Interview With Memoir Editor Brooke Warner

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

After reading Dorit Sasson’s excellent memoir Accidental Soldier I asked the author for insights into her writing process. She gave much of the credit to her editor, Brooke Warner. Her answer confirms a “secret” that has taken me many years to fully appreciate. Good, publishable writing relies on a collaboration between author and editor. To learn more about this creative relationship, I reached out to Brooke Warner,Magic of Memoir by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers herself, to see what the memoir world looks like from her point of view.

Jerry: One of the things I loved most about Dorit Sasson’s book Accidental Soldier was the exquisite sensitivity to her mental voice. She seemed totally tuned in to her own interior process and exquisitely capable of sharing it. That’s so important n memoirs, because one’s thought-stream gives readers the opportunity to learn how a character thinks.

When I asked Dorit how she learned the subtle skill of writing her thoughts, she said you taught her. How did you learn to inspire and guide authors to pull these introspective realizations out of mind and onto the page?

Brooke: In reading your book, Memoir Revolution, you identify something really important about memoir writing when you write that memoir writers are tapping into psychology and literature without necessarily realizing they are doing so.

My parents are both psychologists, and while I never studied psychology in school, I’ve been exposed to therapy in various contexts my whole life. My mom runs a retreat center, and since I was fairly young I’ve been privy to the power of sharing story, and how self-expression heals and helps us better understand ourselves. This has given me a bedrock for how I hold people in their memoir process. It’s not therapy, but I do have a certain sensibility that leans that way, in addition to compassion for the writers I work with.

Jerry: Wow. I’m so impressed by the way you’ve taken the sensitivity training from your home life and applied it to your working life. Interesting! That explains your insights into the workings of your clients’ minds, but how did you get so knowledgeable and sensitive to the form of memoirs?

Brooke: I make no apologies for the fact that it’s my favorite genre. I’ve probably edited and/or published somewhere around 300 memoirs. My professional background is as an editor for a Seal Press, a women’s press in Berkeley, and I started She Writes Press in 2012, and we publish a lot of memoir as well. I teach a six-month memoir intensive with Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers. We’ve co-authored two books together, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir and an anthology The Magic of Memoir. And I wrote an ebook called How to Sell Your Memoir. Finally, Linda Joy and I are co-leading our second annual conference this October in Oakland, also called “Magic of Memoir.” So I’m pretty entrenched in memoir all around.

Jerry: That’s amazing. No wonder you’re good! You have invested a huge portion of your creative life into helping authors shape their life into stories. Cool. What got you into this line in the first place and what keeps you engaged in it with so much commitment?

Brooke: The memoir thing started for me when I started working at Seal Press in 2004. I’d worked in publishing for five years before I started working at Seal, but it wasn’t until Seal Press that my editorial focus became so strongly memoir-focused. During those eight-plus years as an acquiring editor and ultimately Executive Editor, the vast majority of the projects I acquired and edited were memoirs.

I also read tons of memoirs during those years because I was reading the competition. I was learning what made memoir work, and I was reading the best and most famous memoirists—those memoirists who started the revolution, like Caroline Knapp, Mary Karr, Annie Lamott, Joan Didion, Vivian Gornick. (I read almost exclusively women authors during those years, with the exception of James Frey and Augusten Burroughs probably.)

On a more immediate level, I was working with memoirists who were baring their souls. I witnessed firsthand what they went through to get these projects out, and then what they experienced when their memoirs came out in the world. There was often a lot of praise and good reviews, but I also saw and experienced the backlash against memoirists, and specifically women memoirists.

Part of my passion for this genre comes from a kind of Momma Bear instinct. I didn’t actually become a mother until 2010, but for years before that I was a mom of sorts to my authors. In-house editors get very close to their authors, and I’m no exception. I was part-mother, part-therapist, part-friend, part-midwife, part-taskmaster. You wear a lot of hats, and I was well-suited to these roles. I was personally impacted, and oftentimes awed, by what my authors went through to bring their stories into the world. I have been a champion of this genre as a result of walking the path with my authors, and feeling that what memoir writers do is hugely courageous, and one of the most vulnerable acts I know of. I believe memoirists should be celebrated, each and every one of them, and instead they’re so often met by criticism from family and friends, and cultural criticism for the very act of writing personal story. All memoirists need champions, and champions of memoir need to voice their support. Amy Ferris, a Seal author (her memoir is called Marrying George Clooney) and my dear friend, says that memoir saves lives. And I absolutely know this to be true. It saves the lives of the writers who write them as much as the people who need to read them.

