Mental Health Memoirs | Q&A with Clifton Crais & Linda Mary Wagner

Professor Clifton Crais’s History Lessons and journalist Linda Mary Wagner’s Unearthing the Ghosts deal with families, mental illness, recovery, and remembering the past. Here the authors talk about their individual writing processes, sense of place, and how they finally got their books published.

Clifton, how did the process of writing your own story differ from the previous—chiefly academic–writing you’ve done?
CC: Because History Lessons is a literary memoir it is very different from my academic books. However, I researched using the same skills as my academic work—archives, interviews, secondary sources—because there was no storehouse of personal memory from which I could write. I followed the historian’s rules of evidence even as I was producing a work of literature. At times the research became emotionally overwhelming. I was constantly whipsawed, one moment trying to remain objective, the next moment aghast when discovering something about my family’s past.

Linda, how difficult was it for you to get started with the extensive research you did for this project? Did you find your background in journalism helpful, or is memoir a whole different ballgame?
LMW: I find that truly good writing is much harder for me than research. I must reach into deeper and darker interior spaces and constantly revise when I write. Journalistic research has always been a pleasure for me. But it was more important in this project that I had personal mysteries to solve, or, at least, to shed some light on them. In addition, literary agents and editors had told me that my initial manuscript, while compelling, was too short and too similar to the stories of others, such as Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. I decided to investigate and chronicle more than just my personal memoir and to distinguish it by adding the context of 20th-century social history about mental illness diagnosis and treatment. It was challenging to find what I needed to tell that story.

Can you talk a little about your writing process?
CC: I wrote in absolute silence and in secret, hidden away in a very small office in the university library without an Internet connection. I would go to the office early in the morning and write longhand using a pencil. Writing longhand has a much different sensation from using a computer and allows one to feel more connected to what is going on inside one’s head.

LMW: For some passages, I can compose easily at the computer. But there are times when I feel stuck at a keyboard and I need to put a pen to paper to express myself. I grab my writing moments whenever I find the energy, whether in the morning, evening, or on weekends. If in the morning, I’ll be drinking coffee. If in the evening, I’m drinking herbal tea with a half-shot of rum.
Whatever surrounds me, I have always had the ability to shut out distracting sounds when I want to concentrate on writing. Sometimes I love the silence when I write, but on a Saturday or Sunday morning, I enjoy quiet instrumental classical music or bebop in the background, or the sound of my husband, Barry, practicing his guitar in the room down the hall.

What memoirs—if any—have you read that encouraged you to write your own? When did you know you had to write your story?
LMW: Colette’s My Mother’s House, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Mary Ellen Geist’s A Measure of the Heart, and many more. But I was also motivated by the short stories of David Sedaris and by biographies and autobiographies that tell personal stories entwined with social history such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by ­Rebecca Skloot, In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel, and others.
I first tried to write this story in fictional form 30 years ago, before my first child was born. I submitted the initial chapters to a program that supports authors with stipends for a writer’s retreat. They rejected it and told me I should stick to journalism. After about 25 years had passed and my two children were grown …I returned to my story, and this time, I told it in nonfiction form.

CC: I tried writing a novel about a young boy in New Orleans who runs away and barely survives a vicious hurricane.I realized I was writing fiction precisely because I could not remember my childhood. At that point I knew I had to write History Lessons. I found some of the classic memoirs to be most helpful, in part because they are important meditations on memory and identity, especially works like Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and, of course, Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.

Linda, can you talk a little about the process of funding your book on Kickstarter?
LMW: I submitted my memoir manuscript to several publishers and agents, and they all gave me wonderful reviews but said it did not fit their business models. Several encouraged me to self-publish. I realized that I could publish inexpensively in ebook form, but I still believe
in the printed word as a way to make change. After receiving printers’ quotes, I knew I would go deeper into debt to print as many copies as I wanted.
For several months, this was a stumbling block. Then, I heard about Kickstarter from my son, who had learned of it while attending classes in engineering entrepreneurship. I launched the Kickstarter project, alerting family, friends, and colleagues through email and Facebook. I received $3,776 in pledges from 67 people, which gave me the final funds I needed to…print the paperback and…produce the ebook. I’ve delivered copies of the print book and ebook to my backers. The printer arranged to have the paperback sold through and in several independent bookstores in the Albany, NY, area; Bookbaby arranged to have the ebook version sold online.

Clifton, a sense of place permeates every page of your work. Can you envision your family’s saga occurring in any other setting or was New Orleans crucial to the result? What does New Orleans mean to you now?
CC: Poverty, madness, and hardship are universal themes, but I can’t imagine my family’s saga occurring anyplace else. New Orleans remains one of the country’s most distinctive cities. It is also a uniquely vulnerable city, as if it shouldn’t even exist and might any day disappear despite its very rich history. Every time I return to the city I am amazed by its fragility and its perseverance, themes that shaped the writing.

Linda, what was your family’s reaction to your writing and publishing your story?
LMW: My husband, children, and siblings gave me tremendous support and encouragement throughout the project. There were many times when I feared exposing myself or hurting family or friends unintentionally. Many times I broke down, or spent hours or days in a melancholic fog. But I could not forget the friends and family members who had told me they wanted to read my book. Their interest—and my own desire to make something positive come from my history—drove me back to writing and editing.

Clifton, tell us about writing your mother’s obituary.
CC: My mother died just before History Lessons was about to go to the printer. I started a draft of the obituary. Over the next two weeks [it] took shape as it bounced from one sibling and relative to another. In the end it was a joint effort, and a fitting way to remember my mother. In late March, the family stood in front of an old tomb in one of the city’s historic cemeteries where I placed my mom’s ashes next to her mother.

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