I really didn’t know what to expect when I sat in the expansive auditorium in Kansas City’s Unity Temple, waiting for Jeannette Walls to appear. Walls, now an acclaimed author on book tour promoting her third book, the novel The Silver Star, had lived through hell on earth as a child. As her bestselling first book, The Glass Castle, attests, she had survived bouts of starvation and homelessness, and frequently had to be an adult in kids’ shoes due to her father’s drunkenness and her mother’s mental instability.
I pictured Walls leathered and hard-bitten, perhaps wrinkly from years of too-heavy burdens. I imagined her voice to be low and foreboding, all hints at the dark past through which she fought and triumphed with ferocity. I pictured all the visible signs of a tough, tough life to be there when she walked out in front of her waiting audience.
I was wrong.
Jeannette Walls is kind and warm and beautiful, smart and determined, with a deep purpose behind her writing. By digging deep into the bones of her past, stirring up moments of grief and humor and hope, she aims to take down barriers. Through her writing, she wants to reach out to others who have suffered their own hells on earth. Walls writes to communicate, and to let others know they are not alone, regardless of their lot in life.
“It’s all about getting a dialogue going,” she said.
Walls leaned on the elements of creative nonfiction to communicate her messy and heart-wrenching story of her dysfunctional family in The Glass Castle. At first, she didn’t expect people to understand her story. She did not expect people to embrace it, either. Even now, people in her hometown of Welch, West Virginia, have mixed feelings about her work, she said. Truth telling, it turns out, is risky.
“What’s accurate is not necessarily what’s true,” Walls said.
But overriding the criticism is the outpouring of awe and graciousness Walls has received from her readers at large: readers who have endured their own messy stories and readers who love good, honest writing.
While her second book, Half Broke Horses, is based on real life events, she classifies it as fiction, labeling it a “true life novel,” because her mother, still a whipstick, mentally unstable person, was the primary source. Ironically, Walls said, Half Broke Horses is more believable than The Glass Castle, which is labeled as a memoir, or a true-life account.
That’s what makes the element of truth in creative nonfiction so interesting. It is a slippery concept, molded and guided by the techniques an author uses to tell a story.
“The truth is a tricky critter,” Walls said. “We shape our truths by which stories we choose to tell and how we choose to tell them.”
Through writing, Walls has become an expert on truth. She has learned that by being open and honest and genuine, she can touch the lives of countless strangers. The power of storytelling is that by starting a dialogue – by opening up a piece of a life to others – you invite the possibility of others opening up and telling stories of their own.
“It’s real easy to jump to conclusions about people,” Walls said. “Don’t ever assume you know somebody’s story.”
Walls insists that sharing our stories increases our understanding of ourselves and others. And increased understanding leads to increased compassion.
Storytelling, says Walls, takes you out of isolation.