Jerry: Because of all the years that Linda Joy Myers has put into building a community of memoir writers, I consider National Association of Memoir Writers to be one of the most important hubs of the Memoir Revolution. What is it like for you, being in a position where so many people come to look for help finding the stories of their lives?

Brooke: I agree, and I love my partnership with Linda Joy Myers. We have a really similar sensibility, and she’s an equally passionate advocate for memoir and memoirists. I feel so lucky to teach alongside her. When we met, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit!

As far as what it’s like to be in my position, it’s wonderful, and sometimes hard. What’s hard about it is that so many people have the dream that their book can be a breakout bestseller. And a lot of people come to me for coaching, or join my classes, and what they want more than anything is validation—that their story is not only worthwhile, but well-written, going to get agented, going to get a big advance, going to sell tons of copies.

Of course most of the memoirs I work on these days don’t go on to get big agents, big advances, or become bestsellers. The publishing climate is the most contracted it’s ever been. The only memoirists who are getting those kinds of agents and advances are people who are already famous, or who have big author platforms, or who have something that’s trending in such a way that the traditional industry sees a project as a risk worth taking.

I love meeting writers. I love hearing that people are working on memoir. I also love hearing that they’ll publish no matter what, because I know how difficult it is out there right now, and in fact the high barriers to publishing is one of the main reasons I started She Writes Press, to provide an alternative to authors who were being met by rejections from the traditional world for really beautifully written books. (Ours is a model in which the sole determinant of whether or not we publish a book is the writing, not author brand or model.)

I’m encouraged because I think there are countless brilliant books whose authors are committed and willing to take them to the finish line, with or without a traditional deal. The new revolution that we’re in the middle of is the Indie Revolution, and a lot of memoirists are riding this wave. And so I love talking to writers of all stripes, but I also try to gently introduce a bit of publishing realism to those who have stars in their eyes about a publishing paradigm that no longer exists.

Jerry: Nicely said.

Interview to Be Continued

Notes and links
See my review of Dorit Sasson’s excellent memoir Accidental Soldier, edited by Brooke Warner
To visit Brooke Warner’s home page, click here.
Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing by Brooke Warner
The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey by Linda Joy Myers PhD and Brooke Warner
Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers

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

Interview: How to turn memories into a memoir

by Jerry Waxler
Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

In a previous post, I described some of the many reasons I loved the memoir Accidental Soldier by Dorit Sasson. In this interview, I ask her to help aspiring memoir writers understand how she did such a great job turning life experiences in a good story.

Jerry: How long did it take to write the memoir?

Dorit: I downloaded a bunch of scenes during 2012-2013, but I didn’t actually run with a first draft until I started Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner’s well-known “Write Your Memoir in Six Months” online course. Best decision ever to jumpstart the entire process plus, I got the accountability and structure. Mind you, I started writing the first real draft with a six month old baby while in mourning for my mother, who recently passed. So if I can do it, anyone can!

By June 2014, many of those “downloads” started to become scenes. June 2014 to March 2015 was the period when I revised and wrote constantly working exclusively with Brooke Warner until reaching the finish line.

Jerry: There is something “impeccable” about the structure – with a beginning fraught with confusion and uncertainty, many intermediate challenges – beautifully executed – and then a nicely designed ending that leaves me satisfied that you (and I) have reached the conclusion of that journey. When you started your memoir writing journey, you had to figure out how to turn memories of a complex, formative period of your life into a good story. So how did you evolve that lovely, dynamic arc?

Dorit: Thank you so much Jerry for these kind words. It’s so thoughtful of you to say and notice. What you are seeing is the result of a lot of mentoring and writing. Brooke and I really worked closely on each chapter to ensure that each scene advanced some element of the heroine’s journey. Eventually I figured out on my own to ask myself four major questions that went like this:

1. What’s the purpose of this scene?
2. How does it advance the heroine’s journey?
3. What’s at-stake for my character?
4. How can I show her transformation and growth?

Jerry: Can you share some insight, or even some specific recollection when you began to shift from seeing yourself through the lens of a collection of memories and began seeing yourself evolve in the pages of a well structured story?

Dorit: Great question. And yes, this is an important yet hard one for memoirists to learn. First, I invested in myself as a writer by signing up for the online course and then hired Brooke as my personal writing coach and editor to help me reach the finish line.

