Friday, May 26, 2023

Bringing Authenticity into Your Writing: The Challenges and the Benefits of One Writer's Journey with His Memoir

Many of us say we want to write with authenticity.  Of course, that's a worthy goal, as is living an authentic life. But it can also be a challenging one. In our lives, we can decide what to reveal or not reveal, and still live authentically within those perimeters, I believe. On the page of a book, it's different. You share a story from your life, from your heart and core values, and readers can take it anywhere they want.    

I've been drafting short essays about my mom, who was a pilot in World War II.  Her story of being in the Women's Airforce Service Pilots program was recorded in a Library of Congress interview. She died several years ago at age 98. Reading about her flying years, now that she's gone, made me realize how little I knew of her life, as her daughter. We get to know our loved ones even more after they're gone, a bereaved friend once told me, and I'm seeing that now.  I have so many questions:  how did she get to be so strong, such a survivor? At twenty-two, she was ferrying B-24's across the US to Canada. Once, her plane engine caught on fire and she had to do a dead stick landing at LaGuardia.    

One of my past students, Jody Lulich, was another example to me of surviving. I had the privilege of working with him both in classes and as a private client after he won the prestigious Loft Mentor Series in 2015 for his memoir-in-progress. Jody struggled to structure the story of growing up in a biracial family with a mother who committed suicide when he was a boy. 

Animals became a touchstone for him during those years and he went on to become a veterinarian and professor of internal medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the U of MN. My mother's story is completely different, but there are parallels too--what makes a person so strong, such a survivor?

When Jody's memoir was published in April by the University of Minnesota Press, I interviewed him about the challenges he faced with both the subject matter and the writing itself.  How did he remain vulnerable on the page, write about his past with authenticity? What would he would advise memoir--and any--writer to consider with their own projects, if their goal was also authenticity?

Here are the answers, in Jody's own words.  Scroll to the bottom for a link to his book.

How did this book begin—what was your purpose in writing it—and how did that change over the time you worked on it?

I started writing this book as a tribute to a remarkable person who had a profound influence on me. When I went to veterinary school, I rented a room in the home of a 75-year-old Black woman named Grace. In the beginning, Grace and I had a typical landlord-tenant relationship until the night she asked me to braid her hair.

Grace was particular about her appearance. Before going to bed, she’d set out her clothes, moisturize her face, and pin up her hair. She had a routine every night. That night, she looked down at her hands and gave each one a gentle caress with the other. I could see that she was in pain. With that simple act of helping, our relationship changed. As I braided her hair, she’d tell me the stories of growing up in the depression and what it was like being a Black woman at the time of segregation and the Jim Crow laws of the South.

The stories she told, left me in awe of her bravery. She didn't have any children of her own, and I did not want her stories to die with her, so I took on the role of preserving her legacy.

As the book progressed, I weaved my stories around hers. Only then did I find the true impact that she had on my life.

What was your biggest challenge in writing or finishing this book?

Writing a memoir was an emotional ride that I had not expected. As painful memories surfaced, I found myself crying and emotionally devastated. But I kept writing. By doing so, I found a path to hope and happiness.

The title refers to Grace, of course, but readers (like me) also wonder about the concept of grace and how your journey brought that into your life. Can you speak to this?

Grace has many meanings. What first comes to mind is simple, elegant and refined like Audrey Hepburn. However, in reference to my book, I am more in line with the spiritual meaning, which is an undeserved, unmerited, and unexpected gift.

It took me a long time to realize that I needed to learn how to graciously accept gifts in order to graciously give gifts. Grace is the willingness to give unmerited gifts to others and in doing so I have been able to mitigate the pain and trauma of my youth.

How does your work as a veterinarian influence how you look at the title of this book—being in the company of grace? How does grace form a part of your work with animals, if it does?

Our pets do not judge us by our outward appearances. They do not have the prejudices that people use to prejudge one another. Pets judge us by our kindness even when we have to do the necessary procedures to improve their health. Pets always forgive. Giving back is that “grace” that the book is rooted in.

What do you feel is your biggest success with this memoir?

There are many successes. The most heartwarming and affirming success is the response that I receive from the readers.

On a literary level, convincing a publisher to publish the book was also an unexpected success. I had no idea that most writers receive multiple rejections (as I did) before a publisher agrees to print your book. Multiple rejections can be devastating. As an author, the book was my child that I valued for its interior quality.

To a publisher, the book has to be a revenue generator like any business. Those are often totally opposite goals. However, if authors are lucky, the book can accomplish both.

Can you share your feelings, hesitations, concerns about writing about your relationship with Joe or being a gay man, if you have any?

I did not have hesitations. The book is about being authentic. On a personal level, it heightened my fears of rejection from my father when I desperately needed his approval. On a literacy level, it was important to show many levels of authenticity in the book.

What do you hope this book will do in the world, for readers?

I want this book to encourage hope when hope seems unattainable or we believe that we are unworthy. Even though there are many painful passages in my book, it starts with hope. You see it in the title and in the quote at the front. “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I hope that by showing the cracks that the light is even brighter.

I want this book to epitomize that our greatest freedom is our ability to choose how we respond to adversity. For me that choice is not good or bad, or even complete or final. Life is a journey and each step is an accomplishment toward finding your way. However, to heal our responses need to be thoughtful and authentic.

It is important to recognize our trauma and sit in it for however long it takes to make sense of it. But it is also important to find a path to move beyond it and not just complain about it.

Finally, our response also needs to be authentic. It needs to reflect who we are. Only then will the world know who to love.

Do you have any advice for writers working on their first memoirs, from what you learned with yours?

First, write for yourself. If the writing cannot accomplish what you need, it is unlikely to accomplish what you want your readers to get from the work.

Then, write for your audience. It needs to be accessible, interesting, and clear to help others. Meet your readers more than half way, maybe all the way.

Books, especially memoirs, find writers when we are in the right frame of mind to write them. A memoir is personal. Writing it can be painful and difficult. It took me 10 years to write this book. I do not think that it could not have happened any sooner or I could not have written it any faster.

It took writing this book for me to understand the journey I had taken and how I ended up where I am. And that I finally ended up in a good place.

What is your book about?

When I was 9 years old, my mother committed suicide while I watched. While driving the car to my mother’s funeral, my father ran over a dog and did not stop. I was a cynical person until I befriended Grace, that 75-year-old woman mentioned above, who was three times my age. She showed me compassion.

These are the events that led me to become a veterinarian that I tell in my new book, In the Company of Grace; a Veterinarian’s Memoir of Trauma and Healing.

It is my life story of a little boy, who when he loses his mother goes on a journey to find mothering, so that he can grow up into someone who can offer compassion and mothering to others.

Who is the book for?

This book is for animal lovers, suicide survivors, health providers, and those looking to find their "Why" in life, work, and connection.

Click the title to learn more: In the Company of Grace; a Veterinarian’s Memoir of Trauma and Healing by Jody Lulich

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