Behind the Book: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Memoirs are subjective. That’s the conceit—this is one person’s perspective on his or her life. None of my siblings has contradicted a single fact in The Glass Castle, but if any of them had written about our lives, it would have had an entirely different tone and perspective. To me, the whole point of writing a memoir is to say, here is the story of my life, and maybe you can learn something from my experience without actually having to go through it.
When I asked Mom what the heck I was supposed to tell people about her she said, “Just tell the truth.” Getting at the truth isn’t all that easy. And you might not be ready to share the truth with others, but in my experience, people are wiser than you expect.
I was so embarrassed by my past that I thought my story would be met with contempt and ridicule. There was no doubt in my mind that by writing this book I would lose everything: my job, whatever status I had, my friends. Of course it was foolish of me to think that. It’s been an incredible lesson—I’ve never been so wrong about anything in my life. If I feel any sense of shame now it’s that I hugely underestimated people’s capacity for compassion.
If anybody looks down on me I haven’t heard about it. They may do it secretly! But the people I was most worried about have been the most supportive and sympathetic. Old friends whom I lost touch with have contacted me to tell me they loved the book. Strangers have written long letters telling me about themselves. So many folks come up to me and they'll say, your story and mine are a lot alike, and then they’ll start crying because they’ve never told anyone their story before. There are these amazing, beautiful stories of triumph and courage. I’m on a campaign to get people to share their stories. Whether it’s just to their children or to their friends, or to write it down, to blog it, or whatever.
Writing about myself, and about intensely personal and potentially embarrassing experiences, was unlike anything I’d done before. Over 25 years, I wrote many versions of this memoir—sometimes pounding out 200 pages in a single weekend. But I always threw out the pages. At one point I tried to fictionalize it, but that didn’t work either.
When I was finally ready, I wrote it entirely on the weekends, getting to my desk by 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. and continuing until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. I wrote the first draft in about six weeks—then I spent three or four years rewriting it. My husband, John Taylor, who is also a writer, observed all this approvingly and quoted John Fowles, who said that a book should be like a child: conceived in passion and reared with care.
One of the reasons I could write this story was because I felt happy and secure (though while I was writing I had to pretend no one was going to read it; if I hadn’t, I don’t think I could have been quite as honest). For more than 25 years I tried to be all civilized and citified, going to black-tie events in my designer clothes, rubbing elbows with movers and shakers, but I never belonged in that world. When you try to be something that you’re not, you get a little weird, and I worried I was turning mean as an old yard dog. I think that coming clean about my past in The Glass Castle allowed me to be honest about who I really am, and I could let down all those defenses I’d built up over the years.