Anne Lamott, in one of my favorite books on writing, suggested that writers who lack something to write turn to their own life for inspiration. A few years ago, I took Ms. Lamott’s advice and found the experience incredibly valuable – not knowing at the time whether I intended to do anything with the documented memories (the process is outlined in her inspirational book Bird by Bird). I unveiled the skeleton of a story that I would use for my first novel (still unpublished, but coming closer). The tale is based on my grandmother’s life, or at least what I imagined her life to have been. As I added flesh to the skeleton, I also garnished the story with several dashes of pepper and slices of onion. It needed a lot of embellishment.
Recently, I read Marlayna Glynn Brown’s memoir Overlay, A Tale of One Girl’s Life in 1970’s Las Vegas. Now here is someone who doesn’t have to spice things up—in fact, I think she may have toned a few things down! The title provides a hint at what’s to come. If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas you may have some sense of how distorted a picture of real life a child might get had they grown up there. And then, if you add in two here now then gone again parents—a father who drives his family across the country drunk, a mother who drags her daughter when she sleeps with an endless series of men—you begin to see a picture of a very different sort.
In this first of a series of three memoirs of her life, we watch, our heart breaking, as young Marlayna suffers one disappointment after another, some over small things, things like you or I might have mourned. But hers is a deeper los. As she says after one more disappointment, “that empty feeling returns and spreads throughout my body, as if someone pulls a plug and all the happiness drains through the soles of my feet.”
According to Anne Lamott, Flannery O’Connor said that “anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is Okay if well done.”
In Marlayna Brown’s case, grim and horrible is more than “okay” it is riveting. As I read her story, I kept reminding myself how lucky I was to have a “normal” childhood—though of course Marlayna does have an advantage, she doesn’t have to make so much up!
For more information on Marlayna, visit: http://www.marlaynaglynnbrown.com