Interview with Susan Weidener About Memoir Workshops Pt 4

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

This is part 4 of the interview. Click here to read Part 1.

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells her adult coming-of-age story, through the journey of meeting and losing her husband, and then reclaiming her life. In this part of this interview I ask her about her passion for helping other writers find their own life story.

Jerry Waxler: Tell me about your memoir workshops. You talk about the healing nature of memoir writing? Explain more about that.

Susan Weidener:  When you delve into the truth of your story, you remove the “cellophane;” you reveal yourself. That’s when the healing begins. It’s how we deal with trauma that defines whether we can move on and create something new from tragedy.

I provide writing prompts, talk about writing techniques and how to find the compelling narrative of the memoir.  Time for solitude and writing is provided.  We come together in small groups and read our work, and then the whole group meets for the “read-around.” The women find themselves writing about things that had “gathered cobwebs” over the years.  Once they put pen to paper and write it, the power of that memory or that time in their lives to hurt and cause anguish is taken away.  Afterwards, they tell me they feel at peace with it.  I’m not a therapist, but I can see they feel empowered.  So the writing is a way to heal, a way to make sense of our lives.

I started the Women’s Writing Circle because I wanted to offer a place to share writing in a supportive atmosphere, to ease the solitary nature of writing.  Although I didn’t start the Circle as a memoir group, it largely evolved into that, although some of the women are choosing to couch their stories as fiction and write in third person.  I co-facilitated a memoir writing workshop with Mary Pierce Brosmer, who founded Women Writing for (a) Change in Cincinnati. Mary was a visionary when it came to the women’s personal writing movement. I offered a memoir writing weekend retreat last spring and a mastering writing workshop this past October.  I am planning another mastering writing workshop this spring.

Jerry Waxler: When you teach memoir writing, how do you motivate your students to go from raw memory to writing about themselves in a form that strangers could read?

Susan Weidener:  I don’t call them “students,” rather I facilitate a supportive atmosphere for adults to share their stories and find their voice. The story may be about addiction, loss, about difficult childhoods.   The motivation to get it on paper is usually there by the time they come to me. Taking a workshop, reading a piece out loud and hearing an immediate response from others, energizes them.

I also offer one-on-one memoir writing consultation.  We start with one memory and expand from there with details. I teach professional writing strategies, and how to distill the story to one compelling time in their lives so they have a rough draft after the first session.  I ask them to write about the meaning behind the memory, to look at the people they are writing about, not in black and white, but in shades of gray, if they can.

Jerry Waxler: How did you feel about letting your sons see so deeply into your feelings? Were you worried about letting them see this side of yourself?

Susan Weidener:  My older son has not read the book and my younger son just took a copy the other day, so I am not sure what he thinks.  I wrote the story for myself and for John, yet I was always cognizant that this book would be passed along in our family as the years went by.  While you write the disturbing, I think you have to keep in mind:  Is this something I want my family to read years from now? If the answer is ‘no,’ my advice would be to steer clear of that detail, that incident.

I hope my sons appreciate that by writing my story and their father’s story, it was an act of generosity and goodwill.  It was meant to reach a larger audience than just our immediate family and friends.

Jerry Waxler: What are you working on next?

Susan Weidener:  I am completing my second and final memoir.   It is called Morning at Wellington Square.  Wellington Square is the name of the bookshop where the Women’s Writing Circle meets.  This memoir picks up from where Again in a Heartbeat left off.  Hopefully, it is an illuminating and engaging story of a single woman in middle age; the challenges of raising two children and being a reporter for a big city newspaper, the craziness of dating, the joy of finding life’s passion through a community of writers who meet at Wellington Square.

Click here for Part 3, in which I ask questions about writing the memoir

Click here for a link to the Amazon page for Again in a Heartbeat
Click here for Susan Weidener’s Home Page.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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Interview with Susan Weidener About Writing Her Memoir Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

This is part 3 of the interview. Click here to read Part 1.

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells about the life and death of her relationship to her husband. In this part of this interview I ask her about her writing voice, and the choices and rewards of publishing.

