The Disaster (Memoir) Business

Disaster_memoirs

For several years I worked at a disaster restoration company. Our business wasn’t putting out fires, it was sweeping up the pieces after flames and floodwaters and mold spores and blood splatters roared and receded. After people scrambled to safety and received our number from their insurance agent, our phone would ring. Our teams would arrive at the house (or condo building, or school, or roadside motel) to dry floorboards with giant dehumidifiers and fans, box up charred photo albums and wedding dresses, set up barriers and containments, and write estimates to rebuild what was destroyed. The more devastation, the better for our bottom lines.
 
In short, we thrived on people’s greatest misfortunes.
I worked at Sunrise Restoration as a marketing coordinator, but we were a small outfit, so the boys in charge had me on phone backup duty behind the receptionist. After a few years of constant calls, the desensitization to people’s trauma was palpable:

Me: Sunrise Restoration.

Mrs. Just-Lost-Her-House: There’s been a fire! I wasn’t home, but everything, my whole downstairs, is gone!

Me: Uh-huh. Who is your insurance agent?

Mrs.: Who?

Me: Sigh. Your insurance. State Farm? Farmers? American Family?

Mrs.: I…I’m not sure. I think my purse was in my kitchen …

Me: Ma’am, I cannot dispatch a crew to your home without proper proof of insurance.

Mrs.: I think it was someone named Suzie.

Me: Please hold. Click.

When a freak tornado tore through Aumsville, Oregon, sucking a family plumbing business and several houses into its vortex, we practically popped champagne. Six-figure restructure contracts, people! When we learned that a job was less severe than initially perceived—the high-rise on the waterfront had a water break on the 2nd floor, not the 23rd—we mourned the damage that could have been. If only there had a few more levels of leakage, we could’ve gotten some mold issues going. Even now, over a year after gleefully submitting my two weeks’ notice, I still feel that lilt in my heart rate when a house pops up on the local news spitting flames and spilling smoke. “Woo hoo, this looks awful! Fabulous.”

I feel those old tics of trauma triumph as a writer and editor of memoir. Our craft thrives on the theater of real life, and our boundaries don’t extend into the fantastical unless calamity finds us. If you’ve ever been in a creative nonfiction workshop or an MFA program, you know what I mean when I speak of the lucky ones. These are the students whose lives are metaphors for overcoming adversity; the writers so fortunate with their misfortune. There’s the guy who fought in three wars and annihilated all three of his marriages. The girl who was addicted to every drug in the DEA field guide by the time she turned 13, then turned into a mule to help pay for her mother’s open heart surgery. Future pages of paper dream in forests of growing up and holding these people’s epic stories. Although any rational writer wouldn’t actually want to live through such ordeals, it’s hard not to be envious of such fertile raw material.

I’m not too proud to admit to a phone conversation involving me asking my mother “Why couldn’t you have been cruel or moved us to Africa or SOMETHING? All those happy Christmases and I have nothing!”

It is a bedrock truth that a riveting experience does not automatically translate into a good book. There have been numerous national tragedies, personal catastrophes and fascinating characters written about with flat, lifeless, one-dimensional prose. And, refreshingly, there are many successful writers and memoirs resulting from lives much more pedestrian in their toil. Look at David Sedaris and his pitch-perfect prism of humor re-hemming everyday life. Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb is a fresh and innovative memoir observing drama we see every day in the headlines set against his personal fears of fatherhood. Haven Kimmel transforms simple stories of a happy childhood that would have been quaint in less-capable hands into smart soul-excavation in A Girl Named Zippy.

And yet. We all know that it’s easier to write a query letter when you’re able to type that this manuscript describes “coming to grips with my father, the former president of the United States’ complicated sexuality, and the death of my tragic Hollywood starlet mother drives me into the Antarctic tundra to find myself and, simultaneously, rescue a fledging family of polar bears threatened by climate change” versus “a loosely-chronological series of coming-of-age essays tracing my middle-class upbringing in southern Florida.”