Then, I wrote like crazy. This helped build the muscle I needed to think like a memoirist. I was also working from a place of pressure. My mother had recently died. I was dealing with a lot of emotional stuff. My sentences had a lot of power that I had never written before. When you work from a place of pressure, some amazing stuff can happen and surprise you.

I wanted to prove to myself I could write this memoir having written mostly academic type stuff for teachers.

I invested, practiced and took copious notes on our course lectures. I read what works well and what doesn’t in terms of memoirs. I kept trying to figure out the purpose of each scene. Some chapters went through 20 revisions until I finally got it. There’s no shortcut to figuring out structure because it’s individual for each story arc.

But there was one thing that worked very well to my advantage and that was the timeline of my service in the Israel Defense Forces, (IDF) which framed the structure of my memoir and the service in itself was structured. This inevitably helped with deciding which scenes from my service to include and the overall narrative arc of the memoir.

Jerry: I am blown away at the natural rhythm of interior fretting and exterior choices – it’s as if you have learned an exquisite dance between inner voice and outer actions – did you consciously develop this rhythm? Say more about how.

Dorit: I am pleased that you took notice of this. Once Brooke and I nailed the heroine’s journey, I knew that the only way for me to express my character’s fears and doubts about leaving Mom and getting inducted in the IDF, was to balance the events with my thoughts and feelings. This is what added the psychological layer to my cultural story.

As an American immigrant trying to figure out the “right” way of behaving in Israel and the added layer of becoming a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, the inner voice was the only way for me to express this cultural and emotional dissonance, which also represents the bigger picture of the story arc — leaving the familiar for the sake of the unfamiliar.

As a character, I was expected to be strong, and my introvertedness was mistaken for independence. So to answer your question, I wanted to bring that part of myself as a character to also show what was at stake. To show how my fear and doubts was the result of leaving one country behind for the sake of serving in another and the challenge of leaving one’s family. What I went through was a really lonely experience and the inner thoughts really accentuate the feelings of that lowly immigrant and IDF soldier.

Jerry: Similarly, I’m blown away at the natural weaving of backstory into the narrative – this leads to one of the most interesting backstory weavings I’ve ever seen in a memoir. So again, is it a knack you developed consciously? If so, please say more about how you found this rhythm.

Dorit: The backstory developed mainly with revisions and once I felt confident tackling the structure of scenes.

With each scene, I kept asking myself if there was something in the backstory that my reader needed to know. I turned on my “inner editor” and kept challenging myself not to assume anything that might leave my reader hanging or confuse him/her.

Brooke asked pertinent and stellar questions which forced me out of my “writer head.” This is why I truly believe that every writer needs a real good editor to handle this journey. The role of an editor for a writer’s journey is so crucial and especially that for a memoirist. I don’t quite understand how writers can publish a book without the expertise of an editor.

Jerry: I find the best relationships between author and editor to be an exquisite partnership, almost a dance of mutual desire for creative excellence, with plenty of acceptance and flexibility on both sides. The editor must give feedback assertively enough for the author to understand, and meanwhile the editor cannot superimpose too much of her own concept of the story – the author must stay true to her vision of the story while at the same time creatively adapting to the suggestions of the editor. The partnership also relies on the sympatico shared vision of the two partners. I admire editors who know how to do this dance. But my question relates to you as an author. Was it difficult for you to do your part, staying true to the story while accepting input, and being able to bounce back from the hurt that your writing wasn’t perfect so you could charge forward to the revision, staying true to both your vision and your editors?

Dorit: How I love this question and the way you put it – “editors who know how to do this dance.” It’s so so true.

I will be honest – this wasn’t such an easy process at first but I was determined to go full speed ahead with the writing of the story despite the feedback. The magical “a-ha” moment with my editor slowly developed particularly when she asked various questions about my IDF service, relationships and life in Israel and terms that needed clarification. At first I thought, “Is she going to be like my mother or some kind of nagging editor who is going to question every single thing?”

But I was surprised. She distanced herself enough to let me tell the story. She honored my voice. She gave me space to write and revise. This is crucial.

I also slowly realized that she wasn’t just after clarification. She was trying to also help me see the big picture of each scene and how it contributes to the narrative arc. It was then I realized that I picked her for a reason – she was “ga-ga” over structure and I knew that was where I needed a winning editor in this department.

So here’s the magic which clearly made all the difference. On our weekly coaching calls, she asked me a variety of questions – some clarifying and some bigger picture types that she would then include as part of her editorial feedback. So I actually heard myself talk about the experiences I went through which got me out of my “writer head” but also motivated me to such a fierce degree to translate the experiences into writing.

