Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why Memoir Matters: Gloria Parker's Story

About a year ago, I got an email from a writer who’d seen my offer of editorial services online. She was beside herself with frustration and disappointment. The memoir she’d been working on for years just wasn’t right—she could no longer see what was needed, what was wrong. She asked if I’d read it and provide a critique and I agreed, in part because I’ve been there myself with a manuscript.

Author Gloria Parker
And, because I believe storytelling is an act of courage, an outright call for people to stop and listen, understand and relate. I’m committed to this effort. I ended up editing Gloria’s manuscript, falling in love with her honesty and writer’s voice and later contributing the foreword to her first book – published at the age of 83. Today, I consider her a friend.

Her memoir A Seat at the Table calls us to pull up a chair and share her experience of growing up poor and Black in the Jim Crow South. The story is not new, we know the historical facts – from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Gone with the Wind to The Help – but we don’t always know the actual people, the unique spirits shaped by the experience, the families that survived to tell the tale.

Parker brings her writer’s voice and poet’s music to her story of America, rendering it with grace and integrity. The granddaughter of a slave, her story is intended first as a gift linking her grandchildren and great grandchildren to their heritage. But, also a connection to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” Her story is our story, if only we will listen.

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In the introduction to A Seat at the Table, Gloria says, “Many times I thought of giving up the project all together, but I felt compelled to continue. A few times, I put it on hold, but soon found myself going back to the computer to research another lead. There was a driving force within, steering me to task completion.”
Regardless of race, life’s journey is filled with hardships and difficulties, Gloria says, “add racism to the mix, and the journey can become unendurable. Although physical scars left from racial attacks can eventually disappear, psychological scars remain a lifetime.”

For me, editing A Seat at the Table was like being present at a birth, watching a life emerge on the page and being stunned by the mysteries and promise it holds – squalling and hot with energy and muscle, ready to grow. Writing can be tough, but with help from others, it can be easier, or at least less lonely. With love and patience, frustration can be soothed and something as satisfying as a story can emerge.

Dan Siegel says in Parenting From the Inside Out that "storytelling is fundamental to all human cultures, and our shared stories create a connection to others that builds a sense of belonging." Receiving a story – an authentic, human story – is as satisfying as offering one. And storytelling invites the reader or listener to respond with his or her own story. Storytelling is a life-giving exchange and Gloria’s memoir offers this gift. More than that, her story begs for yours.
Candyce Ossefort-Russell, a psychotherapist and a writer in Austin, Texas, says the “nitty gritty particulars of life, shared in connection, clothe stories in skin and bone, heart and soul. Whether through talking or reading memoir, when hearts pulse with the connection of story, they begin to heal.” For those committed enough and brave enough to follow Gloria Parker’s path, Ossefort-Russell offers this advice:

Know that your story is a gift to others – it invites them to share their stories.
  • Listening to stories connects you to others.
  • If you want to get to know someone, ask them a question whose answer is a story.
  • Keeping a journal is a way to explore and remember your stories.
  • Dreams are stories. Writing them down can be fascinating.
  • Publishing a blog is an easy way to put your stories into the world.
  • A writing group can be a great place to share your stories in an intimate setting.
And, when your story is written, find a sensitive and supportive editor. During the odyssey of researching, writing and publishing, A Seat at the Table, Gloria said she asked herself why completing the project was so important. An introspective moment made the answer clear.

“Blithely ignoring autumn’s warnings, I suddenly found myself in the midst of life’s winter,” she said. “This knowledge did not cause fear and trepidation, but reminded me of the adage: ‘It’s time to put your house in order’. I found that a calm acceptance of life’s end put everything else into perspective—expunging fear. This unexpected freedom permitted me to finally talk about an incident I did not want to take with me to the grave. Writing this book afforded me an opportunity to accomplish this.”

Gloria Parker
 
Me and Gloria at her Sacramento book launch party.