…the main reason was that I wrote mostly poetry until I was about 40, and had no training in, or intention of, writing a memoir. But, because I’d often recounted anecdotes with friends about my sister, in 2008 I decided to type some of them, which became 200 pages of unconnected stories and grievances. When I shared them with fellow writers, I entered new territory. Writing about typical siblings can be challenging, but if that sibling has Down syndrome, it can be fraught with other complications. I received mixed responses, some felt comfortable that my family’s use of humor, teasing, and sarcasm weren’t withheld from my sister, and others felt conflicted, even though my sister could skillfully give it right back with her keen wit and perfect sense of timing.
In order to create a bridge for others to connect with the “characters” and their actions, a director friend was interested in editing the stories into a theater piece. Perhaps having the characters come to life would naturally mitigate that conflict. But, I had no experience with an event core (one event that you organize the writing around) and creating a story arc (the way the plot escalates toward a conflict and resolves itself). After a few years of working together I created two monologues called: Cradle to Gravy and The Unauthorized Biography of Dr. Irma King that were performed at the United Solo Fest in Manhattan. When the actors and directors took over, they further shaped the piece. And by hearing my words aloud in rehearsals, I found out what was redundant and not serving the arc.
During that period I was also part of a comedy group called, “I’ll Give You Something to Laugh About,” and we did readings around the Boston area. Rehearsing my humorous essays I perceived how to trim the fat and build tension, cut clichés, and earn the laugh. By the audience’s responses: laughter, slight intakes of breath, throat clearing, restless movements, and the difference between good and bad silences, I got feedback on when my writing worked as I intended, or it flopped.
After all that “on the job” training, I revisited my earlier pages from 2008, along with the notes and research I’d done. Part of the research was reading other memoirs and discovering which ones I loved and why. I found that I didn’t necessarily care if a book had an event core or an arc, as long as the writing was compelling, had a few lyrical meanderings, and the characters were authentic and not let off the hook, because I then learned lessons from their flaws.
Over the next four years, I dug in—writing, rewriting, reorganizing, editing, cutting, sharpening and adding. Questions arose about how much I wanted to share, how will my family feel if they read it (extended and immediate), do I talk about my father’s drinking or my depression, and how do these narratives relate to the sister’s relationship. I pondered if it was OK to even write about my sister. I concluded it was fine since other memoirists write about their family members all the time. Most memoirs acceptably focus on a one-sided perspective because the narrator/writer is trying to find out who they are in relation to others, therefore why should my sister be excluded because she has Down syndrome?
At times I worried people would think I was mean in some of the stories from when we were younger. Since she’s older and we’re less than a year apart (Irish Twins), part of my goal was to demonstrate how equally we treated each other, not singling either of us out as special. This worked better when I found a balance. There’s a story when we are in our early teens and I stomp on all her imaginary friends because she kept me up all night at her fake slumber party. I include this not only because it’s true, but also we are first and foremost siblings.
In December 2019, after going through reader’s reviews and a board of directors, Wesleyan University Press accepted my book for publication. It took years to make my words publishable, not just written down. Many people helped to shape the final product, even the critics, and I’m grateful for each and every one of them. It took many special people to make Nothing Special happen.
P.S. Though I wish my sister had the ability to read the book, she won’t be able to do that. That’s part of why we included pictures in it. My mother read the uncorrected proof and I wondered what she’d think. When she finished she never said she liked it, but she never said she hated it. Simply the fact that she actually read it was more important to me than anything. But to find out more about that, you’ll have to read the book. http://www.diannebilyak.com