I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Judy for several years. So many in fact, I’m not even sure when we first met. But I do remember riding with her and our friend, Claire, to a weeklong writing workshop. Claire and I attending as students and Judy as an instructor for the week. While Claire and I picked her brain a little bit about writing, what I remember is Judy’s genuine interest in our writing projects and writing life. She is one of the most generous people I know.
I’m the oldest of three girls so when Judy’s first memoir, Losing My Sister, was published I had to read it. With touching honesty Judy reveals the love and sometimes distance between herself and older sister, Brenda.
Now I look forward to her new memoir, Together: Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap, to be released in February. Judy let me pick her brain again recently and here is what she had to say about her books and her writing.
A Writer’s Window: You’ve written poetry and fiction as well. What draws you to memoir?
Judy: I was perfectly happy writing poetry. Then my stanzas began stretching into paragraphs, and I realized I was leaning towards prose. That’s when I wrote my first novel, then the second one. But I really believe I was not good at fiction. Making things up is not my strong suit. What I really love is re-examining an experience I didn’t fully understand when it happened, an experience that still haunts or disturbs me. And that . . . is memoir.
A Writer’s Window: Fiction writers often have a ‘seed’ or ‘aha’ moment that propels their story. Are you comfortable sharing the definitive moment that propelled you to write your memoirs, Losing My Sister and Together: Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap?
Judy: Who knows where anything comes from in writing? But here goes:
In 2006, to relieve his back pain, my husband had an epidural, a procedure so routine it’s given to women in childbirth. The minute the needle pushed into his spine, he was paralyzed from the waist down. People kept asking me if I was going to write about this. “Never!” I declared. I’d lived through it; I certainly did not want to live through it again. But then, in 2008, I was held up at gunpoint at a dry cleaner. That incident did not scare me; it made me sad. I kept crying. Finally, I realized that my husband’s medical mishap and the holdup felt the same – both were proof that life can change in an instant. I could finally cry over what had happened to my husband two years before. And I could use that as a lens through which to explore the changes – both dramatic and ordinary – that occur in every marriage. That’s when I began writing Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap.
Within 5 days, 3 things happened that turned my life upside down: My sister was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, my daughter found out she was pregnant with identical twins, a daughter whom my brother had fathered and put for adoption 40 years before found him. Immediately, a title popped into my head: The Arithmetic of Family. I wrote the memoir this title was leading me to write. But 2 ½ years into the writing, I realized I had not written the memoir my lifelong preoccupation was leading me to write. I cut two sections of my book and was left with a memoir about my older sister and me – Losing My Sister. A Writer’s Window: Merriam-Webster defines biography as a usually written history of a person’s life; autobiography as the biography of a person narrated by himself or herself; memoir as a narrative composed from personal experience.
Other than the obvious differences, as a writer what are the subtle and intrinsic differences in both the content and in writing a memoir that may not be so obvious?
Judy: An autobiography is the epic chronology of a life, the public life. A memoir is the private life. Autobiography emphasizes what is remembered; memoir emphasizes who is remembering. I’ll just add that the most important thing I’ve learned about writing memoir is this: It is not enough to convey what happened. We need to examine what the story means. The reward we hope for in writing memoir is self-knowledge. What was I thinking then? What am I thinking now? How do I understand the person I was then in light of the person I am now?
A Writer’s Window: You’ve taught memoir writing classes for several years at Table Rock Writing Workshop. What have you learned from your students over the years?
Judy: I’ve actually been teaching for about thirty-five years! I keep teaching because it’s a tremendously satisfying thing to do. I love how hard my students work to get their stories right – which inspires me to work hard to get my own stories right. And then, once we discover we can’t actually get everything right, we just keep doing our work in hopes of coming close. What a great thing for all of us to learn!
A Writer’s Window: Whose memoir have you most enjoyed reading? Is there one you’re waiting to read – whether it’s actually been written yet or not!
Judy: Oh, goodness, there are so many excellent memoirs. Recently, I’ve enjoyed Sarah Perry’s Before the Eclipse, David Sedaris’s Calypso, Decca Aitkenhead’s All at Sea. A memoir I read back in 2011 that remains one of my favorites is Darin Strauss’s Half a Life. I’ll also add Rosenblatt’s Making Toast.
A Writer’s Window: What is your writing space like?
Judy: I absolutely adore my writing space. My computer sits atop an old rolltop desk, which was the last gift my father gave me. So, when I write, I also get to remember my father – and also, my mother, who was not able to participate in the gift because she had Alzheimer’s at the time. My father was dying of cancer and living with my husband, our two children, and me. He spent every day at my mother’s bedside in a Charlotte nursing home. One day, he told me he wanted to give me a fabulous present to thank me for taking care of him and Mother. This desk is that fabulous present! I’ve never been to a writers’ colony because I can’t imagine ever writing on anything but this desk, which I’ve owned since 1979.
A Writer’s Window: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
Judy: The odd answer to this question is that I think I’m always writing! When I’m spending time with my sweet husband, sweet children, sweet grandchildren, I’m loving being with them – and I’m also unconsciously collecting experiences which I’ll no doubt write about! When I’m with my friends – some I’ve had since childhood – we’re talking about our lives, which is also what I do when I write. When I’m walking in the neighborhood, which I enjoy doing, I’m often thinking of some knotty problem in my work I’m trying to solve. So there’s only a thin, porous separation between living and writing – sort of a semi-permeable membrane through which things continually pass back and forth.
A Writer’s Window: What a perfect image of the writer’s essence. Thank you Judy for letting us peek into your Writer’s Window today!
Here is the link for pre-ordering Judy’s upcoming memoir, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap. Isn’t that a wonderful cover photo?