Writing and speaking are such different mediums but when you can hear yourself talk, you become more invested in your story because you’re also trying to help the editor understand the bigger and smaller pieces and help yourself sort it out as well.

Having this speaking element complement the writing was in fact, the winning combination. This process motivated me and powered up my revision and writing muscles for hours at an end.

I will also say that this process has a lot to do with an editor’s personality. I felt listened to. Because I was motivated by the process, I was also determined to “win my editor over” to prove that I could take the revisions to the next level.

Each time I forked over another revision, I trusted that she knew what she was doing and where she wanted me to go with this story even thought I didn’t know if the revision would be better or the same. When I got that final pat on the back, it was for a revision well-earned and I could continue forging on knowing that I was making progress. In the process, she also earned my trust because I was divulging areas of my life with someone outside my circle.

Jerry: Did you keep contemporaneous notes during the period you wrote about? If so, say more about the notes when you first wrote them? If so, how valuable were they for the book?

Dorit: I kept journals during my IDF service to help me understand the kind of craziness I was going through at the time. In one entry I wrote, “I intend to write a book of my experiences one day to help me figure out all this craziness.” I intuitively knew that what was going on paper was the result of the emotional experiences of serving in a foreign military and adjusting to life as an immigrant.

By writing these entries in English, I was able to give voice to these experiences using my mother tongue. Those notes later find their way into the story arc of the memoir as individual scenes.

Because of the structure of military life, I did not have the luxury of writing every day, but they documented very well the kinds of challenges I was going through at the time. So all I had to do was just pick up a journal and I was immediately transported to that point of time.

Jerry: What other methods did you use for getting back in touch with the moments about which you write.

Dorit: To get in touch with that eighteen year old immigrant self who was one foot out of America and one foot in Israel in IDF uniform, I did a few important things which really helped me get into my character’s shoes:

1. I listened to well-known Israeli songs on Youtube that are especially associated with the army and especially of that time period which helped me get into my character’s head.
2. From time to time, I looked at old army photos, which reminded me of what I was like as a young adult. Boy am I glad I still have these because they were the visual reminders I needed to reconnect to that eighteen year old who had no idea what she was doing in the IDF!
3. I occasionally reread some of the journals I kept and the letters Mom wrote to me. I did not let research however bar me from writing.

Notes
Dorit Sasson’s Home Page

Accidental Soldier on Amazon

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Interview with Memoir Author Julie Freed

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

Reading memoirs at night often helps me drift off to sleep. This was not the case with Naked: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina by Julie Freed. The book kept me wide awake, as Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast with a fury reminiscent of the Twin Towers bombings, but perpetrated by nature instead of by terrorists. Just as awful for Julie Freed was the email she received from her husband announcing he was finished with their marriage. The two events together kept me frantically turning pages, seeking relief.

Julie Freed has used the magic of Story to transform these outrageous events into an uplifting piece of literature, leading us through upheaval and disruption back to rebuilding and hope. How did Julie Freed, a mathematics researcher and professor, learn to write such a compelling memoir? To find out, I asked her to share her secrets.

Jerry Waxler: You write so well. I’d love to know how you learned.

Julie Freed: There was no magic formula – I wrote a bit, thought a bit, cried a lot, edited, read out loud to capture pace, would recall pieces, plug in a related scene. It was like a puzzle assembling the pieces to make it intriguing and most important I hoped to make it meaningful.. The goal of writing was to help “me” and publishing to help others.

When I felt I had an almost finished product, I sent the manuscript to an English professor for feedback. She had some suggestions and questions I addressed. She laughed because I was such a good “little student” doing everything she asked. I also sent the manuscript to a friend and former high school English teacher to make sure my commas and such were behaving.

I read for pleasure, mostly non-fiction. But I most enjoy a read that makes a difference in the way I think or feel – one that resonates. Time is my commodity. I want what I read to be important for my own trajectory. And I wanted to give the same value to readers.

Jerry: This is incredible. The only example that comes to mind is from the legend of King Arthur. Legions of young warriors tried to pull the sword out of the stone and young Arthur walked up, pulled it out and said “what’s the big deal?”

I’m fascinated by your success. Your situation offers hope to others who question whether or not they have the ability to learn how to write their stories.

By publishing your memoir, you achieved a variety of goals. You left a legacy to help your child understand what happened. You showed people that courage can carry you through the most outrageous situations. You created a story to help you convert the whole chaotic situation into a good story.

