BECOMING AN OUTLAW
Or: How My Short Fiction Became a Memoir
by Andrea Jarrell
I began as a fiction writer, naturally drawing from my childhood as my mother had told it to me, working hard to bring her stories to life through scene, dialogue, and sensory detail, pacing them as mysteries. The memoir that many of these fictionalized stories eventually became is better, I think, because I didn’t start out writing memoir, trying to “remember.”
Like a bedtime story, my mother often told me of our escape, fugitives from my father, a man as alluring as he was violent. She was nineteen, a girl-woman, scared of what this man who slept beside her with a gun under his pillow might do if my crying got too much or yet another man admired her beauty. She used to say that the day she first felt me move inside her, she began plotting to leave him.
Our getaway car was a teal blue Corvair. I was just a year old, literally and figuratively strapped in beside her. The car that delivered us to our freedom was famously recalled by its manufacturer for its tendency to lose control. Shed of my father, she said she felt as if I’d been hatched—a being she’d conjured, like Athena sprung from the head of Zeus. In the narrative she invented for us, I had as little control as our faulty Corvair.
In the essay, “Outlaw Heart” Jayne Anne Phillips writes, “often we were precocious, overly-responsible children—not in what we accomplished, necessarily, but in what we remembered, in the emotional burdens we took on. Many of us were our mother’s confidantes, the special children with whom hopes and betrayals were discussed.”
When my mother recounted the story of her bruised flesh and the father I would later meet and come to think of as a wolf, she could not have known I would one day become the “outlaw” writer Phillips described, the “precocious, overly-responsible” child “awarded possession of a set of truths, enlisted to protect someone’s version.”
Captive to and captivated by my mother’s story, for many years I was cut off from my own.
As a fledgling fiction writer, I created men and women with secrets and sex lives, fears and distinct personalities, based on but not actually my parents. In one story, a young wife has an affair with a powerful paramour who offers to kill the woman’s abusive husband. Nothing like this happened to my mother, but writing that story helped me see her not just as my father’s victim, but as a woman who freed herself through intelligence and financial savvy.
Imagining characters whose heads, hearts, and souls I could inhabit let me be both more generous and less precious when, later, I tried to summon to the page my actual parents, lovers, friends, and extended family.
Seventeen years ago, during my first semester in the Bennington MFA program, I wrote some form of a line that now appears in my memoir: “The day my mother first felt me move inside her, she began plotting to leave my father.” I thought I was writing a novel in stories, initially titled Hatched. By third semester, I’d been praised for vivid writing but I had yet to produce a satisfying short story. The prose purred but the stories didn’t go anywhere, I think because I was still writing as my mother’s daughter, trying to drive from her passenger seat. My work didn’t improve until I started a story in which the mother is literally whisked away.
One night in the campus pub, I regaled some classmates with a tale of my teenage self traveling with my beautiful mother and getting separated from her at the Florence train station. Feeling always in her shadow, I had sparked an argument with her over the attentions of men and suddenly, as she and our train moved on to Rome, at fifteen, I was stranded without money or passport. I had to find my way back to my mother, but first I was wooed by three young Italian men and even briefly considered going off to a party with them.
The next morning, in my narrow Bennington dorm bed, I woke with the sound of train whistles and flirty Italian voices in my head. The whole story played before me as a panorama. I flew from my bed to my desk to capture it before it got away. That true story was my first “fiction” that really worked, winning me a small fellowship and a contest placement.
After that, my mentors were impressed with how quickly my work improved. “It’s as if you just needed to be pointed in the right direction,” one said.
I graduated from Bennington with seven true-ish stories, determinedly sending them to literary journals but finding no takers. Even though they were autobiographical, it never occurred to me to write them as memoir. The stories I’d grown up hearing felt old and tired like chewed gum that had lost its flavor. Fictionalizing them freed me to explore my material, but it also left me feeling rudderless. What meaning did my made-up stories convey? What was I trying to say?
Then, I discovered Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, a collection of nonfiction pieces that read like a book of short stories. Using tools I thought exclusive to fiction, Beard broke rules in ways that fascinated and delighted me. In “Coyotes,” she writes as a coyote, down to the taste of the fur in his mouth. In “Cousins,” she presents dialogue between her mother and aunt, though at the time she is a gestating fetus in her mother’s womb.
Rather than confining me, real life now felt like an unmapped secret world that I was ready to explore. And because the impulse to tell my story had begun in fiction, a playful approach to the narrative was already baked in. The fragment of a short story I’d started years before about a woman who doesn’t think she deserves her husband, and so begins choosing a second wife for him, became an essay (“A Measure of Desire”) published in The New York Times “Modern Love” column. It’s a lyrical essay crafted entirely from life.
