Monday, January 10, 2011

Jennifer Rosner talks about telling the truth

The job of a writer is to tell the truth, but what if that truth hurts those you love? Jennifer Rosner, the author of If A Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard wrote an astonishing guest post on just that topic. Thank you, Jennifer! (Don't forget to watch the great Youtube clip!)

For years, I evaded my mother’s questions about the book I was writing. I was vague even about its genre (a memoir). “There’s some fiction in it,” I’d say, as a portion of it (though not the portion about her) was fictionalized.

Being a mother myself, I knew intuitively that there was no mother alive who would want her child to write down and make public (by publishing) the stuff I was writing about my mother.

I went ahead with the writing, though, chronicling the deafness in my family and in particular, my mother’s deafness – how she sometimes failed to hear me, failed to listen to me, as I was growing up. It was tough material, raw and painful.

For a while, I was just writing it – journaling it, sharing it only with the members of my tight writing circle. And the writing yielded perspective – it led me to a deeper understanding of my mother’s experience, her struggles and her challenges. It humbled me, brought into view my own limitations, and led me to find forgiveness, both of my mother and of myself. Over time, the writing became polished, it took shape in book form. It encompassed far more than my experience of my mother; it grappled with the basic human need to hear and be heard. I found myself yearning to express my thoughts on this more widely.

I got an agent and she began sending the manuscript around to publishing houses. As the process got underway, I panicked. Through the writing of my book, I had come to feel better about my relationship with my mother than I’d had in decades. Yet here I was hurtling into a catastrophe: if the book got published, she would read it and we’d unravel. I considered halting the process. Maybe this really was a book just for me – a journal of my experience, one I needn’t share. The writing process had been healing in its own right. What further purpose would be served by sending it into the wider world? As it was, the very process of trying to get the book published was trying – as I waited for publishing houses to decide whether to accept or reject it, I found myself spending whole afternoons manically eating chocolate chips by the handful. Maybe this was a weird “ego” step I needn’t take, especially as its gains would surely be undercut by the dissolution of my connection with my mother.

At one point, I considered sending the manuscript to my mother in advance of any publication decisions. But I was too terrified. I made an appointment with a child psychologist, and entered the office (at age 43) as a “child,” asking for advice about how to manage things with my mother. The psychologist’s advice was: you can’t manage things. She will have her reaction, and it’s not for you to control. Ugh!

Using a different means to test family reaction, I gave my sister a draft of the manuscript to read. While she thought my portrayal of our mother was unquestionably true, if not soft-pedalled, she became unaccountably upset about my mention of a menu selection she made at a diner one night (she ordered the roast lamb chops). This didn’t bode well.

I called my father, hoping to solicit his private advice. I explained that some of the material was difficult, and that I was considering pulling my manuscript out of the publication process. With judgment undoubtedly colored by paternal pride, my father urged me to stick with it. When my book got accepted, I requested the use of a pen name. How liberating! I could be anyone. Mercedes Almeida. Genevieve Benoit. A friend suggested I use the name Elsie Gezeltzer. My mother would never need to know that I published a book! But my editor said no. Despite the swath of historical fiction that ran through it, my book was categorized as a memoir. My editor believed that the use of a pen name would cast doubt on the veracity of the book. She refused to do it.

I called my father again. Again, he urged me to go ahead. “But, Dad, you haven’t read it,” I warned. He was resolute.The book came out on May 1, with my name on the cover. I received an author copy, and began constructing a letter to my mother on the inside cover. My sister called me to say they already got a copy– my father couldn’t wait and ordered it on Amazon.

My chocolate chip consumption doubled, tripled, as I waited for my mother to read it. She didn’t. A month went by. Two months. I called her on the phone. “Mom, you don’t need to read it. But I do need to know: are you going to?”She said she was.

One night, a few weeks later, my mother phoned me.“Jenny, I read your book.”

I thought I’d sink through the floor.

“I read it backwards,” she said.


“I read it backwards. The last chapter first, then the next to last chapter, and so on.”

I had told my mother that the book was rougher at the beginning; that it got easier toward the end. (I had also made her promise that, if she started reading it, she would read it through.) Maybe this backward reading was a gracious strategy, a way to get us through this. “How did it flow?” I couldn’t help asking. I had spent over two years on the book’s complicated braided structure.

“It’s a beautiful book, Jenny. I realize that I had trouble hearing you. I was overwhelmed with the four children in five years, and with my hearing loss on top of it. I am sorry.”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

For the next week, I was on a high. My mother wasn’t angry! She understood my feelings. The weight of years, worrying about her reaction to my book, slid off my shoulders. My writing had brought us closer. I eased up on the chocolate chips.

Shortly after this, I got a call from a different family member who shall remain nameless(!) - a heretofore enthusiastic supporter, who had mailed copies of my book to all her friends. In the call, she expressed great upset: upset that she wasn’t in the book.

A note to memoir writers: The bullets always come from the most unexpected direction...

1 comment:

The Writers' Salon said...

Great guest post! Many times the perception of what will happen is much worse than reality. Kudos to Jennifer for sticking with it. A great lesson for all.