But in my experience, when someone first starts to write, they don’t yet appreciate all the benefits they will achieve. When you started writing, what did you intend to achieve?

Julie Freed: Initially, I wrote to get the story, the dialogue, the memories out of my head. Replaying conversations – “I should have said…” “I can’t believe he …” It was a great purging at the initial writing. I had hoped it would be healing and indeed it was, allowing me to live more in the moment without distractions from my immediate past. My daughter needed my attention and I wanted to be able to give that to her fully.

When I completed a first draft I was actually surprised at the product – it was almost a little poetic. I found myself enjoying the writing process beyond the mental health exercise intended.

I had never before viewed my writing as “creative.” I always wrote in a technical, factual, organized, concise style for an academic audience only. I’ve always loved reading memoirs – true stories by people who are true. But I had not anticipated a product for public consumption. However, what appeared late nights at the keyboard with wine or tea in hand – needed to be shared with those who had encouraged me to “write a book!”

I’d written academic book chapters, journal articles, reviewed dissertations, edited journal publications, but few had any “creative” bits. The feedback on my manuscript from family and friends was completely shocking. Some were high school and college English professors, others just heavy readers. Bottom line, I respected their opinions and encouragement. I decided I should dedicate some time to the manuscript between life, job, single motherhood, and prepare the work for publication.

Jerry: In my article about Naked I already shared what the memoir did for me. But what did publishing it do for you? Did you get out of it what you wanted? Did you have any surprises about how it felt after you finished? Any expected or unexpected rewards or results?

Julie Freed: I certainly never dreamed of holding a memoir I’d written. An incredible thrill to see my love, my heart, my tears, my dreams all assembled with the hope that others might enjoy and learn from my journey. As a young memoirist – still close to my experiences – some of the most tender moments have come post publication. Readers from all over the world write and connect. My heart bursts. They know me. They find themselves in my story, my struggles. To touch people like this was completely unexpected and indescribable. This does not happen with academic journal articles! I’ve made the mistake of checking email in the produce section over the asparagus and found myself weepy – a note about the real tears a stranger had reading my book, another empowered to make changes in her marriage, one woman struggling with an alcoholic husband. It’s been the ultimate gift. I’ve been able to touch others I will never meet. We are never alone! And I want every woman and man to feel that way too.

Jerry: What’s Next

Julie: I didn’t have any plans to write more. But since the publication of Naked and the feedback from writers and readers I respect – I’ve sketched a few ideas, written a few scenes. It’s a hobby for me now but perhaps I should dedicate more time – that part that remains unclear.

Notes

Click here for Julie Freed’s website

Click here to read my article about Julie Freed’s memoir, Naked

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.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Journey from Aspiring to Published Author and Beyond: David Kalish Interview Part 3

by Jerry Waxler

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

In previous parts of this interview, David Kalish talked about the long journey from surviving cancer to publishing a novel, The Opposite of Everything. His story has special value to aspiring memoir writers because he lingered so long and thoughtfully at the intersection of fact and fiction.

Click here for Part 1

After spending years dedicated to writing one book, I wondered how he plans to continue his journey as a writer.

Jerry Waxler: After a writer publishes the first book, the question naturally arises, “what’s next?“ I’m especially curious about your answer, because of the fascinating way your writing career has straddled the space between memoir and fiction. So in which direction are you heading?

David Kalish: Several readers have suggested I write what actually happened to me. I’m tempted, and I may do it. The process of writing a novel has taught me so much about craft that I may now have the skills to pull off a memoir without feeling overwhelmed by the material. This might help me explore my feelings that may have been lost to humor in the novel. I’ve already written several essays that are real-life adaptations from my novel, which turned out to be my most popular blog posts. So in a sense, I’ve started that journey back. Having said that, I have several fiction projects on my plate I need to finish before I try my hand again at memoir.

Jerry Waxler: So that’s exactly what makes me curious. After years of writing about your life, first in your unpublished memoir, and then in the fictionalized version, will your next fiction remain close to your life or break loose into the unlimited world of imagination?

David Kalish: In writing my first novel, I discovered a zanier side to my writing that sparked a lot of ideas for more novels. Right now, I’m revising my second novel and starting on a third. They’re both totally informed by my first novel’s foray into an off-kilter world where characters and events straddle the credible and unbelievable. It’s a vein I will continue to mine. But my next novels will not hew as closely to my real life. The Opposite of Everything is special in that sense. It’s the one I needed to write, to learn from, to set me on my path.

