Guest Speaker Recap: Jo Case, Memoirist

This week’s guest speaker was Jo Case, a freelance reviewer, essayist, bookstore worker and the senior writer and editor at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Jo’s memoir, Boomer and Me, published last year by Hardie Grant, is about Jo’s experiences with motherhood and the difficulties she met raising a son with Asperger syndrome (or high-functioning autism).

Jo talked principally about the writing of her memoir and her journey to publication. Interestingly, Hardie Grant commissioned her to write Boomer and Me on the strength of some pieces she’d had published in The Age. It’s notoriously difficult to get published in The Age, but Jo chalks this impressive CV credit up to persistence (for years, she made blind, periodic pitches to editor Jason Steger) and networking (she later met and made a personal impression upon Mr Steger at a literary festival) – further proof that success in the publishing industry requires a combination of hard work and luck.

I must admit I haven’t read much memoir – from memory, only Scar Tissue, something about Michael Hutchence, Dave Eggers’ hyperbolically (and aptly) titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and that bloody bird book – so knew little about what kind of work goes into them. Jo spent two years writing Boomer and Me, though admits most of the heavy drafting occurred during the second. When she started writing, her first steps were to establish the book’s theme and work out which central questions would drive the narrative.

For Jo, narrative is important and she first conceived Boomer and Me after identifying a gap in the market. As the mother of an autistic child, she sought books that might help her, books she could identify with, but found few that sufficiently addressed what she was going through. What she found lacked the Australian locality she desired and had marked scientific emphases. She wanted works that engaged with their emphases on character and story, though she also wanted works which addressed the reality of living with Asperger’s. Readers, she deduced, would invest more and be more poised to learn from a story with well-drawn, three-dimensional characters.

Jo intentionally put more material than was necessary into her first draft, reasoning that she could later pare it back once she had more of an idea how the whole should read. She prefers writing memoir over fiction. Her fiction, she says, feels insincere, while her memoir writing has greater depth and emotional resonance.

For aspiring memoirists, she stressed the importance of research. This surprised me; I’d wrongly assumed memoir was a form that required no research. I figured all the necessary elements would be up there in the memory vaults, but that’s not necessarily so. It all depends, of course, on the nature of the work.

Jo recommended the following research avenues:

  • Peruse past emails and letters from the relevant period. Depending on your story, these could be paraphrased or included verbatim in the actual text, (Jo stressed, however, that it’s important to implement these organically).
  • Read old journal and blog entries for a refresher and to ensure factual accuracy.
  • Listen to old music. It may evoke memories and help you re-enter past head spaces.
  • Do any necessary medical research. The internet will help here.

To me, one of the most interesting parts of Jo’s project was that it was commissioned. I didn’t know much about the commissioning process and Jo explained that it had both benefits and drawbacks. For Jo, having a steadfast project deadline was beneficial, as it kept her motivated and minimised her fears. (Self-doubt, she said in an aside, can be useful if kept manageable. It’s particularly useful for warding off complacency.) Knowing there was an expectant publisher on the other side of the deadline helped Jo stay on track and encouraged her to treat her writing as a bona fide professional venture.

The main drawback to being commissioned, Jo explained, was the rigid production schedule. A perfectionist, Jo wishes she could’ve spent more time on the manuscript and lingered longer in the editing phase. Because she worked almost exclusively on the project for two years, she was not able to set it aside and create the kind of emotional distance that is conducive to effective self-editing.

Another interesting discussion point was the ethical and potentially litigious implications memoirists can face. As Boomer and Me depicts real people and situations, Jo had to carefully consider her representations and obfuscate where necessary. She made mention of Helen Garner, a revered Australian writer known for blurring truth and fiction. Garner is often surprised by what readers react to in her work. Apparently, past readers have taken issue with seemingly innocuous details, yet have remained largely unbothered by the things Garner expected would cause the most controversy.

Jo’s main concern when writing Boomer and Me was how her son might react to her written depiction of him. She worried he might feel exploited, so carefully explained her project in an effort to make him more comfortable. (She even mentioned, candidly, that she considered pulling the entire project when he expressed some last-minute reservations. Fortunately he came around.)

Some antagonistic individuals are also depicted in Boomer and Me’s narrative. With these, Jo asked herself if she could live with the consequences should their real-life counterparts somehow self-identify and take issue with the representation. Jo could. A good rule of thumb, she said, is to ask yourself if you’d be willing to say what you’re writing to the person’s face. If so, it’s probably safe to proceed. But tread carefully: recognise that you have a responsibility to tell the truth and show respect. Be fair and objective.

A few last pearls of wisdom:

  • Jo champions writers’ groups and recognises them as an integral part of her writing process. As a member of two, she credits writers’ groups with giving her structure and instilling discipline. She enjoys being part of a supportive writing community; the weekly commitment makes her more accountable for her own productivity.
  • Following an audience question, Jo reinforced the sporadic nature of freelance work. As a freelancer, it seldom works out that you have only the amount of work you need or can handle. More likely, you’ll experience extremes: feast or famine. The tendency during busy periods is to accept as many jobs as possible, though Jo warns this is not always wise and can be difficult to manage. Overburdening yourself can cause rushed, sloppy work and high stress levels.

* * *

I thoroughly enjoyed Jo Case’s presentation and learnt a great deal about memoir writing and the nature of commissioned work. Boomer and Me is available now through Hardie Grant Publishing.

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