Just when I thought I’d written, read or heard about all of the different ways to write a memoir, in comes a completely unique structure — with a truly heartwarming author backstory.
The other night, I traveled to Fallbrook for part of a weeklong celebration of the opening of its new library. What a celebration — seven nights, eight readings by Pulitzer prizewinners, National Book Award winners, and bestselling novelists, journalists and memoirists with ties to the San Diego County community.
However, one particular reading intrigued me: a double reading by novelist-memoirist Debra Ginsberg and her son, Blaze. Several years ago, Debra wrote Raising Blaze, a memoir about shepherding her autistic son through the world while trying to understand the wiring of his mind. Now Debra was back with her newest novel, The Neighbors Are Watching, set during the devastating Witch Fire of 2007 in San Diego County. While this novel certainly has its characters, plot, pathos and resolution, she was essentially (and gladly, judging from the smile on her face) the warm-up act.
When Debra was finished, she introduced a large crowd at Cafe del Artistes to Blaze, whose memoir, Episodes: My Life As I See It was published by Roaring Book Press (an imprint of Macmillan) in 2009. First of all, the fact any 23-year-old man is publishing prose and reading at public events is impressive, especially when you consider that the vast majority of 23-year-old men won’t touch a book these days if their lives depend on it. Secondly, Blaze is a highest-functioning autistic.
The beauty of Episodes begins with its structure. Blaze explained that he views his world as episodes, so he crafted the book into 28 “series”, each with its episodes, framed on his love of TV shows, movies and movie trivia (one of his favorite websites is the Internet Movie Database). As he read two episodes, one from a “series” focusing on his long-time crush on Hillary Duff, I marveled at how he transferred the story onto paper in a way that showed the inner workings of his mind. Memoirists are notorious for writing and writing on how their minds process whatever central event created the basis for their books, but Blaze’s delivery was a huge breath of fresh air: He laid it down, and let us see for ourselves. He broke down each episode (mini-chapter) into a summary, notes, quotes, trivia, and soundtrack listings — and zoomed in on them with voice and raw emotion more customary of poetry readings. He fed us the pace and energy of not only his story, but also his world. It was one of the most directly honest and entertaining prose readings I have attended in a long time. A quick example from his book:
title: SUMMERTIME SILLINESS air date: JUNE 12, 2003
It’s the last day of school. There is a field trip to Fifteenth Street beach. On the bus before we leave it is somewhat chaotic. Lucinda (the girl I had lunch with when she was visiting Surrey and who is now a student there) gets her toes smashed (as in stepped on). Courtney ends up crashing on my shoulder (fake sleeping), which she is not supposed to do. Later on there is a commotion (which has become a recurring theme with our trio): Courtney and Amber want me to take my shirt off. They end up pulling it off for me. I play cool with it and put it back on later. We run over to Powerhouse Park, but it is closed. So we go back down to the beach.
From there, he takes it deeper through notes, trivia, quotes and soundtrack listing — the tunes he listened to that day (Madonna, Hillary Duff, Dusty Springfield).
Later, as I read Debra Ginsberg’s introduction to Episodes, I further appreciated this unheard-of memoir structure. She opens the introduction by recalling an event when Blaze was 10, one of the first times he successfully conveyed to his mom how his mind worked. He told her that different colored wires control all of our various functions (hearing, walking, seeing, emotions, etc.). In his case, the “yellow” wire — hearing — had been snapped. To him, that’s where the problem lay, as he was particularly sensitive to sounds. “His theory was a very direct—and very visual—way of explaining that he was wired differently,” Debra wrote. “It was surprising to me that he was able, at least at that moment, to articulate it so clearly.”
Blaze began writing in earnest. Eight years later, at 18, he began writing Episodes, which took 3 1/2 years from inception to publishing.
Now, he’s on his way — and has shown us an incredible new memoir structure in the process. I can’t wait to see his next book, which will be his own unique variation on gods and goddesses.