As I look for my next steps, I’m excited by the success I’ve had with Opposite of Everything. The fact that I was just at the Harvard Club receiving an award for the book is a sign that I can do this.

Jerry Waxler: Congratulations! So tell me more about how these awards fit into your journey.

David Kalish: I was thrilled and somewhat surprised last month (May) getting news that my novel was named top literary novel in the Somerset Fiction Awards and finalist in the comedy category of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. I say surprised because deep down, I’m as insecure as the next writer. I’d applied to a handful of contests last fall at the urging of my publisher, paying entrance fees out of my own pocket, and remember thinking: “That’ll be the day.“ So when I got word of my two honors, I felt affirmed. As writers we all seek affirmation. I’ve gotten mostly five-star reviews on Amazon, but feedback from a contest is different. It’s an objective judgment that my book compares favorably to similar books, and the contests I’d entered, while not the Pulitzer, were reputable and competitive and listed on Poets and Writers.

I’m not carrying high hopes that the awards in themselves will boost sales, but it’s one of many important steps on my publishing journey, to achieving popularity as an author. I feel my book has more credibility as a result. I’ve ordered stickers from the Indie Awards that I can affix to the cover to try to tempt readers. As I write this I’m headed to NYC to attend the Indie Book Awards ceremony at the Harvard Club. The Harvard Club! Now that makes it all worth it.

Jerry Waxler: After all those years of striving, the award must feel like a lovely milestone. You’ve gone from journalist, to memoirist, to award winning fiction writer. What an incredible achievement.

So now that you’re at the top of the mountain, or at least up on a pretty decent plateau, when you look back on your path towards this achievement, what boosts have you had along the way?

David Kalish: My experience as an MFA student at Bennington College, from 2005 to 2007, was invaluable not just for what I learned at school, but for the habits I took with me after graduating. Sure, my two years of workshops and feedback from my teachers taught me about the craft of writing. But I also learned to think of myself as a serious fiction writer, setting aside time each day to write and read. Surrounded by other serious writers at the campus, I became part of a supportive community of artists going through similar struggles. After graduating, myself and several other alumni began meeting once every month or two to give feedback on each other’s short stories or, in my case, novel chapters.

Seven years later, we still meet, though less frequently. It’s all about continuity, and developing good habits. Every day I make progress one or more of my several writing projects. Right now I’m revising my second novel, adapting my first novel to a screenplay, refining my script for a musical comedy that will be performed in December at a major theater in the Albany Capital Region, and trying to keep up with my twice-weekly blog at the Albany Times Union. I feel tired and occasionally overwhelmed, but overall I’m happy to be focusing on my passion. I’m hopeful the sense of community and writing habits I developed as a student will continue to serve me well, even after my student loans are paid off.

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

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.

Conflicted about American Melting-Pot: Cultural Identity in Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

America is a massive social experiment in which ethnic groups from all over the world come together and form a new blended culture by divesting some of their culture of origin. However, in the process of blending, we leave behind some of the familiarity of being in an ethnic group.This is not an easy process, since group identity can be built into our self-images through rituals, accents and food. And even built into our genes, through skin and hair color, nose and eye shape, and other inherited traits.

So what happens when you attempt to assimilate into a culture where you feel like an outsider? The dissonance between who you see at home and how you are received out in the world can create internal strife.

The feeling is highlighted in Sue William Silverman’s third memoir Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew. In this third part of our interview, I ask her to help me understand the experiences that drove her to write the book.

Jerry Waxler: I was born into a Jewish family, and when I attempted to assimilate into American culture, I felt enormously conflicted, as if I was betraying my religious heritage by blending into the larger culture. Because the whole process required emotions that I didn’t clearly understand, I spent a lifetime in an unconscious battle, assuming that to be American I had to distance myself from being Jewish. This paradox caused endless confusion about my identity. Now that I’m reading memoirs and writing my own, I’m consciously reviewing the journey of assimilation and cultural identity. The undeniable fact that I did grow up Jewish makes me realize how ludicrous it’s been to try to pretend I’m not.

What was your experience? Say more about the process of reflecting back on your journey as a person born into a well-defined ethnic culture trying to blend into the larger culture of Americanism.

Sue William Silverman: I have a feeling we’re not alone, that many Jews are conflicted about whether – and how much – to assimilate. Growing up, I had Jewish friends who had nose bobs, or tried in other ways to look more Christian. I also have relatives who Americanized their last names in the belief they’d be more successful in their careers.

