On Writing: Kathleen Frazier

Kathleen Frazier's new memoir, Sleepwalking: The Mysterious Making and Recovery of a Somnambulist, was just released in early September. The memoir explores her dangerous and chronic sleepwalking episodes and the psychological causes behind them. Kathleen first started writing about her episodes as part of sense memory exercises she was doing at The Actor's Studio in New York City, and then wrote an essay in Psychology Today. I met Kathleen at HippoCamp 2015, where she read from the memoir. The whole room was holding their collective breath as she vividly described one dangerous sleepwalking episode.

Jim: Hi Kathleen. Can you tell us non-actors a little more about what sense memory exercises are, and how that led to your writing?

Kathleen: Sense memory exercises are part of "the method". This way of working originated with Stanislavski and The Moscow Art Theatre in Russia in a move away from declamatory acting towards a more realistic style. Members of the Group Theatre brought it to the United States. The Actors Studio, under of the direction of Lee Strasberg, was where the work really took hold.

The exercise that I used and then wrote from is called affective memory in which an actor explores a particular event in their lives using their five senses to recall, almost re-experience the details. We stay away from describing feelings in this particular exercise and yet they rise authentically in our acting. When I transcribed the work to paper the writing was both sensorily rich and the voice was very much of the age of my memory.

It was my mentor, Ellen Burstyn, who pressed me to write this way about my sleep disorders and circumstances surrounding them. She thought it would help me to recover my health by turning my experiences into art and she was right. The more I wrote, the better I felt.

Jim: At what point did you realize you had a memoir on your hands?

Kathleen: I realized it right away but I felt such shame about the sleepwalking, sleep terrors and resultant insomnia that I couldn't share the work beyond my close circle of friends and fellow artists. A few agents were courting me but I had to put the project on the shelf and turn my attention to fiction. Funnily enough, all of my protagonists are sleepwalkers!

Sadly, it wasn't until 2010 and the death of a young art designer in New York City, Tobias Wong, that I was able to find my courage and tell my story. He suffered from chronic and violent sleepwalking and sleep terrors. His death was ruled a suicide but it most probably occurred in a sleepwalking state. I wrote an essay about my experiences and recovery that got published in Psychology Today. It caught the attention of Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyons Literary Agency. We began working together and she sold my book to Skyhorse Press.

Jim: How many years did your sleepwalking episodes run for?

Kathleen: From adolescence until the age of 30 when I had a severe accident that brought me into recovery – which is not uncommon. All told over 20 years. It's a long time without good shut eye. I was exhausted all the time which affected every aspect of my life, most especially my work and personal relationships.

Jim: I saw you recently read from your memoir at This Is My Brave, the live storytelling event which focuses on mental illness and is produced by our mutual friend Jennifer Marshall. How was the event?

Kathleen: It was a wonderful storytelling event with a packed and very enthusiastic audience at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse. We performers either lived with mental illness ourselves or love someone who lives with mental illness. It was a stigma-busting show. I have family members with schizophrenia, alcoholism, PTSD, and most of us in my family have suffered with sleep disorders of one kind or another. One in four Americans have mental illness and the show proved to me, once again that community cures. Participating also pressed me to realize that, in addition to being an advocate for mental health, I am a sleep activist – an advocate for healthy sleep as a basic human right.

Jim: Which do you prefer - acting or writing?

Kathleen: This is a tough one, Jim! It's like making me choose between my children! I love acting and I feel it really saved my life when I was a young woman. Coming together with kindred spirits to bring stories alive on the stage and screen is magical. Yet, with writing I don't have to wait to be cast in order to create. I love becoming immersed in whatever story I'm making effort to bring to life on the page. As you know, my writing sprang from my acting, and I love to read my work aloud in front of an audience – it really informs my writing – so for me they are very intertwined. The funny thing is, since my memoir came out I've been getting the itch to act again. More will be revealed, as my father used to say.

Jim: You mentioned earlier that you write fiction. Just wondering - what's your next project?

Kathleen: I haven't yet decided where to turn my attention next in regards to my writing. I have an idea for another nonfiction – also to do with sleep – much more to do with my recovery, which would include collaborating with a series of specialists. Or I might return to my historical fiction which has also been calling my name... Selkie Girl is inspired by my paternal grandmother who came from Ireland to America at the turn of the last century. The protagonist, Molly, is a young girl of 15 whose mother apparently committed suicide on the day she was born by walking into the sea. She was a single mother and ostracized by her small village in Ireland. The orphaned girl becomes ostracized also. One dear older villager, a midwife and healer, comforts Molly when she is 7 by telling her that her mother did not commit suicide but was in fact a selkie who had found her seal skin and therefore had to leave her, she had to go back into the ocean. The Celtic selkie story usually follows a female seal who sheds her skin. She is a shapeshifter and takes on the human form of a beautiful woman. She suns herself on the rocks by the sea. A man sees her, falls in love and steals her skin. She then must go with him. He hides her sealskin and she is his prisoner really until the day she finds her skin somehow at which point she must follow her true nature and return to the ocean. The daughter turns out to be, of course, a sleepwalker. It's the way she processes her trauma. I hope the story is, in turns, both magical and psychologically provocative.

Thanks for asking that question, Jim. In answering it I think it's become pretty apparent which project holds the greater piece of my heart.

Jim: Thanks so much Kathleen. Good luck with the writing and acting!

Kathleen: Thanks Jim!

Learn more about Kathleen Frazier on her website and pick up her book Sleepwaker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist on AMAZON.