I’m stuck between genres, as I’ve complained before. That is, I want to be a memoir writer and talk about our journey in the hospital and how it changed us. And, I want to be a journalist and educate people about all of the science and history behind neonatal care. Pretty much every professional I’ve encountered through writers’ events has told me not to do that, or to self-publish, which is code-word for vanish to obscurity and quit bothering me.
I wrote to Alexandra Robbins, the author of the excellent “Pledged: The Secret Lives of Sororities” which does an excellent job of having a narrative follow the lives of two first-year girls in a sorority, and then it switches once per chapter to explaining how this is reflective of national trends. What’s the name of this genre, I asked. It doesn’t have a name, she said. But, she recommended that I read “Saving Sammy: Curing the Boy Who Caught OCD,” by Beth Alison Maloney.
There is a brutal truth to memoir-writing. You think what you’re doing is telling about what happened and that old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” will mean that your narrative will putter along nicely and people will want to read it. This is not true. You’re really writing a novel about something that actually happened, and you have to have the same story structure. It has to ask a question at the beginning that will not be answered until the end, and the book has to primarily be about the narrator and the changes he or she went through.
Saving Sammy does an excellent job of using this structure, and it’s clear that the book got good editing to get there. It’s about a woman with three sons, and the middle one is mostly healthy until he inexplicably starts showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He starts seeing invisible walls in rooms, and has to do elaborate dances to get around them or over them. The mother is a lawyer who often represents children as a guardian ad litem, so she is familiar with mental health treatment options for children, but none of them seem to be workable for her son. His condition gets worse and worse and no cause can be determined until a somewhat common illness (no spoilers) is found to be the culprit, and a reaction to that disease is causing his brain to be badly affected.
Since this post is mostly about my being stuck between genres, I’m going to mostly talk about structural things Maloney did that I liked:
- She used an appropriate amount of medical terminology and explained what it meant, which taught me quite a bit. Some authors will avoid terminology completely, which then makes me feel like I’m being talked down to.
- She grounds the time of the narrative in the changing of the seasons in Maine, which gives the reader a good sense of where we are in the journey.
- She does a good job of developing two characters — herself, who learned to persevere, and her middle son, for whom the climax of the book centers around an impressive speech at a bar mitzvah.
But then, I could tell she was also withholding a number of important details from her life that either didn’t support the story arc, or that she wanted to keep private: Her divorce, her children’s father, her Jewish faith, about why they had been in California (kind of an important detail when a great deal of her middle son’s stress had to do with moving). And, she gauges her progress towards being a sane person by whether she can go kayaking. Nothing wrong with that (I’m an avid bicyclist myself) but there needed to be more about why this meant so much to her if it is going to show up so often.
Then, at the very end, she has a brief editorial on how diagnosis of mental illnesses needs to include additional questions about possible causes. Her short explanation is only a couple of pages long, and it includes a bibliography with sources for additional reading. My first draft included 80 or 90 pages like that, especially about the bioethical dilemma of whether to resuscitate a preemie, and who should get to make the decision. (I’ve got something of a campaign I want to start on this.) Alas, I have to cut that waaaay down if I want to get published. Sigh.
Saving Sammy: very good book. Read it.