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Writing Memoirs: Telling The Ugly Truth in a Beautiful Way

Self-publishing a memoir provided  Elaine Pereira with an instinctive way of coping with the loss of her mother to Alzheimer’s-related dementia. In this moving guest post, she describes the process and discusses the challenge of writing a readable, uplifting non-fiction book that deals with difficult facts.

Elaine Pereira

Elaine Pereira, author of “I Will Never Forget”

I Will Never Forget is my first book, and admittedly I can’t compare the experience of writing a memoir to penning a mystery novel. However I share the sentiment expressed by a few other authors of non-fiction that it “practically wrote itself.”

The Impetus for Writing the Book

My mother’s decline from dementia was tantamount to falling off a cliff. She had exhibited a smattering of memory-related issues, including paranoia and word recycling, for several years. But the last two were laced with drama, bizarre but enlightening hallucinations, and a masterful Houdini-like escape.

Mom’s touching but warped delusion that she had to find her own mother launched a catastrophic sequence of events ultimately leading to her death. One cold winter night, Mom wandered outside in literally nothing but red flannel pajamas. She survived near-fatal hypothermia, but never recovered. Mom’s already compromised status collapsed further into one of sparse awareness.

Of course, I continued to visit my mother regularly, but she was no longer engaged. It was during those eerily quiet hours that I became committed to remembering the vitality that defined her life, and not the withering older woman approaching death.

As I sat with her, I started sketching stories from my childhood that exemplified Mom’s wonderful character, how she made Christmas magical, earned her master’s degree, taught me how to sew and made endless batches of cookies. Gradually I wove together contrasting examples of her end-of-life decline, including her stark inability to write a cheque, getting lost driving and personality changes.

Elaine Pereira and her mother baking together

Elaine Pereira with her mother

During Mom’s final three months I jotted, journalised and recorded every relevant scenario of our lives as a family. However, when my mom actually did take her last breath, she and I both became silent. My writing stopped just as her life had.

It was several months before I opened my notebook with my chicken-scratched entries and notes on napkins. I literally sat on the floor while I read through it, determined to either finish it or drop it in the recycling bin. Gradually, though, as my eyes welled with tears, I simultaneously felt my lips curl upwards into a smile. During those moments of reflection I transitioned from cathartic emotional release to resolute commitment. My mother’s was a story that needed to be told, and I was committed to telling it! Like others with Alzheimer’s, hers is everyone’s journey!

Issues Unique to Writing About Dementia

Alzheimer’s is a neurological disease that robs us of our loved ones; memories distorted or destroyed, personalities changed, cognition and physical skills compromised. That said, people with dementia sometimes say and do the funniest things. You have to laugh in order to survive.

Cover of "I Will Never Forget" by Elaine PereiraMy math major mom was giddy when she proclaimed she had figured out that Sudoku puzzles had multiple solutions! She was delighted when she “saw” my (deceased) dad in the parking lot but quickly forgot about him when I went to “let him in.” Mom asked to have our dog’s ears after he died because they were “so soft.” (Weird!) And the stories continued.

In my opinion, writing about grief, death or illness requires masterful artistry to balance the genuinely deep emotions without crossing over into the dark-side of depressing. No-one wants to invest energy reading a book that’s just flat-out demoralizing without redeeming value.

However, memoirs guarantee an authenticity, intimacy and personal depth that can’t be made up. The expression “the truth is stranger than fiction” particularly applies to I Will Never Forget. My mother’s real life experiences and drama would not be believable, were they not absolutely true!

Do you have a story that needs to be told? If so, tell it!

 

 

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25 Responses to Writing Memoirs: Telling The Ugly Truth in a Beautiful Way

  1. Alexandra April 23, 2018 at 6:32 am #

    Just came across this.Sorry for the heartwrenching loss of your mother. Also to those who wrote revealing similar stories. I was moved however and concerned about the elderly woman who just wanted to be able to help simultaneously warn and empower others. Her brief summary of unsurprising mental illness likely stemming from all too familiar and common sexual abuse in this country. Does no one have any resources for her?