I experienced a shift in thinking that Allison Green, writing for Brevity Magazine’s blog, describes: “I found that creative nonfiction was the home I didn’t know I needed. It provided structure and focus. Now I liken it to form poetry; the truth as I remember it constrains the writing in the same way the sonnet form constrains writing. Unexpectedly, that constraint fosters innovation and surprise. It frees rather than limits.”
Like Green, I found memoir was the writerly home I hadn’t known I’d been longing for.
As I began to publish more memoir, I faced the classic conundrum: What’s mine and what’s theirs—not only material but my motives for using it? What were the ethics of answering my creative call at the possible expense of hurting others, especially my parents?
My mother and I had always been close but I’d never told her that in my writing, I’d been exploring her relationship with my father and its impact on my life. But the Times required permission from anyone mentioned in the essay. Getting an “ok” from my husband to out him as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and to reveal aspects of our sex life was far easier than the call to my mother.
I read to my mother what I’d written about her—a view that made clear how unsafe I’d felt as a kid and how relieved I was to be living a life different from hers: married for over twenty years, living in the suburbs with two kids. I asked for her blessing. She consented because she knew how important it was to me and because she loves me, but we both knew what I’d written had hurt her.
If my mother had known I would write it all down, would she have entrusted me with her truth? Especially if she knew I would take ownership of her story, give myself permission to shape shift it into mine, make my own meaning? The delicate balance we struck over the Times essay shifted as I began to piece together more essays to forge a bigger story in a book-length manuscript: As Anne Lamott says in Why We Write About Ourselves, “All writing is collaborative, including memoir.” Now I needed my mother’s help.
My emails often began, “I just need to ask one more question.” I imagined her in her New York City office, feeling confident and successful, scrolling through email, only to be sucker punched by my digging and fact-checking details about earlier struggles.
Me: Sorry to bother you. Am I correct that you worked in a bank when you first moved back to Fresno? Can you remind me what your job was when A— came to see you and you smelled his cologne in the elevator?
Again, sorry to dredge this up. 🙁
Her: I was a clerk typist in my first law firm. Even now, just thinking about it my instinct is to throw-up from fear. This book is about your life – right?
By then, I could respond, “Yes, it’s about my life.” By then, I knew that my parents’ story might be an embedded folktale within mine, but not my memoir’s dramatic trigger.
The arc of my story came into view when I understood where its action began, and grasped the narrator’s vantage point—what she knew in the opening essay and came to know by the last. Understanding the narrator’s trajectory let me set down the burden of my mother’s truths, and move past the child entrusted with them.
I had been biting off my story in essay-sized chunks—nearly thirty pieces focused on sex as a cautionary tale, beauty and desirability, addiction and recovery, how to be a mature marriage partner without role models. My themes were clear but I struggled with how it would fit together, become more than the sum of its parts. When I recognized my story’s “inciting incident,” all the essays linked up like boxcars behind the locomotive leading them.
My story opens with a murder. In my thirties—a mother myself with two small children—my husband and I moved from Los Angeles to the small town of Camden, Maine. The murdered woman, a single mother, was killed in the house across the road. Her son went to the same preschool as mine. Though I didn’t know the woman well, upon hearing the news, I came completely undone. Pondering my reaction set my memoir in motion.
The woman’s fate—shot by her jealous boyfriend—hit me hard because her tragedy was the one my mother and I narrowly escaped. A shadow tragedy that had always hung over me, hovering at the edges of my awareness, informing my choices in lovers and friends, influencing the way these relationships played out.
To stop telling my mother’s story and start telling mine, I had to understand how desperate I’d always been to escape her choices. Only then could I write a book of essays about the difficulty that daughters have separating from—while still honoring—their mothers. About making a successful marriage without a map, and the perils of breaking the hereditary cycle of addiction. About how experience teaches us to live better lives than we imagined we could.
My mother is not sure she can read my memoir when it’s published next year. Yet when I told her its title, I’m the One Who Got Away, she smiled. “That’s perfect,” she said. It’s not her tale of hatching a savior and getting away in the teal blue Corvair—but mine.
Andrea Jarrell’s essays have appeared in The New York Times; Narrative Magazine; Brevity blog; Full Grown People; Brain, Child; Memoir Journal; Cleaver Magazine; The Manifest-Station; The Washington Post and several anthologies. Her memoir I’m the One Who Got Away will be published by She Writes Press in 2017.
Image credit: Candice Seplow on Unsplash