Kate Hopper, helped fine-tune my manuscript in significant ways before I submitted it to the University of Minnesota Press, and the most important was to teach me to finally express my deepest feelings. Fix What You Can is an intensely personal memoir so that was the exact elixir it needed. Kate is kind enough to answer a few questions below about how she works her magic.
Q: I come from parents who would have rather eaten glass than express feelings out loud. I had to learn to do that on the page. You wrote in my manuscript, “Let the readers in!” How important is this to a book’s success?
A: I think it’s critical. Readers need to be able to empathize with a narrator. In order to do that, readers need to understand the narrator and how she is reacting and feeling and how she is reflecting on the things going on in her life. That emotional life is at the heart of a memoir. It raises the stakes in the narrative and also provides the reader with an entry point so she/he/they can walk in the author’s shoes.
Q: It really helped me when you provided sample pieces written by authors who eloquently shared their feelings, and I read your book Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood, also published by the University of Minnesota Press. What other methods do you employ to help writers like me who hold their emotional cards close to the vest?
A: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written in the margins, “How did it feel? What was your in-the-moment reaction?” Getting writers to slow down and get back in touch with how experiences felt, both physically and emotionally, is one of my goals as an editor and teacher. I also often see writers who have a scene that is very surface-level, and then at the end of a chapter they tack on a paragraph of reflection. I try to get writers to merge these so that we get their thoughts and reactions as scenes are unfolding.
So I ask a lot of questions: What did you think of this? What did you make of that? How did you feel? Reflection is one of the things that can help us move from the surface level of a story to the heart of the story and to the universals.
My goal is to get the writers I work with to go deeper and to really examine the moments in their stories that have potential for great change. I often provide exercises to help with this, especially if it’s difficult for an author to tap into those emotional and physical reactions.
Q: Did you express your emotions naturally in your first writings or did you too have to be taught?
A: It’s definitely something that became easier the more I wrote. It takes practice, and the more you write, the more intuitive it becomes. Reading widely helps, of course. I always read with an eye for improving my own writing and study the writers I admire.
Q: I just read Know My Name by Chanel Miller, who I thought excelled at expressing her feelings. Do you recommend any book or author as a good example?
A: There are so many authors that do this well. James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues is a great example. It’s fiction, but has a first-person narrator so I often use it when I teach memoir. Jill Christman’s essays are also great examples. Some of my favorites are “The Allergy Diaries” and “Return to Plum Island.” I just finished reading Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls, and she does this very well. This memoir is a wonderful example of how an author can create empathy, both for other characters and for her younger self.
Mindy Greiling is author of Fix What You Can: Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son. Greiling was a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives for twenty years. She helped found the nation’s first state mental health caucus, which successfully lobbied for a significant increase in Minnesota’s mental health funding. She has served on state and national boards of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and is on the University of Minnesota Psychiatry Community Advisory Council.
Kate Hopper is the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers and Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, winner of a Midwest Independent Publishing Award. She is co-author of Silent Running, a memoir of one family’s journey with autism and running. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Brevity, Creative Nonfiction’s True Story, Longreads, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times online, Poets & Writers, and River Teeth. Hopper has an MFA from the University of Minnesota and has been the recipient of two Minnesota State Arts Board Grants, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Grant, and a Fulbright Scholarship. She teaches online and in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program. She lives in Minneapolis with her family. For more information about her work visit www.katehopper.com.