Of course there were – and are – tangible reasons for this. I grew up in a time when colleges still had quotas on the number of Jews they would accept. Likewise, housing subdivisions once had restrictive covenants to keep Jews out – as well as African Americans, and Latinos, and anyone else considered “other.” Anti-Semitism has always existed, so there are always incentives to pass.

As much as I myself once wanted to pass…I now just as much don’t want to. As you can see, I publish under my real name, “Silverman.” So no mistaking that name as anything other than Jewish. (For those of you who haven’t read my book, I’ve been married twice – and divorced twice – but, while married, I took each of my husband’s decidedly Christian names.)

I’ve now come to a much more comfortable place within myself. I owe a large part of this to the writing process. By writing the first memoir, I was able to process much of the destruction of growing up in an incestuous family. By writing Love Sick, I was able to work through the shame of a sexual addiction. Now, by writing The Pat Boone Fan Club, I’ve been able to explore the ambiguous feelings toward Judaism while growing up and, through this exploration, am much more accepting of myself, more at peace.

Notes
Sue William SIlverman’s Home Page
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

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.

Stylistic Choices in Creative Nonfiction, Interview Pt 2

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

In this second installment of my interview with Sue William Silverman, we continue to talk about her latest memoir The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. In the first segment, I asked her about her stylistic choices. In this one, I dig a little further, trying to learn more about the unusual writing style with which she successfully portrayed a woman attempting to blend into the dominant culture.

Jerry: You seem so obsessive about pop culture. In addition to your passion for Pat Boone, you show how you were afraid to move from one city to another because your new home doesn’t have a cable channel with your favorite television show. And later in the book, you seem to be obsessed with Superman. As I’m reading this memoir, I’m feeling that you are relying on pop culture as a sort of talisman to ward off your fears and insecurities. By immersing yourself in pop culture, you hope to finally melt into the melting pot. That’s a fascinating part of your story, and you do it beautifully, but you communicate your obsession in a really unusual way. You show your obsession by diving so far in, you become a character inside the pop culture. Rather than an observer, your writing takes you into the stories of pop culture so when reading the memoir, I feel like I’m inside your mind, and your mind is inside the television show, or the fan-worship or the Superman comic. Tell me more about those stylistic choices.

Sue William Silverman: One section of the book you’re referring to is “I Was a Prisoner on the Satellite of Love,” in which I was obsessed with the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is now (sadly) off the air. Not only did I love the show, but I was particularly smitten with one of the robots on it, Crow.

Anyway, I wrote the chapter or section almost as if it were an episode of the TV show, so I included Crow, adding his interjections at appropriate times.

Here is a short excerpt from it to better show what I mean. My writing is in blue and I put in red ink the sections where Crow speaks, and these are real lines of his, from the TV show, that I “borrowed” for my book.

To set the scene: My husband, “M,” and I have just flown into Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we’re moving for his new job, from our home in Georgia.

Rich, our realtor, glides to the curb in a black Jaguar. He leaps from the car, enthusiastically welcoming us to west Michigan. I barely shake his hand before collapsing in the back seat, forcing M. to sit in front. Let him schmooze with Rich, listen to the glowing Chamber of Commerce sales pitch. Let him hear about this “perfect” house, that “perfect” neighborhood. [“Hour after hour of heart-pounding small talk,” Crow says, in a mock-stentorian voice.]

Just two years ago…, we bought our first house [in Georgia], only recently completing the re-decoration. That’s the house in which I want to live. But now, because of this job offer, we must sell it. I must give up my adjunct teaching job. I must leave my therapist and my group. [“Goodbye,” Crow calls. “Thanks for the Valium!”] Worse, I fear I might also have to leave Crow – Crow, the robot, whom I think I love more than my husband. At least it feels as if I’m leaving Crow behind. Surely, though, I reassure myself, cable television stations in Michigan – just as in Georgia – must air the Comedy Central series Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which Crow is one of the stars. But all in all it feels as if I’m leaving my life behind—or as if I’m being abandoned. [“Does anyone have a copy of Final Exit?” Crow asks, innocently.]

In another chapter of the book, “An Argument for the Existence of Free Will and/or Pat Boone’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” I write as if I’m part of a Superman and Lois Lane comic book, an episode in which the young singing sensation Pat Boone visits The Daily Planet. This comic book, published back in 1959, actually exists.

It seemed the perfect invented structure in which I, playing the role of a newspaper reporter, could interview Pat Boone to help him understand why he hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (because of his conservative political and religious views). It’s not a conversation I could ever actually have in person with him, so I surreally portray us all as comic book characters, a format in which I could encourage Pat Boone to be more of a liberal Democrat, along those lines.