Jerry Waxler: You started as a journalist. Journalism tends to require an impersonal voice. And then you evolved into a memoirist which requires a storytelling voice. Was that a difficult transformation? What sort of effort, training, stylistic transitions did you have to take to go from writing about other people to writing a story about yourself.

Susan Weidener:    Great question.  As a journalist I had to stay objective and behind the scenes.  Writing memoir was a huge reversal in that regard and felt uncomfortable at first. But newspaper work taught me the economy of words which is very useful when writing a book. As a journalist, I was trained to observe people, to capture details, meaningful quotes; to look “for the story.” At the paper, I interviewed a lot of people and wrote profiles.  I had to distill the interview, make the piece engaging; a “good read,” as we call it in the business. In that sense there is not a lot of difference between journalism and writing a book.

I read a lot, study other writers’ techniques. One of my favorite books is Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast.  I loved how he handled writing memoir, so clear, such an astute observer of life and those around him, yet he was in the story and you felt you knew the man when you finished the book.  Of course, he was a journalist too!

Jerry Waxler: When you finished and published your memoir, did you feel it was worth the effort? When you look back through the whole experience of writing and publishing, what was the most rewarding aspect?

Susan Weidener:  Yes! It’s been one of the most rewarding journeys of my life.  What a thrill to hold a book in hand, share it with others, talk about it at libraries and signings.  The most rewarding aspect without a doubt has been the people I’ve met because of the book.  The connections and the conversations have been extraordinary.

Jerry Waxler: Until a few years ago, landing a publishing deal was a long, competitive road. Many authors feared they would never make it to the finish line so why even start? Now, with self-publishing options, the barriers have been lowered, and anyone who wants to share their story can do so. So how did you puzzle that choice out for yourself? What agony or factors went into your publishing choice?

Susan Weidener:  For me, it was fairly simple.  I know a lot of writers and I had heard some pretty horrible stories.  People waited for years, their work languishing, never seeing the light of day. One author had a well-known literary agent, but she couldn’t sell his manuscripts. Another told me he had a traditional publisher, and they virtually did nothing to promote his book. He barely broke even after years of research and work.

I already had more than 2,000 bylines published in the Inquirer, and that didn’t include my published stories in several weeklies and dailies before that.  So I did not need validation, if you know what I mean.  I was intrigued by self-publishing. It is very exciting. You own the copyright to your work; royalties are a lot higher than through a traditional publisher because you take the risk.  As a deadline-oriented person, I felt it was crucial to know the book would be published and not get stuffed in a drawer.  I also wanted the book as a way to encourage others to think about writing their stories by offering workshops and retreats, to work with both non-fiction and fiction writers as their editor.  My book was instrumental in that.  So for me, it was not just about book sales, but having a book as a “calling card” for other endeavors associated with writing and earning a living.

Jerry Waxler: How has that worked out? How do you feel about the results?

Susan Weidener:  Reviews of self-published books are hard to come by and Barnes and Noble won’t stock self-published books in their stores because of a corporate policy. You have to do all your own marketing, but you would do that in any case, even if you go with a traditional publisher. In essence, you have to become very entrepreneurial which means mastering social networking, blogging, building a platform.  For me, that platform is the Women’s Writing Circle because it keeps me active in the community and on the Internet.

The main challenge is getting the word out about your book; that and not letting your creativity go by the wayside because you are so caught up in marketing you don’t work on your writing.  There is a momentum you hope builds.  Interviews like this are wonderful as a way to introduce potential readers to my book, which is for sale as a paperback on Amazon and through numerous distributors, and as an eBook on Kindle.

Click here for Part 2, in which I ask questions about writing the memoir
Click here for Part 4, in which Susan talks about her workshops

Click here for a link to the Amazon page for Again in a Heartbeat
Click here for Susan Weidener’s Home Page.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Bookmark and Share

Interview with Susan Weidener About Writing Her Memoir Pt 2

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells about the life and death of her relationship to her husband, and the subsequent resurrection of her life. In the first part of this interview I asked her about her radical honesty. In this memoir, I ask more questions about the process of writing the memoir.

Click here to read Part 1 of this interview.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first think about writing the memoir? How long was it until you actually started? How long did it take to finish?

