Tanya Ward Goodman is the 2013 Sarton Award winner for Leaving Tinkertown, her deeply moving memoir chronicling her return home to the roadside museum, “Tinkertown,” where she grew up, in order to care for her father as he battled Alzheimer’s disease. Goodman’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Cup of Comfort series published by Adams Media, Literary Mama, The Huffington Post, and Brain, Child Magazine. In addition, she has written film and television scripts. She blogs for TheNextFamily.com. Lisa Shirah-Hiers interviewed her via email for the Story Circle Journal.
What is your creative process like?
I make a lot of daily notes. I tend to keep several notebooks in circulation—a small one in my bag, a pad on my desk and I always have a couple of yellow letter-size legal pads in action. My creative process is a little bit of a mystery—I have a hard time staying focused, so I’m usually working on a bunch of different projects at the same time. I have one folder on my computer that is called “Work on this.” That’s where I keep the most recent unfinished projects. Though I’d like to say I write every day on a strict schedule, I usually wind up writing for six hours one day and then doing nothing for the next two. I used to beat myself up about that, but I think it’s how I operate, so I try to be forgiving.
When I’m deep into a project, I sometimes have this very fleeting feeling that I’ve lifted off the page and am kind of hovering over the whole thing. I can see all the pieces and understand how they need to fit. It’s a wonderful sensation and it seems a little magical, but I know it’s actually the result of really knowing my story and being clear on my plan to tell it.
Sounds like you’ve learned that giving yourself permission to have your own, unique creative process is important. What else have you learned about writing in general and memoir in particular?
[I’d say] write down everything you think and edit it later. Keep your pen or keyboard in action and don’t stop to ask “why.” The reasons will become clear the more you write.
Writing memoir is writing about real people and actual events, so it’s easy for me to stop writing because I’m afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. I found it very important to remember that I was telling my own story. What I saw and felt were unique to me and informed by my experiences. I shared every draft of my book with my family and they honored me by letting almost everything stand. I absolutely adore my family and I worked very hard to make sure that my love for them was never in question.
So you knew that your unique experience was important enough write your own version of events. But why did you decide to publish Leaving Tinkertown?
I started writing as a way to process my dad’s illness. I’d taken a lot of notes when I was living at home with him and after I moved back to Los Angeles I continued to write down everything I remembered about our experience together. Focusing on one memory brought up another and so I’d keep writing to see where the story would take me. The pages started to pile up.
I originally began to write the book for myself as a way to bring my dad back to life. I missed him terribly and writing was a way for me to kind of hang out with him. The first complete section I wrote was about moving my grandmother from Aberdeen to Albuquerque. I wrote it as a stand-alone essay and gave it to a few friends. One of them asked if he could pass it along to someone going through a similar situation. I felt good knowing that my story would keep them company and perhaps offer a bit of relief. From then on, when I wrote, I felt as though my dad was keeping me company and I was returning the favor by doing the same for others.
I learned so much while writing (and continue to learn as the book makes its way into the world.) I learned the value of perseverance, honesty, resilience and compassion. I learned of the vital healing power of a good story.
And you realized your story could heal others as well. How did you get your book “into the world” to do that?
I set up a small online media presence: Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, Amazon. I tried to keep followers apprised of news about the book. I set up as many readings as I could in Albuquerque and Los Angeles. I threw a book release party in Los Angeles as a fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association—a lot of fun and a great way to get the book into the hands of a bunch of people. I’ve joined numerous online groups that are focused on Alzheimer’s and try to comment on other blogs and sites and in general be helpful and kind. I hired a publicist to set up some radio interviews. All of these things were helpful. With a small press or a self-published book, it’s really about making personal connections. Whenever my book was reviewed or recommended, I made a point to write to the author and thank them.
What are some of things you learned from your dad? What has stuck with you?
My dad showed me that it’s possible to create your own happiness. He always said, “The show must go on,” and meant it in the true circus way—no matter what happened, stand up, put on your sequins, and get back on the trapeze. I try to follow this advice as much as I can. I try to move forward with a kind heart and a positive mindset.
