Lorie was featured as a debut author on the WFWA podcast in October 2019. On this podcast she discusses how the book came to be, the processes of writing and publishing, and the hiccups in these processes. To listen to this inspiring podcast, please click here.
A discussion with the Red Tent group at Emmaus United Church of Christ
900 Maple Avenue E.
Vienna, VA 22180
May 3, 2020 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.
Memoirs or Fiction: Bringing Stories to Life
In the previous messages in this series I’ve talked about conundrums or puzzles in your life that you may be able to successfully solve in your writing. In planning the approach you want to take, you may want to write a memoir or you may choose fiction.
If you choose memoir, know that a lot of people have taken this path. Many believe they’ve had interesting lives and that others would enjoy reading about those lives. And then comes the evolution of 15 or 20 chapters detailing this life, followed by weeks or months of difficulty figuring out the ending. For a memoir to be successful, the author must pull from the themes of the story to summarize how she has changed, how he has dealt with life’s challenges in a way that can be inspiring to others. I have known several memoir writers who have given up at this stage. They just aren’t sure what they have actually learned from the issues they have faced.
I have found it easier—and in the end more satisfying—to write fiction. I take a person like my protagonist Shahnaz in Uncovering, stick her in the difficult situation of living with a fundamentalist who is in charge, and spin the plot from there. It was hard, given the complicated context of northwestern Pakistan to decide on an ending. I tried “rehabilitating” the antagonist, Raja Haider, to bring him back from his more extreme views into the positions held by the rest of his family. I researched possible methods; for example, how gang members are rehabilitated, but there isn’t any such program in Pakistan, and the character I’d drawn was very resistant to change. It took about five different endings to resolve what I felt were critical issues. But I’m pleased to say I’m satisfied with the ending.
In The American Dream I endowed my protagonist David with many of the character traits of my father, set him in the 1950’s, and figured out how he might perform heroic deeds. Without giving the story away, let me say that he does so—and there are consequences. But he ends up a different and far less angry man, as I would have liked my father to be.
Three Steps to Character-Building
So, by now you likely have a potential list of puzzles from your life that you’d like to solve. Next steps:
• If it’s a character trait, invent a protagonist who has that trait (though he/she may differ from the model in other traits) and think about the situations you may put that person in and how he/she would react. Make things complicated. See if that trait could be modified in satisfactory ways, given the experiences you invented.
• Similarly, if there are actions in your life that you cannot explain—but think are significant—devise a character and force her to reenact that scene. Again, make things complicated (they always are in life!) and see how that protagonist acts. Your creative mind may come up with multiple explanations for the action, allowing you to choose how you want the story to progress and end.
• For a question about why a context was so hard to understand or adapt to, trap your protagonist in exactly that situation and play it out.
I admit freely that the endings I come up with as a writer may not be “correct” in reality. I don’t honestly know what would have happened to a woman like Shahnaz in a family headed by a fundamentalist. She might well have given up her passion and simply acquiesced to her brother-in-law’s demands. But not in my world!
There is great power in this process of inventing a world where difficult people, actions, and contexts become understandable. And huge satisfaction in solving those conundrums we all encounter in life. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
In Part I of this series, I talked about the possibility of resolving conundrums or puzzles in your life through writing about them. I’m certainly not the first person to suggest writing about what’s on your mind. Lots of people do it through journaling, often as a daily activity. This can be a wildly successful part of your life (and help you sleep) as you “give away” the problems you’ve faced during the day by leaving them in a diary. Of course, the problems rarely disappear from reality, but the sad or scary or depressed feelings they’ve generated may well be alleviated in the writing.
Creative Journaling and Resolution
What I’d like to talk about here is taking the journaling process one step further: imagining what might have happened to make things work out all right for you and the people concerned. I suggest this because the process of inventing outcomes often leads to a better understanding of where the problem or puzzle has come from. In other words, it may “put the issue to rest” in your mind. For example, a friend of mine recently lost her husband to cancer. He had decided not to have chemo and died long before she thought he would have, had he had the treatment doctors suggested. She has berated herself for not being more persuasive with him, for not convincing him that chemo was in his best interests. Journaling has helped. But think of what would be possible for her if she decides to write further about the experience. She’d likely do a lot of research on people with cancer who refuse chemo versus those who go through it. I believe she’d gain a deeper understanding of why many refuse, and, perhaps, be able to forgive herself for not being able to keep him alive.
My Father’s Journey
Now, certainly, she wouldn’t have to write and publish a memoir to gain such understanding. But I’ve found that unless I take a long view on a puzzle, I’ll only “solve” it superficially. The full solution comes when I’ve put myself in the shoes of my protagonist, set up the context, and explored how he/she acted that I begin to honor the decisions my model made. For example, my second novel is based on my father. He was a captain in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Secret Intelligence Branch, during World War II. When I was growing up in the fifties, he told my brother and me heroic stories of his activities. One of them concerned how I got the name Lorelei. My mother was against giving a child a German name in 1946. My dad said it was his code name when he was behind German lines, and it had kept him safe. He wanted me to be gifted with that same safety.
I grew up with that touching story and also with the image of my father as a superhero. My brother and I agreed that we might not have had the courage to act as he did. So, in the late 1990’s, when I announced I wanted to write fiction, my brother challenged me to take my father as a model and write about his heroics. I took a few years to decide to give it a try and then spent about six months in the National Archives, carefully researching every day of my father’s time in Europe. He never was behind enemy lines. No agent ever had the code name of Lorelei. The OSS only sent agents into Germany if they were native German speakers. My father, on his exit papers from the Army, listed his proficiency in spoken German as “poor.” In fact, every story he’d told us about his OSS activities was a lie. Rationally, I understood why, as all OSS members signed a confidentiality agreement at the end of the war never to talk about their activities. Dad honored that. And lied to his family.