Susan Weidener:  Shortly after I left my job as a journalist, I attended a women’s writing retreat in Kentucky. We sat in a circle at night and read to each other. Tears and laughter flowed from poems and memoirs of sneaking kisses with neighborhood boys, fathers who had done the unthinkable to their daughters, babies who had died without warning.  I remember afterwards I went up to my room, opened the window and looked up at the moon breaking through a bank of clouds. It had been 13 years since my husband’s death, but he had never really left my side. He was my dream come true. Could I write the story?  And why would anyone want to read it?  What could I possibly say that hadn’t already been said a million times before?  I decided I needed to write it, anyway. It took another two and a half years after the retreat to finish the book, although I did work a fulltime job in 2009 and could only write on nights and weekends.

Jerry Waxler: How much did you edit it? What can you share about your editing process, such as how many times through the book, or number of readers who gave you feedback.

Susan Weidener:  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of editing and critique.  I started the Women’s Writing Circle in November, 2009 as a way to bring together a community of writers.  It was at our first read-around that I met the woman who would become my editor. She was a professional editor already.  I always say she “held the magic wand.”  She taught me how to take my journalistic recounting of a memory and make it dramatic and compelling.  I also began reading parts of my memoir to the other women in the writing circle.  Their critique and comments were invaluable.  I wrote at least eight drafts before I was satisfied with the final version. I gave a copy of the completed manuscript to a former colleague from The Philadelphia Inquirer and to a family therapist.  Both provided additional editing and copy editing.  Of course, I edit manuscripts myself, but there is no way you can edit your own work.  You need an objective person, a professional.

Jerry Waxler: Readers want to become immersed in an engaging story. How did you challenge yourself to transform your events not only into a readable account, but into an account worth reading? What aspects of your book and your writing did you strive toward in order to achieve these effects?

Susan Weidener: I challenged myself to be unafraid to write the disturbing. A writer’s job is to question; to bring to light what’s left in the dark, what’s unsaid. Stories that can do that have a universal message; they engage readers. This whole business of falling in love, finding the person who makes it all worthwhile, and then losing that person whether it be through death or life circumstance; the bitterness and resentment that follows . . . it is something I believe most people relate to. I also had a great “character” in John.  He was a complex and interesting man.  John penned his memoir the year before he died.  He called it “scriptotherapy.” How true!

I think first person narrative is harder than writing in third person.  There is not as much “distance.”  When we write our memoir, we must step back, take the longer view. On the other hand, when you write in first person, when you are the narrator of your own story, you have lived it.  Who better than you to chronicle that this is real, this is true?   At the same time, you ask yourself, is this story larger than me?  That’s where the craft of writing comes in.  It takes hard work and skill to craft a story, move it along, and portray real people, not cardboard characters.  I needed to stay focused on one question:  “What is my story about?” Repeating that question over and over is your mantra as a writer.

Jerry Waxler: Did you ever feel like giving up? What techniques or attitude adjustments helped you keep going?

Susan Weidener: It all feels a bit overwhelming, writing a book, but believing in your story is what carries the day and gave me the motivation to finish.  I loved the “lessons” along the way.  I learned so much about myself.  I had been hard on John because I was losing my dreams and youth.  There were other revelations, too.  John was irreplaceable, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t do it all over again in a heartbeat.

I love to write, but I discipline myself to write every day.  I write early in the morning, grab a cup of coffee.  I work for about two hours and then take a break and go to the gym. I’ll pick it up again in the afternoon, if I can.  I don’t worry about revising right away; rather I let it “percolate” overnight or for a few days, think about it and then come back to it.  It’s not like pushing toothpaste out of a tube.  I try and keep my “inner critic” to a dull roar.  Eventually, there comes a point where you have to say, “This is it. I’m going to stop here.” Otherwise, you can be caught in a vicious cycle of editing and self-doubt.

Click here to read Part 3 of this interview.

Click here for a link to the Amazon page for Again in a Heartbeat

Click here for Susan Weidener’s Home Page.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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Interview with Memoir Author Susan Weidener About Honesty

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells with breathtaking clarity the entire lifespan of her relationship with John, from their first date, to falling love, getting married, having children, and then sinking into despair during her husband’s slow untimely death. I love the memoir because of its simplicity and power, and the ruthless honesty of her emotions, which were far from politically correct. After he is gone, the story continues, as Susan turns toward grieving and reclaiming her hold on life. The memoir does a wonderful job portraying this huge emotional journey. In addition to being a writer, Susan Weidener encourages and nurtures others to tell their story. In this part of the interview, I ask her about the experience of writing the memoir.

