Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Guest Post: Writing About Your Family: Lessons I Have Learned

Today’s guest post is written by Sharon Hicks, author of How Do You Grab a Naked Lady, a memoir about her life with her bipolar mother. I reviewed the book here. The best way to gain insight into yourself, in my opinion, is by learning about your family, even if what you learn is somewhat painful.

Sharon Hicks

A few years ago, I met with Mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Amjadi, to ask him a few questions about my mother. I was writing Mother’s story. I wanted to know more about her. Why did he tell me years ago that she was obsessed with knowing the truth? Aren’t we all?  Is obsession a symptom of bipolar? She was diagnosed as manic-depressive with schizophrenic tendencies. What does that mean? Another psychiatrist told me: “Can’t be both.” Could it?

After a few hours of discussion, he said he was amazed that I was writing her story rather than entering a field like psychology or social work that might help me understand mental illness better. Many of the family members of mentally ill patients he had previously encountered had done that. Then, he suggested I make it my memoir: showing the differences between mother and daughter, mentioning the things I had done that mother couldn’t, describing our roles as mother/daughter, etc.

My story! Impossible. She was the colorful, sexy, crazy one; the one arrested over thirty-three times mainly for parading around town naked, in and out of mental hospitals, multiple shock treatments and meds. For Pete’s Sake! She drove around the island in her yellow GS Buick convertible (she named Goose Shit) with the top down, naked. Well, okay, she did wear a yellow Gucci scarf around her neck, but only to blow in the wind. She especially loved coming to a stop sign next to a truck or bus so they could look at her, naked. “Those people can be so stupid. Haven’t they seen a naked body before? Wow, the stop light; ever see anything so fucking red as a blinking red stop light!”  

But, now it was my story. Well, my life with mother: how she was crazy and I was perfect. Heck! I had proof. Mother’s police records, documentations, her audiotapes. And, my senior class voted me Most Ideal and Homecoming Queen. We were clearly opposites! I was determined to prove it.

I wasn’t prepared for the agonizing writing process. The crazy ride on the roller coaster of emotions. Laughing and crying. Pacing, fidgeting and then exhaustion.

I wasn’t prepared for the ending. After the writing, I loved her and connected with her in a way I never did before. After the writing, I learned that the best parts of me were also my mother’s best parts: her inquiring philosophical mind, her raw honesty, her free spirit. And I learned I was not perfect! 

Today, I wish I could reach out, hug her and whisper in her ear: “I can’t possibly understand, but I want you to know I am your biggest ally. I love you.” 

Mother would quote Erhard: “Understanding is the booby prize.” Then she would snicker: “Who gives a shit?”   

Then we both would laugh and eat her “fart” cookies.


Others ask me to share lessons I learned in writing my memoir. I don’t think any are hazardous, but some may be considered dangerous and scary, like diving into the deep end of a dark lagoon where the monsters live. You really don’t know what lurks in the darkness or crevices of your mind. Give up the fight to be right and know that “What you resist persists.” (Carl Jung) Once you face honesty in the face, humility bathes your body. And, you can shake hands with authenticity.

Lessons I have learned:

Be honest. With each event: what were you doing? Wearing? Thinking? Feeling? Be as honest as you can with each episode. Re-live it!  During the writing I paced, cried, panted, took deep breaths and ate dark chocolate. With your honesty, readers will relate whether they share the same experience or not, much like The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr or Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.

A memoir (non-fiction) is written as a novel (fiction). Fiction has three parts: The Set Up/Climax/Resolution. A movie producer interested, asked me quickly: “What is Act 1?” I answered: “Growing up with crazy/manic Mother.”  “Act 2?” “Marrying squeaky clean proving I am nothing like Mother.” “Act 3?”  “Discovering I am like my mother. Her best qualities are my best qualities.” He then said he was interested and wanted to read my memoir.

He did offer a movie option. But wait, not so easy: How was my life resolved?  Who am I?  Who is my authentic self? Part 3 was the most difficult to write. To resolve. Oh shit…Mark Twain to the rescue: “It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” Then I relaxed with the understanding that Part 3 is a work in progress.

Focus on what your memoir is about. Write a couple of sentences or what is called an elevator pitch. Write a synopsis of one page to indicate the three parts as described above. Focus.

Legal advice may be needed when writing about others. Does writing about this particular incident/person contribute to my story? Will it damage my relationship with this person or harm this other person unduly?

Do your research. Attend Writers Conferences, Storytelling and Writing Workshops. Read. Learn. The best work I read is On Writing by Stephen King.

Focus on writing to one person. I focused writing to my only sibling, my brother who is four years older. David says my book answers many questions in his life and he has a deeper understanding why he does certain things a certain way. And, the biggest bonanza: he now knows me at a deeper level.

Know that there will be questions. I thought after I wrote my memoir, I would feel relief and satisfaction. It was over. The burning desire inside me to write “mother’s story” was finally completed. Published. I could relax. Oh no! The questions keep coming. I am reliving it over and over: painful, yet cathartic, exhausting and consuming. No end to the story.


My dad told me I broke his heart when I was ten years old. I asked him the most difficult question: “Will I grow up to be like Mother?”  We were driving to the mental hospital to see Mother. I noticed him gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles were white and, looking straight ahead answered in a low voice: “no.”

The question lingered. Others continually asked me the question. Friends, husbands, lovers. “Are you anything like your mother?”  Anger would boil inside me as I answered with a loud “NO. Absolutely not!”  I broke off relationships. He doesn’t even know me. I am perfect. Mother was the crazy one. Screw him.

Today, after publication of How Do You Grab a Naked Lady? I am asked again at book signings, meetings, and interviews; in emails; on face book and twittering, “Are you anything like your mother?”  I answer calmly and proudly:  “I hope so.”   

Sharon L. Hicks is a retired executive living in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is the daughter of businessman and community leader Harold E. Hicks, whose company, Hicks Homes, built over 20,000 affordable pre-designed homes in Hawaii. How to Grab a Naked Lady is her first book, inspired by her mother.  It is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

1 comment:

  1. A thoughtful and endearing book. We all have secrets about our families. Should we re-live them or try to avoid them? Read her book and related to it since I visited my parents in the same Kaneohe nut house. It is a sad yet enervating story.