Heart Speak Column #1: Getting Alice Out of Wonderland

Dear Lisa,

They say: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I am living proof of that statement.

My life has mirrored a journey through a magical wardrobe into Narnia, where I got lost in winter garments, accidentally stumbled upon a yellow brick road into Oz, got distracted by a witty rabbit and followed him down a chasm into Wonderland. Along the way, I’ve met wizards and mad hatters. I’ve explored shadowed lands and faced mystical questions about power and energy. And while that may sound like the stuff of a really fascinating and unique memoir, that’s precisely where I am stuck. My story is all true. And it’s much stranger than fiction.

I jokingly tell friends that my life is so surreal, I need to “reinvent genre” to write my memoir. But maybe this is not such a joke? Am I actually staring smack at a perfect opportunity to play with craft, form, and narrative? And if so, how am I supposed to write my memoir without feeling impossibly overwhelmed and daunted by this seemingly insurmountable goal? It’s one thing to write my story (and deal with all those inherent anxieties and doubts), but it takes a whole other enchanted wand to create a genre that may not even exist.

In general, I am vulnerable and raw in my writing. I’m unashamed to shine a spotlight on my heart. I’ve attempted to get this memoir out of my swirling mind, and into a few short essays and outlines. But I find the essays lack a higher purpose when I’m too focused on plot points or dialogue. And yet, the details of circumstances matter.

I’ve asked myself: “How do my stories either define or blur my place in this world? How can I claim my own hero’s journey? And what have I learned about safety, trust, power, energy, love, and connection?” But, I worry that such an approach will evolve into a motivational self-help handbook. That is the very opposite of my goal, and the antithesis of my identity. I’m far more Joseph Campbell than I am Louise Hay.

Lisa, how do I hone MY very unique and authentic memoir, with all the existential magic and epic wonder it deserves, without falling too far into fantasy folklore or too off-track into inspirational guru guide?

Alice in Wonderland


Dear Alice,

You’re right, the truth is always stranger than fiction. One of the reasons we’re drawn to memoir is our desire to derive meaning from experiences we don’t fully understand. This is especially true when these experiences contain fantastical elements or a colorful cast of characters. You begin your letter, Alice, with questions of reinventing the genre, asking whether writing your life story is the perfect opportunity to play with craft, form, and narrative. Experimentation can foster growth for writers if it helps generate pages, but to think about re-inventing the genre is to put too much pressure on yourself and your book. It’s likely to squash your creative process as you think not just of writing a book but THE BOOK. That’s like asking the Cheshire Cat for directions.

The very first activity I give my memoir students is to create an intention for their books—one that has nothing to do with publishing or success. I ask them to consider how they may act or behave differently or believe something new as a result of writing their story. There are few guarantees in this competitive publishing market, but the one thing I can promise all writers is that the process will change them. My advice to you is the same: consider how you wish to transform as a result of writing this manuscript, then let your book work on you.

When I think of Alice in Wonderland and how it relates to the memoir writing process, I think not so much of the characters, which are all interesting, but of the way Alice shrinks and grows over the course of her adventure. On her hunt for the white rabbit, she encounters a bottle on a table labeled “Drink Me”. In real life, drinking from mystery bottles is about as safe as being a sex-crazed teenager in a horror flick investigating the noise coming from the basement. No good comes from it. But for Alice, drinking the potion helped her shrink enough to fit through the small door in front of her and continue her journey.

My invitation to you is this: brew yourself a cup of tea, close your eyes, and commit to writing your story. Then drink up. Let your metaphorical potion narrow your focus to the work at hand. Jot down a few key scenes that reveal what happened. Make them as vivid as you can. Leave behind fears of believability or the need for labels. Simply immerse yourself in the stories you’ve always told, and your hidden stories will come find you.

Memoirists make two contracts with the reader: the story must be true, and the quest must lead to some form of insight or transformation. It’s not just about what happened but why it’s important. Mary Roach Smith, author of Another Name for Madness says memoir is about something and you are its illustrator. She has a handy formula for helping writers hone their messages: it’s about X, as illustrated by Y, to be told in Z. For example, it’s about finding your voice, as illustrated by your experience of not being believed as a sexual assault survivor, to be told in a book-length memoir. In other words, the events in your life are merely the backdrop for the topic at the heart of your story. The something is what you’re after.

The drafting process is about sense-making and finding the universal truths inside your specific circumstances, no matter how bizarre or unbelievable. That specificity is the reason we’re willing to follow Cheryl Strayed as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail even when it may seem impossible that she carried an eighty-pound pack across a thousand miles, or that Tara Westover or Mary Karr could achieve academic success and stability after their impoverished, chaotic upbringings, or that Sarah Manguso could run a 5k after being paralyzed by Guillaume Barre Syndrome. Memoir is about making unbelievable true experiences believable.  We do this through vividly rendering events in service of the story’s main goal.

If you’re not sure what your story is about (healing, recovering your power, finding your voice), write what happened one scene at a time.  Once you have a collection of episodes, ask yourself what they have in common. Determine your X, Y, and Z using Marion Roach Smith’s formula. If your X is unclear, or you’re feeling blocked, you may not have enough distance from the events to examine their meaning. Continue drafting or write something else and try again later.  

Once you know what the work is about, write like a motherfucker. Draft as bad and as fast as you can. Open your heart to the process. Write with the belief that your story is worthwhile and that it will change you. If you draft without expectations, your book will tell you what it wants to be.

Later in her adventure, Alice finds the white rabbit. Inside his home, she eats a cake that causes her to grow. In a similar vein, once you have arrived at a solid working draft, you’ll be ready to expand your perspective. Write down one-sentence summaries for each scene on a series of index cards, then spread them across a table. Give yourself an aerial view of your work and examine your narrative arc. Perhaps, like Justin Torres’s autobiographical novel We the Animals, your manuscript begs for some magical realism. Maybe the story needs a unique structure like Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index or Sara Manguso’s 300 Arguments. It’s possible some poetry or episodes of speculative fiction could be in order. Suppose there are blank spots in your memory. Like Sharon Harrigan in Playing with Dynamite, you may need to imagine scenes to address the gaps in your story. If your manuscript could benefit from a rich metaphorical landscape, Reema Zaman’s memoir I Am Yours comes out in February of 2019. Take a deep dive into her exquisite sentences. Read as many genre-bending memoirs as you can. One of these books may inspire you to create something altogether new.

The stories of our lives are precious. Give yourself time to process unexpressed feelings, delve into what’s behind the stories you’ve always told, and create meaningful reflections. In preparing my response, I spoke with Joan Wickersham about her creative process. It took Joan eleven years to write The Suicide Index. Her story began as a work of fiction and slowly turned into a memoir. It wasn’t until year nine that she figured out the right structure.

Draft by draft, you will reveal the truth masked by the wardrobes, mad hatters, and wizards in your life. By taking a critical look at your stories, you will transform challenging life experiences into art. Your job is not to judge the story or to worry about how the world will receive it. Your job is simply to write it to the best of your ability and accept that only you can tell your story, whether the format is inventive or traditional.

Let this quote by Martha Graham be your mantra as you follow your own white rabbit:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

Have patience with the process and keep your channel open. The rest will work itself out.

Lisa Ellison


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