Lynette Brasfield , novelist, ghostwriter, writer

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What’s Your Story? (or The Making of a Memoir)

Successful Orange County writers explain how they turned their memories into published memoirs, and how you might do the same.

Back in 2000, Huntington Beach resident Jonna Doolittle Hoppes read an early—and, she felt, inaccurate—draft of the screenplay for the movie Pearl Harbor, in which her grandfather, Jimmy Doolittle, a four-star general, aviation pioneer, and World War Two hero, would be played by actor Alec Baldwin.

“There was an immediate disconnect in my mind, especially when I saw that my grandfather was going to be depicted as a careless daredevil,” Hoppes says. “He wasn’t. The Tokyo Raid, which he led, was thoroughly planned. But I realized that his life was now part of the public domain, and there was little I could do to shape future generations’ perception of him.”

Though Disney worked with the Doolittle family to fix errors in the script, a year later, Hoppes—sitting on the flight deck of the USS John C. Stennis in the warm Hawaiian sun, awaiting the premiere of the movie—still felt uncomfortable at the prospect of future works that might distort his legacy.

“At that moment, I decided I’d write a memoir capturing not only what he did, but who he was from the perspective of family,” she says. “I wouldn’t shy away from the hard realities, like his affair during his marriage, but he’d be revealed as a complex human being, not a cardboard historical figure.”

A strange thing happened as Hoppes interviewed family members, read Doolittle’s letters, and searched her memory for significant moments she’d spent with him: she found herself writing primarily about his relationship with her grandmother Josephine, nicknamed Joe.

Calculated Risk turned out to be her story as much as his,” she notes now. “I didn’t expect that.”

Firoozeh Dumas, an Iranian-American woman whose poignant and amusing memoir Funny in Farsi has achieved many honors, including selection as Orange County Reads One Book in 2004, began her book by writing down memories about growing up in an Iranian family in the States.

“I worried that we were losing the oral traditions of storytelling, and I wanted to capture our stories for my kids,” she says.

Along the way, Dumas experienced a similar detour to Hoppes’.

“Reading over my manuscript, I found that my father, not I, had become the main character,” she says. “Our relationship turned out to be the emotional center of the book.”

After 9/11, Dumas felt an added urgency to get her book published. “I wanted Americans to see the commonalities among us all—that we of Middle-Eastern descent share important, universal human values. We even have a sense of humor, not something Americans immediately associate with Iranians…these days my greatest pleasure is hearing laughter, and seeing nods of agreement when I read excerpts from the book.”

Dumas’ memoir consists primarily of essays and slice-of-life anecdotes. Hoppes’ is part biography, part a grandchild’s meditation on her grandparents’ life and times. Indeed, memoirs are among the most malleable—and popular—of literary forms. Webster’s defines the genre as “a report or record of happenings based on the writer’s personal observation and knowledge or special information.”

Memoirs differ from biographies in that they generally cover only a period of time rather than an entire life, and primarily provide fresh perspectives on a particular set of experiences. C.S. Lewis once said that “we read to know we are not alone,” and that desire, along with the voyeuristic impulse in most of us, probably accounts for their popularity.

Nor do you need to be from a famous family or a different culture to pen a successful one. Memoirs written by Orange County authors cover the gamut of topics, from difficult childhoods, as in UCI professor Adeline Yen Mah’s wrenching memoir Falling Leaves—about her abuse as a young girl growing up in China—to Laguna Woods resident Philip Doran’s hilarious, yet touching book, The Reluctant Tuscan, in which the former sitcom writer for The Wonder Boys and Newhart (among others), discovers “his inner Italian” as he and his wife restore a house in Tuscany. In the book, Doran is candid about their attempts, at the same time, to rebuild their emotional connection after spending years leading what he describes as parallel lives.

“Though there’s a lot of humor, which does help the book’s appeal, the key really to a successful memoir is to tell the truth, no matter how hard it might be,” he says.

Orange County writer Christina Adams agrees. In her memoir A Real Boy: A True Story of Autism, Early Intervention and Recovery, she provides a rare, brutally honest look at the challenges of recovering a child from the ravages of autism and the pressures placed on a marriage along the way. She also leavens the difficulties with light-hearted anecdotes.

