Birth of a Memoir: Turning Her Father’s Secrets Into a Story

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

When Karen Alaniz’s father handed her a packet of the letters he wrote 60 years earlier, she embarked on a quest to finally understand his experiences during World War II. The whole experience then triggered a second quest. She wanted to turn the entire experience into a memoir. In this second part of a four-part interview, I ask her more questions about interviewing her father about his past traumas, crafting a book, and then publishing the resulting story.

Jerry Waxler: Tell me about the moment when you realized, “ah, I want to write a book about this process.”

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: There were a couple. When my father finally revealed what he’d done during the war and the trauma surrounding it, I started to see the story as if it was a movie. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s the way I see Story when I read. I started seeing my father’s story that way.

Also, I joined a Christian critique group. It wasn’t a perfect fit for what I wanted to do, but many of the women were published writers. They all had expertise and knowledge that I needed. Everything about book writing was new to me, so I soaked it all up. Every week, members would bring a few chapters or an article they were working on. We would all get a copy and follow along as the writer read it. We’d write comments on the pages and then take turns talking about it. There was a lot of give-and-take conversation. I learned so much from that. I learned how readers read, what draws a reader through the manuscript, and what stops them.

At this point, I wasn’t sure if this was a story I wanted to find a publisher for or if I wanted to simply write it and just have copies printed for my family. But I wasn’t thinking about that much. I just wanted to get it written down in the best form I could. But at the meetings I was being encouraged. People seemed to genuinely like my writing. They said they couldn’t wait until the next meeting so they could learn more. Some of them even made comments insinuating that they assumed this was going to be a published book. Little seeds were being planted. Then one day after the meeting, two of the women stayed and talked to me. One of them said, ‘Have you ever considered that this isn’t just your dad’s story–that it’s your story too?”

Without realizing I was doing it, I had been bringing chapters each week, going over them in the group, and then sharing how discovering my father’s story had impacted me. Of course, I didn’t know I was doing this. But looking back, it was true. I was going through this very emotional experience as a daughter, but in writing the book, I had separated myself from it.

I went home and started thinking about what the book would be like if it was a memoir. What if I wrote myself into the story? My first thought was that I didn’t want to do that. It was my father’s story — not mine. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Before the next meeting, I had written my experience into a few chapters. The ladies loved it. I did too. And it didn’t feel so fractured this way. It also gave me an outlet for talking about my own truth, my own experience.

Jerry Waxler: While trying to make sense of your father’s letters, what else were you doing to try to gather facts about his war experience?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: The research aspect was relatively minor for this book, but I do have some. When I initially wrote it, I didn’t want to be stopped by research. So, I devised a system where I left a long string of dots like this; ————–.. , when research was required. I left enough dots so that it would catch my eye when I went back through the document. Then I would just keep writing.

It ended up being a good system because there were times when I couldn’t seem to move forward with the story. I don’t acknowledge that Writer’s Block exists – but that’s what some people would call it. When that happened, I went through the manuscript and found a place where I needed to do some research and worked on that. It ended up being a great thing to do. No matter how much I was struggling with the story line or direction of the plot, I could always research something and so, I was moving forward every day and that kept me from ever getting truly stuck.

My research came from printed sources, as well as the internet. A section of my, Breaking the Code notebook was for documenting where I found things. It was a very simple system.

Jerry Waxler: Please share something about your writing process. Did you have a daily writing habit. Did you take courses. Did you have a critique group? Anything you can say about the writing life that brought you from initial idea to final completion would be fascinating.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Writers always want to know how an author’s day is structured. I want to know that about other authors too. I think we hope that by doing what the author does, we can achieve what s/he has achieved. But the truth is, you have to fit writing to your life and nobody else’s. So, keep that in mind as I share what works for me.  I was very proactive in learning what I needed to in order to get where I wanted to be. But having a very structured writing life doesn’t work for me.

I have relapsing-remitting Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It’s not something I talk about very often. But I want people to know that you don’t have to have a perfect writing life in order to create something truly wonderful. Your dreams can come true despite and sometimes because of–difficult circumstances. For me, having MS means that my health is unpredictable. I may do very well for months, and then suddenly be hit with severe fatigue and weakness. It’s also unpredictable within a day; sometimes my mornings are better and sometimes late at night is better. The way I look at it, as long as I’m moving forward each day, then it was a good day. I’ve learned to take care of myself too. For example, if I’ve had a book event that took a lot from me, I take a few days off to recoup. I manage my health issues but I never use them as an excuse. To me, that gives MS way too much credit.