  2. Junie Bartsch August 23, 2017 at 2:28 am #

    I am a 76 year old female I was molested by my Grandfather when I was six and locked in the closet and told the rats would eat me if I wasn’t quiet while he molested my 3 year old sister. That started a life of mental illness and abuse from my Grandfather, father ,and husband. I would love to help other people to know that they can overcome and do not have to spend their life in a mental hospital like I was told would happen to me. I feel I don’t have a lot of time to help other people.. I feel that is why God allowed this to happen to me so I could pass on the message to other sufferers that you can come out on the other side, and not live your life in fear. I need someone to help me write my story.. I was diagnosed with the mental illness disassociation . I had 14 shock treatments and lost a lot of memories for many years.. I lived in fear and didn’t know what I was afraid of I faced it all many years later when I started therapy I know this is disjointed but I wrote it as I thought it.

  3. Janis F. Kearney January 23, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

    Elaine, you wrote with just the right touch of clarity and emotion needed for such a subject. I lost my 107-year old father almost a month ago. My book on his life was almost finished when he took his last breath. I was able to go back and add a few touches to better memorialize him. You write a hard subject with a special lightness. That is always my aim when I write to darkness. All the best.

    • Elaine Pereira January 23, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

      First please accept my sincere condolences on your loss. Obviously at 107 he lead a full life, but regardless of how “old” they are, his passing leaves an unfilled hole.

      Then, thank you SO much for taking the time to comment on my post. I sincerely appreciate your reflective remarks. Good luck with your own memoir. Perhaps we can exchange when yours is in print? Let me know.

  4. Adrienne January 17, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

    Great blog you have here but I was wondering if you knew
    of any community forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article?
    I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get
    feedback from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest.
    If you have any suggestions, please let me know.
    Appreciate it!

    • Elaine Pereira January 17, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

      Adrienne, I’m the blog author Elaine.

      Can you expand on “community forums that cover the same topics”? Do you mean the memoir writing piece of it?

      I assume you mean knowledgeable people who share the same interest in writing a memoir or a difficult story?

  5. Theo Rogers December 20, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    My sympathies on your mother’s dementia and death. My own mother is very near the end of that road.

    On a more writing-oriented note, I seem to find myself besieged by friends telling me I should be writing about this experience or that. The truth is, my own life is just about the last thing I want to write about.

    I’m wondering if anyone else here has had the same experience, and feels the same way: that they _don’t_ want to tell their own story?

    • Elaine Pereira December 20, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

      Theo, I probably don’t have to say this at all, but what you write is clearly up to you.

      Perhaps what your well intended friends mean, is to write HER story, not yours. That said, my mother was a very private person and would never have wanted her story told EXCEPT to help others. That was my motivation besides immortalizing her in print.

      My mother’s journey through dementia is everyone’s journey.

      And my sincere sympathies as her/your journey ends.

  6. Orna Ross December 20, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    “Gradually, though, as my eyes welled with tears, I simultaneously felt my lips curl upwards into a smile. During those moments of reflection, I transitioned from cathartic emotional release to resolute commitment.” Was the power of writing to heal and transform ever better expressed? Could I have your permission, Elaine, to include that paragraph in a book about writing that I’m currently finishing? (So completely germane to what I’m trying to say that it seems serendipitous). Thank you so much for writing and publishing your mom’s story — and this post.

    • Elaine Pereira December 20, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

      Thank you SO MUCH Orna for both the request to include my quote and the compliment that it embodies the theme. You absolutely have my permission (I know you’ll reference the source) to use it.

  7. Carol December 19, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    Thank you, Elaine, for this moving account. I’m so glad you found the energy and strength to write your book, and thanks to Debbie for blogging this.

    • Elaine Pereira December 19, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

      Thank you Carol for your kind remarks and absolutely Debbie for blogging this. Debbie actually generated the topic idea originally.

      Coincidentally this is the first Christmas in 3 years (Mom passed away July 2011) that I have celebrated it at home. More than half of the ornaments on our tree were made by my mom, either in cross stitch, Hardager (sp?), black work, pulled thread, and more. The idea of unpacking them and putting them up without wallowing in tears alluded me until the grandkids permanently returned to the States after years overseas in Germany.

      I celebrate THAT this season!

  8. Debbie Young December 19, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Elaine, thank you so much for sharing your story here. Your book must be helping so many people all over the world. And what a beautiful photo of you and your mother together here.

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