author Joelle Fraser on the writing of memoir.
Thankfully, the talented and brightly honest writer Joelle Fraser, author of the newly published and powerfully well-received memoir The Territory of Men, didn’t allow those kinds of questions to lock her eloquent story inside her. “This book is very beautiful to me because I was able to tell the story of that child who never spoke up, who just watched from the side and tried to get out of the way. It’s a small thing when you think of it in the world, but to me it was important.”
Yet, it isn’t a small thing. Where would we be without the literary voices, which Fraser has just contributed hers to, that help center us in an otherwise enormous universe? I might have given up the ghost as a writer, myself, if not for stumbling across Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke as a teen. In the book he instructed his young admirer Mister Kappus to ask what I consider the ultimate test question for a writer: must I write or else die? Talking with Joelle Fraser, it became instantly clear that despite having suffered the same litany of doubts as any writer in her own process, she had asked herself Rilke’s question and answered yes. “I would not be able to make sense of myself or my surroundings without writing. Writing is a tangible part of me, it’s something I have to do every day,” Fraser said. Indeed Joelle, who has two MFA’s, one from Eastern Washington University and one from University of Iowa, wrote every day for the better part of a year constructing her childhood stories. The rest of the essays in the lyrical, painful but ultimately healing story of surviving her parents chaotic lives in the sixties were written over the years of her studies.
Fraser spent much of her life moving back and forth from parent to parent between California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. She went to four different high schools in three states and often found that being alone was easier than trying to weather the painful rigors of being the new girl in a new school. Reading was her main form of escape. “I always wrote stories as a kid, but mainly I was a reader. I would go camping in the outdoors and have my nose in a book all day. My mom would have to say, let’s go to the river now.” Fraser read books about animals, whose innocence she could relate to, particularly those stories where animals had to survive some tragedy. “I just loved animal stories like Black Beauty and Old Yeller. Children’s literature is so great because it can change a child’s life, especially those kids that are lonely and neglected.” Her mother had many boyfriends and husbands, leaving Fraser to feel like a third wheel or, in the instances where one of these many psuedo-fathers was kind and loving, as if he took a part of her with him after he left. As she says in her book, “a man was my father for a few years, and he wiped my nose and taught me his favorite songs. But I never saw any of them again. The truth is, I gave pieces of my childhood to these men. I tell myself they loved me and they haven’t forgotten me. I’ll believe it as long as I can. (p. 98).”
Fraser’s parents were both alcoholics, her father meeting his own tragic demise at the mercy of the disease, while her mother weathered the trials, eventually choosing sobriety and becoming a therapist. Writing was the way Fraser could understand her life, and capture some sanity. Her father, also a writer, spent twenty years writing his one great novel Gone to Maui. His talent was a great inspiration for Fraser. “I used to sit and watch him write in his notepad. It seemed the most intriguing and creative thing to do. You would have to be smart and interesting to write, and I never wanted to be a dullard. I had two parents who were very vibrant and charismatic, and I wanted to be smart and well-read like they were.
Though Fraser, now thirty-five, weathered her own share of trials, mistakes and mishaps, she turned out to embody in spades all that she admired in her parents. Her collection of essays about her adult relationships with men procured her a book deal with Random House before she’d even written the details of her childhood. “I had not really thought about writing those early stories. It was at Random House’s prompting that I did so. A lot of people will say they won’t write their memoirs until their parents pass on and I understand that. If my mom wasn’t a therapist I may not have been able to write this book. It’s very hard on your family. If my father had stayed alive I probably wouldn’t have published it yet. Now, though, it’s like my dad has been resurrected. The memoir has healed a lot of things. People who couldn’t talk about my father now can laugh and heal. Memoir can do wonderful things, things you would never expect.”
For a “review-only” book that has only been on the shelves since July of this year, The Territory of Men has done more successfully than Fraser expected, with stellar reviews from the Washington Post and the New York Times among others. Review-only means the publisher invests zero dollars into advertising and promotion of the book, save a few galleys sent to reviewers. All publicity must come from the writer, and if fabulous success is the product of the writer’s hard work, then the publisher considers it just a lucky stroke. “I’ve paid my dues,” says Fraser. “I feel so glad that I wrote the book when I could still fool myself that no one would read it. Because who was going to read me? I hadn’t been published very much. I was living in some tiny little town, barely making rent.”
Fraser’s early feelings of obscurity are ones I’ve heard echoed by writers all over the country, both successful and unknown. The overwhelming experience of being a tiny fish in an increasingly enormous pond could prevent many of us from ever picking up the pen again. So why do it? What’s the point of writing anything, particularly one’s own story?
“The purpose of memoir is to tell the story of people who don’t have a voice a lot of the time. I think of the diary of Anne Frank and how important it was for us to hear her story, or Malcolm X. The influence of real people telling their stories of how they overcame obstacles or how they came to forgive is really important,” Fraser said. Indeed, it seems that the very purpose of memoir serves a number of crucial functions in the world of literature. By its very nature writing down the truth is a healing process, not just for the author who can expunge the wounds of early traumas, but for the reader who is offered the chance to realize “I’m not so alone, someone else was callow or mean or stupid or made a mistake and it’s okay,” said Fraser.
As a child who shuffled back and forth between my drug-addicted mother and my drug-dealing father, Joelle Fraser’s book succeeded on a very personal level in making me feel less alone, and as if my story might be useful as a teaching story to others.
“The idea of transforming past experience into something like art instead of just a painful memory has been beautiful. It’s something I’m proud of, the story of it. That’s an incredible gift of memoir.”
So writing one’s story functions on a number of important levels: for the writer, it is, like Rilke says, that which keeps the spirit from dying. And while money and fame are tempting carrots on the horizon, as Fraser herself says, “you have to resist the commercial part of writing and remind yourself why you’re doing it. It’s not just about notoriety and fame. It’s all about the writing, no matter what. You better love the process or else you’re just going to be disappointed all the time.”
A wise friend once said to me, ‘a gift is only a gift if you give it away.’ Joelle Fraser’s The Territory of Men is such a gift, taken from the painful revelations of one woman’s life and reminding us that writing can heal. I can’t think of a better reason to keep writing.