Here’s a little memoir writing inspiration for you today, or just a great read (if you’re looking for either): Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. After skipping past it several times in Half Price Books, I had to finally read it when both a comrade in my writers’ group and my editor suggested it.
Here are three reasons why you should read it:
1) The story. The story of two genius, yet crazy parents and how their eccentricities drag their four kids down, it’s wacky enough to the point of being unbelievable; but I’m taking Walls at her word that this is what she remembers of her childhood. Imagine an engineer dad and an artist mom who are too freethinking to be shackled to regular jobs, who do the “skedaddle” whenever they get in trouble with the law. Imagine parents who would rather have their family live in shacks, ditches, or inside their van than have air conditioning and heating and plumbing and food—all in the name of chasing their dreams. It’s particularly fascinating watching young Jeannette and her siblings come of age amidst the chaos of their parents’ childishness (mental illness? I still can’t decide what would possess parents to act like this) and note the strength they muster because, well, they must. A fascinating psychological portrait of a dysfunctional family, as well as an amusing, and at times, heartbreaking, read.
2) The writing. Vivid, fast-moving, and clear, Walls sucks the reader in on the first page and doesn’t let go until the end. As my editor put it, note the detachment with which Walls describes the “wacky and terrible things her parents did to her.” Walls writes details that a child would notice with the diction of a well-trained writer—and she doesn’t get overly analytical. Instead, she lets the reader point to her family in horror and amusement and disbelief and disgust. As my editor also said, children aren’t able to process what certain things mean; all they know is, “Here’s what happened.” Reading about the horrors of living in such a dysfunctional family from the perspective of a speaker who can only report, not analyze, is fascinating. Just fascinating.
3) The reassurance that your own family isn’t that bad. After reading about Walls’s family, I felt a lot better about my own. If you can’t say the same, I am truly sorry for you, but at least you have the makings of a great memoir in your head!
The one criticism I would levy at the book is this: I feel there is no way an adult could remember in such clear detail (as Walls seems to) what happened in childhood. Though I ate up every scene with each painstakingly stinky or ugly detail, I found myself disbelieving that she could really remember what she said at three years of age, or what her home looked like at four, or the fight her parents had when she was five, etc.
I voiced this to my editor, saying, “I could never write about my childhood so vividly,” to which she replied, “It’s amazing what children with dysfunctional backgrounds can remember.” I’ll have to research that, but for the sake of a great story, I was willing to suspend my disbelief and grant that Walls reported to the best of her ability (without needlessly embellishing) a story that was real and true, as far as she could remember. In the end I have to grant that, for a memoir writer, memories, however we filter them, are truth. So hats off to Jeannette Walls for letting us in on the horrors of her memory. Today I go back to my own memories feeling strengthened to report.