Re-examining the Stories We Tell About Our Lives—A Conversation with Memoirist Sharon Harrigan

09/29/2017 10:40 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2017
Cover for Playing with Dynamite
Cover for Playing with Dynamite

There are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the stories we discover if we’re brave enough to ask questions. This is the journey Sharon Harrigan takes in her memoir Playing with Dynamite—a story about a daughter’s search for a missing father, a fractured family narrative, and the uncertain places within herself.

Reminiscent of Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, another journey in search of a missing father, Sharon’s descriptions are fresh and her language poetic. Her writing has been lauded by award-winning memoirists Nick Flynn, Debra Gwartney, and Benjamin Percy as “both epic and intimate,” “frank and fiercely honest,” and “a memoir that hits you in the gut.” The book is filled with pithy reflections on the challenges of memory and her desire to excavate the blank spots in her own experience. About fatherless children, she writes “We’re half-orphans, half-everything, living half a life.” When it comes to memories about these half-lives, “We crank out our stories, sometimes, to correct our mistakes. Or fill in the blanks.”

Sharon’s list of publications includes The Nervous Breakdown, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Rumpus, among others. Her Modern Love essay “A Single Mom Escapes the Friend Zone One Date at a Time,” trended on Twitter for several days after its publication.

In honor of the October 1, 2017 release of Playing with Dynamite, I sat down with Sharon to discuss the memoir writing process and how it changes the stories we tell about our lives.

Lisa: Your essay “Revenge of the Prey” was the launching point for this project. In that essay, you mourn the things you don’t know about your father. This led to conversations with family members about their own memories—or lack of memories—about him. When did you know you were writing a book?

Sharon: If you ask my husband, he’ll say I’ve been working on this memoir forever. And it certainly feels that way. But when did I first know the events I was living through would become plot points? That’s a complicated question, because I was processing my father’s story in my head long before I started writing it down.

When I was still in my MFA program, one of my writing professors, Pam Houston, suggested I expand my essay into a book. That was the spring of 2011. Because I was in the middle of writing a novel, I didn’t immediately pursue the idea, but it was always in the back of my head.

Fast-forward to the spring of 2013. I was living in Paris and my mother came to visit from Detroit. Since my essay had appeared, she’d opened up to me about my father’s life and her own in an unprecedented way. Every time I saw or talked to her, I got another surprise, something that shook up my whole idea of what I remembered and what I thought I knew. I started to interlock the pieces of all the stories she had been telling me and realized there was something universal about her experience, something that felt like the story of a generation, the last generation of women who didn’t have the opportunities I take for granted like going to college or work.

These were her stories as much as mine, so I asked to use them. Once she gave me permission, I was able to start the book. She became a collaborator, in a way, as did my brother, aunt, uncle, and others, as I collected their memories of my father and the ways in which his death affected us.

Lisa: On one hand, you’ve always been writing this story. On the other hand, the essay invited other family members to join the conversation you’d been having in your head about who your father was and how you viewed him. What was the most surprising thing you learned along the way?

Sharon: There were so many! I was surprised by the way writing about people changed the way I saw them. To make them fully rounded characters, I had to try to get in their heads. And once I did that, I couldn’t help but empathize. I was also surprised by how different our memories were, and not just about small details. What I learned about the unreliability of memory, especially memories related to traumatic events, changed the way I view my own life and how I read other memoirs.

Lisa: Getting into the heads of our characters, especially when they’re real people, can be particularly challenging. What strategies did you use to understand your characters and build empathy for them?

Sharon: Trying to get in my father’s head through imagined scenes was one of the primary ways I developed empathy for him. It can be useful to try to inhabit characters’ points of view, to see and feel the challenges they faced and put their actions in context. I’m a big believer in doing lots of exercises, of compiling material that helps deepen our understanding, even if that material ends up getting cut.

Lisa: Many of your imagined scenes ended up in the memoir. Why did you make this choice and how did it enhance your book?

Sharon: I had to come up with a technique that would bring the stories people were telling me to life. Just transcribing a series of monologues from talking heads would be deadly. I know, because that’s what I did at first. And it was really boring. Film documentaries often use re-enactments to keep viewers’ attention, so why can’t memoir? There’s a great film that feels like memoir, called Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley. She points the camera at family members, then puts some of their stories into scene. I think it works well.

Another reason I used this technique is because it shows what actually happens when people tell me stories. I fill in the blanks, put in the sensory details, in my head. I think we all do.

Lisa: Developing empathy through imagined scenes and writing from other characters’ points of view helped you create a journey filled with rounded characters that transform over time. How were you transformed by writing this book?

Sharon: I’m more open and self-confident. I’m more empathic, both to people in my family and with my younger self. I’m less afraid and more likely to take risks, both as a writer and a person. That’s the short version.

Lisa: What advice would you give memoirists who are interested in following your lead and re-examining the stories they’ve always believed to be true?

Sharon: Don’t wait until some of the people you want to talk to are no longer alive. (My father’s best friend died right before I could talk to him.) Start with your own memories and write them all down first. Otherwise, later it will be difficult for you to distinguish what you remember and what people told you—which, as I found out, are not always the same thing.

But the main thing I’d say, the advice I wish I could have given my younger self when I started this project forever ago? Don’t be afraid.

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