“Initially I wanted to share the real, down-to-earth details of how we had worked to improve Jonah’s overall health and skills, so that people in similar situations might benefit from what we learned,” Adams says. “Interestingly, by the time A Real Boy was published, I realized I’d delved into so much more than our story. Autism had forced me to ponder universal issues, such as how the brain works, human relationships, social interaction, and intelligence. But my son’s ultimately the hero of the book, and I’m happy to report that today he’s a gifted, very sociable boy.”

The process of discovery—the realization, in the course of capturing memories, that one is following a different narrative path than originally envisaged—appears to be a common experience among memoirists. In Honeymoon with my Brother, former Irvine Company executive Franz Wisner tells a fascinating, funny, and emotionally revelatory story of being dumped at the altar and demoted within the space of months, and then traveling the world with his brother to salve his wounds.

“At first, I sent e-mails back home and wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, thinking I might eventually put together a travelogue,” Wisner says. “But instead I found myself writing about people who had affected my life, rather than places I’d been.”

And so Wisner’s travelogue evolved into a deeply honest examination of his relationships, threaded through tales of high humor and adventure as he and his brother hopscotched across continents.

“I realized the book was only going to be meaningful to readers if I dived in and was utterly open about the humiliation I’d felt and my experiences, good and bad,” he says, echoing other memoirists’ commitment to candor.

But what about other people he describes in the book? Weren’t they fearful of exposure?

“I didn’t attempt to get inside their heads or speculate about their motives, only my own,” Wisner says. “I did change some names and identifying physical characteristics to shield my ex-fiance from reporters.”

Like Wisner, Firoozeh Dumas wryly notes that the biggest complaint from family members after publication of Funny in Farsi was not from those who had been featured, however they were portrayed, but from those who were upset at not being included. “My uncle made sure to remind me to include his sons in my next book,” she says.

Aspiring memoir writers often wonder whether they have enough material to write an entire book. They also wonder how accurate their memories will be. For that reason, some writers end up producing an autobiographical novel instead. A very few, like James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, disregard or exaggerate the truth, and risk embarrassing exposure. Most, like those featured in this article, are dogged about fact-checking.

Dumas says she was surprised to find that the more she wrote, the more she remembered. “As a kid, I tended to sit in rooms with adults very quietly, and they’d forget I was there,” she says. “I’m fortunate that a lot of what I heard I’m able to recall quite distinctly.”

Modestly, Phil Doran claims that he simply recorded the funny things that his Italian neighbors said and did—for example, the time his future landlord agreed to pay all telephone expenses, despite the fact, which Doran learned only later, that the rented house had no telephone outlets.

“Before I knew it, I had half a book,” he says.

He admits he was fortunate to have an understanding wife, who didn’t object to his candid depiction of their matrimonial difficulties, nor, in one memorable passage, to being compared to a steam-engine. It helped that Nancy is also accurately described several times as a very attractive woman.

Doran’s advice on memoir-writing is simple, yet quite wise: just leave out the boring parts. He also recommends participating in workshops with fellow writers, such as those led by his one-time teacher Barbara DeMarco Barrett. “Getting feedback really helps you identify where the emotion lies, and whether you’ve succeeded in getting across what you want to convey,” he notes.

Writing down your memories and perspectives is one thing. But being published is extremely difficult in today’s competitive marketplace.

“The reality is—at least when it comes to publication—that the interest lies on the fault lines of your life,” Christina Adams says. “People don’t like drama in their own lives, but they like to read about drama in other people’s worlds. You have to examine the quirky, the unusual.”

Doolittle Hoppes doesn’t deny the thrill of being traditionally published by a royalty-paying imprint, or standing in front of an audience at the Smithsonian talking about her portrayal of her grandfather, but she says her greatest reward came from strengthening bonds with her family, particularly her father, as they talked about difficult issues, including her uncle’s suicide.

“There’s something very special about being able to capture your family’s history in written form,” she says. “What I suggest is writing a long letter to your children, and your grandchildren, telling them what your life has been like, and about the things that fascinate and scare and thrill you. Your descendants will treasure that, and who knows, you may end up with a published book.”

Franz Wisner enjoyed the experience so much that he’s currently embarked on a second book, this time about dating practices around the world.

“Writing, like travel, can take on a rhythm of its own and lead you to wonderful and unexpected places,” he notes. “I recommend it.”

Five Tips To Help You Write Your Story

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