The circus analogy is so apt because your parents were former “carneys” and your dad still made a living painting carnival rides after they “settled down.” What does that carny life style have to teach others?
More than anything, the carny life is a lesson in flexibility. When I was traveling with my dad, we slept in the back of the truck or inside a funhouse in our sleeping bags, we ate peanut butter sandwiches or burgers from a local stand. We washed up in truck stop sinks and still had a great time. I try to instill that kind of flexibility in my own kids. You don’t need a five star hotel and a gourmet meal to have a good time. Be able to eat anything and sleep anywhere and you’re in great shape to see the wonders of life.
And yet as a child you seem to have yearned for a more conventional life that contrasted with your unusual upbringing. You wanted to go to a regular elementary school your parents would have called “straight” where you found the routines comforting.
I liked structure. I liked things to be neat and tidy. I still do. I’m a bit overwhelmed by clutter and noise. I don’t think I understood how much I needed simplicity until I moved back home to Tinkertown when my Dad was ill. I left the walls in my room blank and it drove my Dad crazy—he was always sneaking in and hanging up a bunch of paintings. When I moved back to Los Angeles, I consciously started to keep a simpler house and it helped me think more clearly.
You wrote Leaving Tinkertown in present tense. I thought that might be not only a way of bringing the reader into the story but maybe also a comment on living life in the present—especially when facing the day-to-day realities of life with Alzheimer’s. Was that your intention?
I love the meaning you brought to the present tense! I wrote in present tense because it helped me feel the story in a deeper way. Part of the difficulty of being a caretaker is that it puts you slightly outside the action—you’re always thinking about the other person, trying to stay two steps ahead, foresee all the challenges, solve all the problems. This makes it hard to be present. For me, writing in the present tense gave me a chance to go back and actually be in my story.
Your dad expressed himself in very tangible ways: the constantly expanding roadside museum with walls he built of concrete and beer bottles, the miniature western “Tinkertown” he hand-carved, and later the tattoos he got symbolizing his most important memories as his Alzheimer’s progressed. What do you think this tells us about your dad and his particular genius?
My dad was very visual. He could look at a blank wall and see a whole mural. It was amazing to watch him start to paint without even a sketch for guidance. He had it all in his head all the time.
I found it especially moving when you described your love of words as you watched your father lose his; you said “losing words for me would be like losing the ability to taste.” Do you think it bothered your dad less because he could still express himself through his art even when words began to fail him? What role does art have in coping with this disease?
My dad loved words, too. He was a great reader and an amazing storyteller. It was incredibly frustrating for him to lose his words, but I do think he filled in with pictures. He worked through so much of the disease in his paintings and drawings. I think art can be a great therapist, a wonderful guide, an outlet for anger and sorrow and a gift to those left behind.
The title, Leaving Tinkertown is obviously a lot about leaving home, leaving the caretaker role and going after the life and love you’d left behind in LA. Is it also a reference to your dad “leaving” as his memory faded, or the hand-carved Tinkertown he left behind when he died?
The original title of the book was Mighty Fond of You, Too, which was my Dad’s answer when I told him I loved him. The press asked for a different title—something that referenced Tinkertown—and my editor Beth Hadas, my husband and I started to toss around gerunds. We liked Leaving Tinkertown because it could mean so many things. As soon as I said it out loud, I knew it was right.
Tell me about winning the Sarton Memoir Award. What was the best part of that experience?
Winning the Sarton Memoir Award was wonderful in so many ways. It was a delightful surprise to pick up the phone and hear Paula Yost’s warm voice deliver such great news. It was lovely to read from my book [at the Story Circle Conference] in front of such an appreciative audience and it was a real pleasure to meet so many terrific women… I was honored to be in such fine company.
What are you working on these days?
I’m working on two novels and a bunch of essays. It’s wonderful to write fiction because I don’t have to worry about the feelings of real people, but I can’t stay away from non-fiction. It’s a way of understanding my life.