Donna M. Johnson has written about religion for The Dallas Morning News and other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, the poet and author Kirk Wilson.
Read Sharon Lippincott's review of Holy Ghost Girl for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 10/03/2011
Donna, could you tell us what sparked your interest in writing memoir?
Years ago, in a college freshman composition class, the teacher gave us an assignment to write a piece based on a childhood memory. My first line was: "I remember the last time mama left." I opened the piece with a scene that eventually went into Holy Ghost Girl. It's the scene where my mother leaves my brother and me after promising that she has returned for good. As the car carrying my mom pulls away, my brother screams and climbs the fence until his legs bleed. I remembered the shape of his mouth and the way the vein popped up on his neck. It's one of my most painful childhood memories. I didn't expect that the teacher would read it, along with several of the other essays, aloud in class. I felt terribly exposed. My classmates asked later if the scene was from "real life." I couldn't bear to talk about it with them, so I said that I had made it up. I went on to write newspaper and advertising copy, but I never forgot the power of writing from life. I think I knew after that essay, that one day, when I was older and braver, I would write about my childhood.
How long did it take you to write this book Holy Ghost Girl from the time you had the idea to finished manuscript?
Almost three years, one to write the proposal and a little less than two to write the book.
Lots of people have trouble knowing where to start and how to organize their memories into a story. How did you meet this challenge?
I came up with the first line in a workshop, and people reacted so strongly that I decided to keep it. Initially, I wanted to write a more impressionistic book in which the narrative was structured in a loser, more dreamlike way. But I felt so compelled, and actually at times driven, by the story of that time and those people, that I ended up following the story of Brother Terrell's rise and fall. His story provided a natural narrative arc that shaped the book. For the most part, I told the story in chronological order. That's often not the best way to structure a memoir, and I'm not sure it was the best option for Holy Ghost Girl. Given more time, I might have structured the book thematically rather than chronologically.
When the first draft was complete, did you find you had to make major structural changes? If so, how many major revisions did you do?
I tend to revise and revise as I write. It's a tedious, painful process that I do not recommend, but it's the only way I can write. As a result (or maybe it was just luck), there were no major revisions, and no structural changes when I came to the end.
Did you keep journals that provided material for your memoir?
I had a few things that I had written and kept in pink and purple notebooks as an older kid, once my life settled down a bit. Unfortunately I threw them out in my late twenties because I found them excruciating to read. This sounds weird, but as kids, my brother and I kept a running oral history of our lives. It was the only way to keep from sliding into complete chaos. We told stories of what happened to us over and over again. We would say things like, remember that revival where Woman Who Used to Be Big was healed? And, remember when I had that dream about the tricycle when we lived with Sister Waters? I also did the same thing internally. I went over and over incidents that happened and where they happened. I was determined to keep a record. I think I was fighting against the sense that we didn't matter, that what happened to us didn't matter. Our lives were incredibly nomadic. Of the few photographs that were taken, almost none survived. Everything was lost along the way. Memory is all I have of that time, and it stretches back to when I was two, before my brother was born.
You begin the story of life in the tent with intricately detailed memories of a service one evening when you were three. It sounds like any of hundreds of similar ones. How did you sort out specific details for that particular service after nearly fifty years had passed?
I remember the big events of that service, and some of the smaller ones as well. I've reconstructed what I don't remember based on my memories of other revivals and the memories and stories of some of the people who were there, including my mother. I grew up among real southerners and we're a story-telling bunch. I not only experienced the stories recounted in Holy Ghost Girl, I listened to the people around me tell stories about those events throughout the years. What I was after as a writer of memoir, was not so much a historical record of exactly what happened and when and where it happened (though certainly I wanted to be as accurate as possible). My goal was to capture the larger sense of what happened, how it felt to be in those revivals, the sense of mystery and wonder, as well as the hardship and deprivation.
You mention that over the years your beliefs about religion and spirituality have changed. Did the process of writing prompt further insights and changes?
I learned so much about the nature of belief, or at least the nature of my own belief. While writing the book, I was haunted by the fear that something awful would happen to me as a result of writing about Brother Terrell and my family, that God would do something awful to me. This fear lay buried under years of rational thinking. I was shocked to discover it. And I was afraid of that fear, afraid it would actually make me sick. This experience is common among those raised in religious cults. Still, I can't help but wonder how many of us truly know what it is we believe. I don't think people in general are particularly rational.
At the end of the book you have a moment when everything comes together. Did you write about this at the time, or do anything else to anchor the memory?
I did write about it and I thought about it, and I talked and talked and talked about it, and then I wrote about it again and again. The moment happened, but I was left to unpack it. I was trying to distill the meaning of what happened with Brother Terrell not recognizing me and with that beautiful older couple. I'm still trying to do that.
Do you have another writing project underway?
I have another project I'm considering. Two in fact. Right now, I'm working very hard on promoting the book. I find that the marketing part of my brain does not coexist with the creative process.
What advice do you have for other memoir writers?
Try to see the perspective of others in your story, especially those who behaved badly, and get that down on paper, or rather on the screen. We are all flawed people just trying to get along. I think if we can write from a place of compassion, we'll tell better, and essentially more truthful stories.