I do keep to somewhat of a schedule. But it’s not based on a particular time of day. I write for three hours a day, most days. I rarely take a day off. That three hour chunk of time is for “new writing.” I don’t spend it editing or rewriting or anything like that. I write at home, at a local coffee shop, or a nearby university library. My home office is filled with all of the things I love. It’s filled with inspiration. There is an old chimney that goes from floor to ceiling. It’s rather an eye sore. Inspiration stuck one day and I thought, well, if you can’t camouflage it, embellish it. That’s kind of the rule in our old house; it was built in 1907. So, that chimney is now the centerpiece. I stick anything and everything that inspires and informs me. For Breaking the Code, I had copies of photos from the 1940’s, fabric from that era, memorabilia, and things like that. I also bought a couple of CD’s of 1940’s music. I think those things help me get into the mood of the book.

When I decided I wanted to write a book, I took advice I heard at a writer’s conference years ago. The speaker said that if there’s something you want to learn to do with your writing, “become a student of it.” I did that over and over. For example, I wanted to learn how to end my chapters in a place that makes the reader want to turn the page and read, “just one more page” before bed. So, I studied James Patterson’s writing. I like his novels, but what’s amazing to me about his writing is that he has very short chapters and yet at the end of each one, you want to turn the page. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed up for just one more, and then just one more, again. Though the genre isn’t even close to my memoir, it was a technique I wanted to learn. So, after reading it for pleasure, I went back through with a highlighter and sticky notes. For anything you want to learn to do, this technique works.

I read a lot of memoirs; I always have. I love them. But I had only read memoirs for pleasure. I’d never really sat down and tried to figure out what I like about a particular one. You have to look at it critically and that takes a whole different mindset.  Like everyone else in the world, I know what I like (to read) when I read it. But I never had to figure out what it was that made a particular memoir work for me. So, I reread some of my favorite memoirs and picked up newer ones too. Again, after reading for pleasure, I went back through with a highlighter and sticky notes. It was like peeking behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain. The answers are all there, you just have to look for them. So I studied memoir. I had to define what it is that actually works and what it was I wanted to do in my own memoir.

There are a lot of people who want to be a writer. But you have to be completely honest. You have to ask yourself, “How badly do I want this?” And, “Am I willing to do what it takes?” I took a lot of steps but what it all came down to is that I purposed myself to learn what I needed to learn. I attended the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference. It’s expensive and time-consuming, but the opportunities for learning and making connections with publishers and agents are huge. I joined writer’s forums like Absolute Write and the Yahoo group, Life Writer’s Forum. I chatted with other writers constantly. Writers are a very helpful bunch. I went to workshops. When I learned that there were a couple of writer’s groups in a town 50-miles from me, I committed to traveling there twice a month. I not only made some great friends there, but all the little bits and pieces of information I attained were adding up.

As I got closer to completion of my manuscript, I started studying things like how to write a query and book proposal. I worked on those even though I didn’t have anyone to send them to yet. And when I did get to that point, I researched agents and editors I thought would be enthusiastic about my book. Note that I didn’t say agents and editors I could send my book to. That wasn’t good enough. Maybe it’s because my memoir was so personal, I’m not sure, but I was not willing to send it to just anybody. So, after I read the Writer’s Market, or Agent Query, I’d make a list of agent/editor’s names and then research each one. I Googled the agents’s name, adding the word “interview.” You can learn a lot from an interview. If it’s a good interviewer, you will hear the agent’s heart, their soul, their mission.  And that helps you send your book only to those who are right for your book.

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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

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3 thoughts on “Birth of a Memoir: Turning Her Father’s Secrets Into a Story

  1. Wow, this is one of the most linkable posts I’ve read in a long time. Karen, your testimony about the power of a writing group, especially for a new writer, is pure gold. Also, I’m thrilled to read that someone else discovered the power of “Reading Like a Writer.” Yes! I do that too. In fact, once you find those answers, you can extend their reach and use them to dig even deeper yourself by … teaching what you learned. That works for me! And, I think, for Jerry. Thanks to both of you for the time and thought you put into this interview.

  2. Thanks for your thanks, Sharon. As a memoir writer and teacher, memoirs fascinate me twice, once when I read the story and second when I ponder the way the author turned life into literature. When I have the chance to interview the author, it adds a third dimension. Karen’s interview was particularly generous and enlightening across the whole spectrum of her project. Stay tuned for part 3 and 4 of the interview.

    Jerry

  3. Dear Jerry and Karen, Your interview is a gold mine of sage advice for memoir writers! The idea of reading not only for pleasure but to identify what works for the reader resonates with me. You have reinforced so many important points about finding the right writer’s group and being honest with yourself about what you need to do to go where you want to go, I.e., study your craft and remain open to new learning and ways to improve. Your description of how your story led the way is priceless. You, indeed, had a story behind the story- your story intertwined with your father’s story and that is exactly what made Breaking the Code so compelling. Thank you both for this very rich and engaging interview.

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