Jerry Waxler: One of the unique things about your memoir is its span of time, covering the period from when you first met your future husband, and ending as you attempt to recover your life and find a new beginning. So many aspiring memoir writers struggle to decide on the appropriate span for their stories. What can you share about the way this particular scope of time appeared right for you?

Susan Weidener: When I started the project, my thought was to write about being widowed and dating again as a middle-aged woman with two young sons. As the memoir progressed and I began to write about my husband, the women who critiqued my book said, “We want more about John.” I realized they were right. The real story was meeting John, falling in love and our ordeal with cancer.  I wanted to write about myself as a young woman living the life she had always dreamed.  Then the illness enters, shatters our lives. What happens when Prince Charming makes a dramatic and tragic exit?  Does true love only come once and, if so, is that enough? I included the three years after my husband’s death to describe the loss, the fear of being alone. There are no fairy tale endings, but you find the strength within yourself to be on your own.

Jerry Waxler: At the beginning of the memoir, I loved your portrayal of falling in love — These are compelling, detailed scenes that let us accompany you on your emotional journey. As a reader, I found them pleasurable and romantic. What was that like for you as a writer, to remember to a time before the loss, all the way back to the beginning of your relationship?

Susan Weidener:  Thank you. Writing memoir is living twice, which is painful and elating.  There were moments as I wrote about our first trip together as husband and wife to West Point when I felt John in the room with me again.  Writing about the day he and I stood under Kissing Rock, the place along the Hudson River where cadets would take their dates, and John told me about some of the girls he had brought there . . . it brought back memories of John’s inimitable sense of humor.  When I wrote the scene where John and I dance at our wedding to “As Time Goes By,” and John says to me, “Here’s looking at you kid,” I cried for all we once had and all we lost. Memoir, as you know, is not for the faint of heart.

Jerry Waxler: You did not portray yourself as an easy person to fall in love with, nor were you infinitely graceful and patient about your husband’s failing health. I think this aspect of your memoir represents one of the best things about where culture is heading in the 21st century. We’re dropping the pretense that we are perfect and trying to make peace with our own and each other’s unique quirks, and flaws. And by showing our flaws, we also show our strength in continuing to grow and to carry on despite setbacks. I felt inspired and consoled by your edgy imperfect behavior. But how did it feel to write about yourself in this exposed way? Wasn’t it strange to let people see those aspects of yourself? What prompted you to be so open about your own humanity?

Susan Weidener:  I agree with you.  Writing honestly is healthy, a way of moving forward and coming to terms. And what good is a memoir if it is not honest?  Then it is fiction.  Of course, we want to appear heroic, but that isn’t always the case.  Our fragility, our imperfections are what make us human.  It resonates with readers.  It makes a story engaging. By accepting my flaws, I found a place of healing.  Why wasn’t I kinder to him at the end of his life?  That question haunted me for years.  As I wrote my memoir, I began to see how almost anyone would have reacted much like I did when confronting the loss of their dreams, the person they loved more than any other.  Chronic illness affects an entire family, not just the person going through it.  Our society has a very difficult time dealing with death.  One of my hopes with Again in a Heartbeat is that showing my imperfections and what I went through as John’s illness progressed and he pulled away from me, helps others in similar situations be kinder and more forgiving to themselves.

Jerry Waxler: How has it worked out to be so open? Have you found that people think less of you for having been flawed?

Susan Weidener:  Quite the opposite.  People approach me and often say: “You were so honest!”  They tell me they admire my candor and my courage.  One woman said my book “touched her heart and her life.”  It doesn’t get much better than that. When people read my story, they want to share their own experience with marriage, cancer, being single. The conversations are amazing!

Click here for Part 2, in which I ask questions about writing the memoir

Click here for a link to the Amazon page for Again in a Heartbeat
Click here for Susan Weidener’s Home Page.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Bookmark and Share