A Novel Inspired
I gave my brother a 34-page single-spaced report of where dad was in his year abroad (with footnotes). Our superhero had been an administrative assistant in London and then in charge of microfilming documents when he moved to the continent. The only time he was in Germany was after the German army had retreated from an area. At that point he and his team would roll in to copy documents of interest to the Allies. My information on his whereabouts came from many sources from Eisenhower’s staff to Dad’s immediate supervisors to his own reports, and included quotations from documents stating his orders. My brother told me it was all lies, that Dad had done all the things he had told us, and OSS had forged all the papers I reviewed to cover up his heroic actions. Frankly, to my mind, my brother simply couldn’t to give up his vision of a heroic father. Now me? I laughed. That idiot father of mine had so wanted to be a hero, he made up a whole different war for himself. It was an immense relief to feel he hadn’t been a superhero but a mortal.
So, I thought to myself. Why? What happened to him that he had such a need to be a hero? And how would someone with such a powerful need act in the context of the 1950’s when men were supposed to be happy to be at home with wives and children? My dad was angry at everyone. How else might he have behaved? This started my second novel The American Dream.
Exploring Life’s Puzzles
Now, think back on your own life and start asking questions:
• What episodes in your past remain unexplained? Did a friendship or marriage end in an odd or abrupt way? Were you ever refused a job or an honor without having a clue why? Has there been a rift in the family that doesn’t made sense to you?
• What characteristics or habits of important people in your life seem weird? Why did your father drink? Why did your mother hate fish and fishing? How come your sister got so much attention and you so little?
• In what puzzling contexts have you found yourself? Did you ever move residences and find yourself with the oddest neighbors? Although you were popular in high school, did you find yourself left out in college? Were there problems adjusting to the changing culture of a new company?
In Part III of this series, I’ll talk about how to take this puzzle you’ve identified to the next level. That is, how to develop the situation and people into a story with a conclusion that satisfies these conundrums from life.
To be continued. . .
I’ve been on this earth a lot of years, and in that time I’ve accumulated a stack of conundrums in my life. They come as three kinds of puzzles:
• Character traits of family members or friends that have (to me) an unexplained origin: Why was my dad so angry all the time? He yelled at all members of the family and raked down neighbors he knew and commentators on television he’d never met. I rarely remember him smiling.
• Actions of family members or close friends that are a mystery to me: Why did my mom refuse to sign a do-not-resuscitate order when her younger sister (in her seventies) was a human vegetable? This sister had always been developmentally delayed and at that point was bed-ridden in a nursing home. She hadn’t spoken or recognized my mom in 40 years.
• The significance of context: How would I have behaved if, as was true for my Pakistani women staff, I lived under the dominance of a fundamentalist in that society?
My Puzzle in Pakistan
This third puzzle underlies the story of my first novel Uncovering, which demonstrates the (potential) power of women in a society ordered by men. Shahnaz, a liberal but observant Muslim, is a nurse in Pakistan’s foothills of the Himalayas with a passion to help pregnant women deliver healthy babies. At her parents’ command she weds a gentle man who encourages her work. But marrying him means she must live with his extended family including his fundamentalist older brother, Raja Haider. When the men’s father dies, Raja Haider becomes head of the family. As is his right, he orders Shahnaz to quit her job and stay at home. Her mild husband accepts his brother’s authority, but Shahnaz rebels.
From 2006 to 2008 I worked within the context of northwest Pakistan, directing a USAID-funded education project. What an extraordinary opportunity to immerse myself in a very different society from mine! I was an American Christian woman working among Pakistani Muslims, both male and female. My staff was incredibly talented, and we completed our task of training 10,000 teachers from primary through high school in state-of-the-art teaching techniques in the sciences, math, and English. That was the task set by the funding agency. My “unintended” task was to step out of my culture and integrate into another.
The Status of Women in Muslim Societies
I had immense respect for the women on my staff. According to them, only about 4 percent of Pakistani women work. Many of these are from poor families and earn money by sweeping the streets. I had a special, well-educated team. And yet a number of women went home each night to a difficult situation. One woman, who I’ll call Samina, lived in a multigenerational household with her mother-in-law, husband, and children. She arrived late to work one morning and explained that her mother-in-law had awakened her at 2:00 a.m. and ordered her to clean the house. Though she had done this task in the past few days, she labored at it for the rest of the night and well into the morning. As I discovered, her husband was out of work, and her mother-in-law felt that Samina was insulting her son by being the single breadwinner in the household. That merited punishment. From time to time, Samina came to work with a black eye or bruised arm when her husband took out his humiliation on her.
How did I react to these events? I did my best to reward my staff in words and in promotions. I made sure everyone obeyed the sexual harassment requirements that were written in the United States by my company, even though they were an unheard-of in Pakistani companies. And to make some sense of the stories, I wrote a novel featuring women who weave a complicated path through this society run by men, a path that allows them to grow to their potential and yet preserve their marriages and family situations.
Writing to Resolve Life’s Conundrums
Do you also face some conundrums? Try to list a few. If you want to understand them better or figure out alternative endings, one of them might be the theme of the next book or essay you write. There’s great satisfaction in “solving” this sort of puzzle, even if the reality you live with never matches the story’s finale.
In the next installment of this blog, coming in three days, I’ll talk about taking one of life’s conundrums and using the writing process to imagine why it happened and how the puzzle might have worked out in a more satisfactory way.
To be continued. . .
A talk for the Clifton Women’s Club at the Fairfax Station Train Museum:
11200 Fairfax Station Road
March 5, 2020 at 7 pm.