As a writer, being an average (even worse—happy) individual can be frustrating. But as an editor, I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read where the situation is fantastical (secret mission dispatches, brushes with celebrities, barely-escaped murder attempts), but the story is as multi-faceted as Kim Kardashian. A common mistake on both sides of the bad fortune coin is to assume that something jaw-dropping happening equates into the narrator having something to say about it.

One example of incredible-story-most-memoirists-would-kill-for gone awry is Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden. Burden was part of the Vanderbilt family, an eccentric but dying legacy during her 70’s-era adolescence. I can’t quote directly from this book because it was too atrocious for me to finish, and I sold it back to Powell’s as soon as I could (although with guilty trepidation, since I was putting it back out into the world for another unwitting buyer). The writer had troves of tragedy and drama: a long departed father, a drunk socialite mother, a dying estate, gender and inheritance politics, lecherous butlers—but I cannot remember a single scene. The moments were few, with sweeping descriptions and summaries used to paint chapters in place of terrarium universes of scene. Scene, with dialogue and movement, is so often skipped over in dramatic/traumatic memoir.

What is much more memorable and successful for me, as a reader and editor, is when someone weaves an essay out of imperceptible stardust. These are the stories that live around brief interactions, events that may hold weight and meaning only to the writer. But when she uses these scenes to echo a deeper sense of humanity, this is when personal experience becomes universal. Not all of us spent a summer as a roadie for The White Stripes, or kayaked our way into a tsunami relief effort, or were sold off to a commune of basket-weaving vegan anarchists. The far-out insanity, whether joyous or horrifying, can be difficult to relate to. But we have all felt betrayal, and loneliness, and have fallen from grace. These experiences are not unique, but it is in that universal well where empathy is most fertile to cultivate.

I discovered an extraordinary example of divine moment-craft in the essay “Baby, Let’s Play House” by Dot Dannenberg (www.oneforonethousand.com). The story begins with the narrator, a relatively normal child, getting picked on by her classmate Billy. He tricks her into accepting a gift of a dead bird on the schoolyard and riles up a chorus of taunts around the prank, all depicted in snappy, present scene. Dialogue, gestures, the works. The essay ends here:

The next day, Billy’s not in homeroom. Mrs. Cook and our other teacher, Mrs. Roberts, whisper in the hallway, and we start class late. Before morning break, Mrs. Cook announces that Billy will be absent for a while—that his mother has passed away and we should all keep him in our prayers.

At break, Tiffany, who has homeroom with Mrs. Roberts, shares the rest of the information—that his mother committed suicide. After lunch, Mrs. Cook passes around a card that reads “deepest sympathies,” on a muted image of the ocean.

I hold it for a moment. I pass it on unsigned.

That moment, one that no one would notice save the narrator, holds more weight than a cliffside car chase ever could. Nothing dramatic or unique has transpired. Something somewhat uncommon but tragic has happened to someone else. The cruelties the narrator has endured are pedestrian by childhood standards. But when Dot passes the card without signing it, she is experiencing that moment in childhood when we have become old enough to recognize what the mightier, more loving choice may be, but we give in to our hurt and spite. Each of us fail to be a better, more admirable person when faced with certain choices, and those first few betrayals of innocence mark us. The guilt, anger, and shame are essential to growing into someone capable of empathizing and forgiving. These are the scars of becoming that we all bear, carved and hidden in our own unique fashions. When I read Dot’s moment I remember my own, and I am tied to her in that beautiful thread of reader-writer relationship.

These scenes are what I strive for every time I sit down to type, and what I’m searching for with any piece I read. I do not want to read about a visit to India because it’s pretty to describe, or a narration of a tornado because it’s scary. I want characters thrashing and relating and repelling, even in the most ordinary of occurrences. And when I find these memoir pieces, and on the rare occasion that I can create them, the feeling is magical.

As mentioned, I’m out of the disaster business. I now work at a lighting control company, copywriting brochures and drawing diagrams. It’s a simple concept, one that doesn’t make for good stories at parties. Lights on, lights off. Brightness, darkness. But no matter the setting, it’s that space between the light and the dark where the brilliance of memoir flourishes. This is where we discover the demons haunting our hearts, and the humanity within our villains. That’s life, that’s drama. And you don’t need to be a former Bollywood dancer-turned Madame for the Mob to have experienced that.