Her Beautiful Brain is Ann Hedreen's memoir about her mother's decades-long fight with Alzheimer’s. Ann lives with her family in Seattle where she works as a writer, filmmaker, and teacher and publishes The Restless Nest.
Ann has bee on a busy book tour with Her Beautiful Brain, but took time to answer questions for Rose City Reader:
How did you come to write Her Beautiful Brain?
Without quite realizing it at the time, I began writing Her Beautiful Brain in 2003, when my husband and I filmed a documentary about my mom and Alzheimer’s disease called Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story. Making the film made me realize I had so much more to say about my mother’s life and about Alzheimer’s. It also made me realize that, while I love filmmaking (which is what I do for a living), I have been a writer since I could hold a pencil and I longed to write more than I was as a filmmaker, sometime journalist and OpEd writer.
Her Beautiful Brain is a memoir about slowly losing your mother to Alzheimer’s. Was it difficult to tell such an intimate story?
Yes, it was difficult. And not everyone would want to tell such a story. But for me, it felt important and necessary: as a way to honor my mother by describing what happened to her, and in a way that would make readers experiencing the same thing feel less alone. I wanted to give people a story that they could share with their friends and say: Here. Read this. This is what my family is going through, too. This is what it feels like to watch someone you love disappear into Alzheimer’s.
Did you think of turning your own experience into fiction and writing the book as a novel?
Yes, I did. But I knew I didn’t want to embark on this project in a vacuum, so I enrolled in the wonderful low-residency Goddard MFA program. My first advisor, poet and memoirist Michael Klein (Track Conditions, The End of Being Known), urged me to embrace the immediacy and honesty of memoir and helped me understand what memoir is: not biography or autobiography but something closer to essay-writing; a weaving of memory and reflection with the goal of telling the emotional truth.
Can you recommend any other memoirs that deal with major life issues with the kind of heart and humor you put into yours?
I was really inspired by Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, a poignant, heartbreaking and even sometimes funny memoir about the stillbirth of her first child. She tells you on page six that “a baby is born in this book, too,” which makes it possible to read, rather than impossibly sad.
I loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Ditto Claire Dederer’s Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses. Floyd Skloot’s In the Shadow of Memory. Terry Tempest William’s Refuge. Lisa Genova’s novel, Still Alice, gets inside the head of someone with Alzheimer’s in riveting, poignant detail. And I am a great fan of everything Anne Lamott writes.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
What continually surprised me were the emotional insights—about my mother, myself and various moments, both small and large, in family history—that came through the act of writing. I am very grateful for that unexpected gift. (This, more than anything, has inspired me to teach memoir writing.)
As for insights about Alzheimer’s, the more I dwelled on its insidiousness, the more I was filled with empathy for every person and every family that experiences it. I am also in awe of the scientists who have devoted their careers to finding answers. Until I began to participate in research as a control subject and to write about it, I don’t think I fully understood how long it can take: years, decades, lifetimes.
What is your work history and did it prepare you for writing a memoir?
After college, I started with a brief, low-level stint in publishing (law books and college textbooks)—staying just long enough to realize I wanted to write, not edit other peoples’ writing. I got my first journalism job covering local crime and other stories for the City News Bureau of Chicago and then UPI. I returned to Seattle and worked as a producer/writer for KIRO, the CBS affiliate, for 5 years. I worked in public relations for the Seattle Art Museum and later did lots of freelance PR writing for nonprofits, especially environmental groups. Meanwhile, my husband was an independent cameraman for CBS and other networks. Finally, we were able to combine our skills and started White Noise Productions, producing short films for nonprofits and independent documentaries. Rustin directs, shoots and edits; I produce, interview and write.
A big part of my work life is interviewing: listening to people tell their stories, then transcribing what they say and pulling out the most important parts. This helps me to “listen” to my own writing, to sharpen it and get to the heart of the matter. I hear everything I write spoken out loud, in my head.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?
Hemingway, for his economy and care in choosing every word. Wallace Stegner, because he wrote so beautifully and insightfully about the West that shaped my immigrant forebears. Anne Lamott, for her brilliant weaving of everyday life and spiritual insights. Poets Denise Levertov and Sharon Olds.
The first memoir I ever read was Gerda Weissmann Klein’s All But my Life, a holocaust survival story. I was about 13 and I have never forgotten it.
What are you reading now?
I just finished Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. What a feast of a book: I loved the way she wove two narratives into one rich, intertwined, complex story. I have also been working my way through Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi, reading just a few poems every morning. I will be so sad when I reach the end.
What do you do to promote your books? Do you use social networking sites or other internet resources?
This is my first book so I’m very new at this. Yes, I’m on FB, both personally and with a new “Ann Hedreen/Author” page. I’m on Twitter (@restlessnest) and I have a website which hosts my “Restless Nest” blog (which can also be heard once a week on KBCS.fm radio and is available via podcast). My husband and I also produced a book trailer.
Her Beautiful Brain from White Noise Productions on Vimeo.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
I do! They are listed on the contacts/calendar page of my website. On October 23 at 6pm, I'll be at Book Passage in San Francisco (1 Ferry Terminal Plaza) and on Tuesday, October 28 at 7pm, I'll be at Village Books (1200 11th Street) in Bellingham, WA. Check the calendar for future events.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
Don’t wait for inspiration. Sit down. Write.
Any tips or hints for authors considering writing a memoir?
Here’s the secret formula (with gratitude to Lucy Calkins and the Columbia Teachers College Writers Workshop, who teach this to students of all ages—I learned it from Melissa Rysemus, a gifted and intuitive writing teacher, when I was guest-teaching memoir writing to her 8th graders in a Seattle public school classroom): Memoir = small moments + reflection.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Having a voice: a way to express what’s roiling around inside; a way to reach people, to touch people.
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
Yes. My working title is The Observant Doubter. It’s a memoir of my own story of faith and doubt. I was religiously fervent as a young teen and then returned to church, less fervently and more doubtfully, about 20 years later. I think so many of us dwell in the hopeful/doubtful middle of the spectrum and can’t relate to the noisy extremists on either end. I want to write about that. I hope to weave in some other stories too, from both well-known faithful and doubtful people and others who I’ve known personally.