Jeannette Walls: sharing her life’s stories

Jeannette Walls is the second of three guests speaking at the Writer’s Symposium. In 2005, Walls wrote The Glass Castle: A Memoir, which spent 335 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Additionally, she has written three other books and has written for New York magazine, Esquire, and was a gossip columnist for MSNBC.

As the phone connection cracks, and the Q&A session begins, Walls precedes the conversation by saying, “nothing is off limits,” and from there, her enthusiasm pours into each answer, quickly speeding through the minutes until suddenly 30 minutes feels much closer to five.

PW: Why do you think storytelling matters to a culture?

JW: It is the sharing of not only knowledge, but of experience. The thing about sharing stories is that it encourages other people to open up about their stories. The number of people who have come up to me after I’ve given (my story) and said, “the details of our lives are very different, but you and I have a lot in common,” and then they start sharing their stories with me. Sometimes they are shockingly similar; people will roll up their sleeves to show me a scar that is similar to my own.

Sometimes the stories are incredibly different, but we still have something in common. One of the things about the process of storytelling is that you share these emotional truths and you realize that even though we might erect these facades to feel that we’re different from other people, we all have so much in common. I think increased understanding always leads to increased compassion.

Don’t stereotype anybody – the crazy homeless woman, the shallow gossip columnist, the woman from the suburbs, the kid from the ghetto, the hollows – we all are complex people. Once you engage in storytelling, you realize the truth will set you free, but the truth is very complicated.

PW: Has writing your story helped to develop that importance of storytelling within you?

JW: It is the most cathartic experience I’ve ever had. I wanted to tell my story for a long time, but I didn’t think anybody would understand. If you tried to condense it into one or two sentences – yea my parents were homeless while I lived on Park Avenue and reported on celebrities – it’s a little incomprehensible. How could that happen? But because I could tell the whole story, people not only understood, but understood better than I do.

I think telling stories gives us an entirely different perspective. A very wise man once told me, “Secrets are a little bit like vampires – they suck the life out of you, but they can exist only in the darkness. Once they’re exposed to light, there’s a moment of horror, but then they lose their power over us.” I just find that to be true; often these stories that haunt us, if we’re able to take them out into the sunlight, they’re not scary at all.

PW: Were you at all surprised by the popularity of The Glass Castle?

JW: I had no idea; I thought it would pretty much sink like a stone. I thought people would look down their nose at me. It has been such an eye opener. I underestimated people, their goodness, their kindness, the willingness to reconsider what they thought they knew and the willingness to share their story.

There was a woman who I worked with in New York City, and for some reason she just struck me as the biggest snood. She was the one who, more than any, I thought, “Well once she finds out about me, she’s going to get ugly with me.” After the book came out, I was at a party and she was running towards me. I honestly clenched my fist ready to get into a fight with her, that’s how ready I was to be held in contempt. And she threw her arms around me and hugged me and said, “I want to thank you for opening up about your story, it has really encouraged me to open up about mine. My book club read your story and some people just didn’t get your mom, and I started discussing her because she reminded me so much of my own.”

She ended up writing her own memoir, and it was an amazing story – a lot of money, but a lot of the same issues. Everything comes with a price, and sometimes wealth comes with its burdens as well, like fighting over trust funds or insecurity about whether or not you would be able to make it without your parents help. Those of us on the wrong side of the tracks sometimes look at the rich kids and think, “They got it made, they don’t have any problems,” but of course they do.

PW: What’s the story you like to tell?

JW: I love it when people encounter what seems insurmountable and somehow get through it. Of course, it’s not without some loss, but you get through these things. I think in sharing these stories, it gives people hope because so many people are facing tough times, but we’re all tougher then we realize, and sometimes hearing another person’s story makes you think, “yeah, if she made it out, I can too.”

PW: Your story is going to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, so even those who haven’t read your story are now going to see it. What is it like to have so many people know such intimate details about your life?

JW: Jennifer Lawrence being in this movie is beyond bizarre. I don’t even focus on it, it’s just too surreal. I don’t even want to think about it. But so far, with people knowing these details of my life, honestly, it’s the opposite of weird. I can meet a stranger and we can have a real heart-to-heart talk, you cut right through the small talk. We launch into these amazing conversations about childhood or mothers or alcoholism. So I don’t feel like my privacy has been invaded or any nonsense like that. I think only good things have come out of this, and I pinch myself every day to make sure I’m not dreaming.