What is the Gist of Your Story? #6

A sound premise and compelling themes are undoubtedly the hallmarks of great writing. In another addition to the series on literary themes and premise, I’d like to review the much loved memoir, The Glass Castle, by the well-known author, Jeannette Walls. From the book description and Amazon’s exclusive Q&A with Walls, as well as the author’s Facebook Page, we learn the following:

The author’s bio

Image by Larry D. Moore, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License.

Image by Larry D. Moore, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License.

Jeannette Walls was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and grew up in the southwest and Welch, West Virginia. She graduated from Barnard College and was a journalist in New York City for twenty years. Her memoir, The Glass Castle, has been an international bestseller for more than five years and translated into twenty-two languages. Walls is a popular public speaker and lives in rural Virginia with her husband, the writer John Taylor.

The author’s memoir

Walls says it took her more than 25 years of agonizing over the “intensely personal” and “potentially embarrassing” childhood experiences before she managed to approach her story in a constructive way, and then it took another 3 to 4 years of rewrites before the book was ready for publication.

Walls and her three siblings grew up with parents whose unorthodox morals caused the family to live like gypsies. Even though the parents were charismatic and not without talents, their default behavior was pretty repulsive—drinking, lying, and stealing—which not only shamed their children but often put their safety at risk.

The main themes and premise of Walls’s memoir

Alcoholism and Child Neglect vs. Pride and Strength of Character are some thematic concepts that jump out at me. Walls reckons that everyone is capable of overcoming adversity, but you only discover your toughness when you’re tested.

Walls sets up an incident in the prologue of The Glass Castle to introduce the reader to the main THEMES of her book—resilience and redemption—and her story’s PREMISE: how you live your life is your choice; even a deeply dysfunctional family can be uniquely vibrant; if your past is a part of who you are, then surely  you can also choose to beat the odds and forgive the flaws of your parents.

Walls describes sitting in a taxi on her way to a social event when she spots her mom rummaging through a trash bin. As she observes her clothes, gestures, and behavior, she notices how her mom has aged. The author’s first response is to recall her childhood with some fondness, “…but still she reminded me of the mom she’d been when I was a kid,” before she’s “overcome with panic” that someone might connect her and this homeless woman—“that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out.”

Jeannette Walls is represented by Simon & Schuster and her book is published by Scribner. It has received several awards and much publicity. Remember, whether you're fortunate to secure an agent and publisher or not, effective book publicity relies on strong promotional messages, which are extracted from the themes contained in your writing that, collectively, make up the premise of the story. 

A Creative Writing Discussion

  • How has the author’s childhood influenced her sense of self and shaped her values?
  • What does the comment “and my secret would be out” tell us about the way she’s living her life at that moment?
  • How would you describe the main themes that underpin the story?
  • How would you articulate the premise of Walls’s memoir?

Join me as I discuss the need for compelling themes and a sound premise with published and newbie authors over the next few months. If you want to participate as a guest blogger in this series, please don't hesitate to contact me for details. You can also participate by reviewing your favorite memoir or novel.