Why do this? Because by playing with structure and format (that TV show and the Superman comic book), I’m better able to draw both myself as well as the reader inside the actual experience. Everything we write needs to have its own voice, its own tone, its own structure to best work in conjunction with the content and context.

One thing I love about creative nonfiction is its openness of form. It’s a genre that encourages writers to experiment and push the envelope.

In the next section of the interview, I ask Silverman more about the angst of assimilation and her desire to be included as an “Anglo-Saxon.”

Notes
Sue William SIlverman’s Home Page
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

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.

Interview with Memoir Activist Sonia Marsh, Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

In the previous post, I shared the first half of my interview with Sonia Marsh, author of Freeways to Flipflops. Here’s part 2 of my interview with her, mainly about decisions about writing and publishing her memoir.

Jerry Waxler: I enjoyed the glimpse you provided into the Expat experience on your move to Belize. Earlier in your life, as a newcomer to the U.S. you were an expat too. To what extent did this experience of being an expat into the US inform your description of what it felt like to be an expat to yet another culture when you moved to Belize for a year?

Sonia Marsh: Jerry, I never viewed myself as an expat when I moved to the U.S. at age twenty-five. I was so excited to be here and adapted quickly to my new life. Belize is so different, third-world, and then you really have to adapt and learn the ways of the locals.

Jerry Waxler: Were you ever tempted to insert your own expat experience from your childhood to help explain the experience as an adult one? What pros and cons determined your choice to talk so little about your earlier life?

Sonia Marsh: I didn’t think my own experience as a child growing up in Africa, and Europe related to this book. I also believe people are interested in reading about a contemporary family, and can relate to that more than me as a child in the late 50’s and 60’s. Working with my story structure editor helped me realize what belongs, and what doesn’t belong in my book. It has to fit the central theme, and my theme was “reconnecting a family on a tropical island.” I cut chunks out that didn’t fit my theme, and my message.

Jerry Waxler: In reviewing your book, I found many interesting themes, such as Life in the Caribbean, Escape from LA, Life as a Mother of troubled kids and getting them through a crisis, Midlife of a family, Escaping corporate life, and birth of an entrepreneurial spirit. I love this rich story with a lot of interesting lessons and tensions. However, many writing teachers try to convince memoir writers that it’s important to restrict the story to just one central theme. When you developed the book, what sort of internal debate did you go through to keep things in, like for example when you describe the hassle of getting your kids into schools in Belize.

Sonia Marsh: My husband kept telling me to focus on the adventure in Belize. Agents kept telling me that they didn’t care about the problems with my son (initially the first 1/3 of my book) but to move on to Belize by page 50, at least. “There are too many books about problem teenagers,” agents would say, “yours is interesting because you moved to another country to solve your problems.” As with many memoir writers, I focused too much on my own problems, almost to “vent,” rather than think about what my readers want that’s different. So I finally cut out the “venting,” about my son and his girlfriends, and moved on to Belize and how we had to cope and change.

Jerry Waxler: Then, a secondary question arises when you try to develop the title and cover of the book. Freeways to Flipflops makes the story sound like a carefree walk on the beach. When you set up the title and cover, were you worried about stripping away the complexity? Say more about how you decided what to emphasize.

Sonia Marsh: You make a good point Jerry. I wanted a visual title, and did not want to focus on my son’s defiance. As I mentioned, the adventure in Belize was more important than focusing on “healing.” I also spent several years branding my website and name from “Gutsy Writer,” to “Gutsy Living” and after discussing with 1106 Design company, I realized the potential of sticking with a brand, and being consistent. When people see the tropical water and font I use for my website, they will hopefully remember the word, “gutsy.”

Jerry Waxler: You talk about your entrepreneurial spirit in the memoir when you became interested in setting up a coffee shop in Belize. Much later, after you wrote the book, you had to sell it. The entrepreneurial spirit that unfolded inside the pages of your book spilled out into real life when you developed the entrepreneurial spirit of the Gutsy Story website and anthology.

This demonstrates one of the many reasons I love memoirs — they provide such an authentic window into the workings of the human experience. As real people we often must overcome intense struggles to find our self-worth and at the same time earn a living. However, many writers want to skip over earning a living because it’s too mundane. Did you wrestle or debate or get feedback from coaches or critiquers about including these elements of breadwinning in the emotional drama of your experience?

Sonia Marsh: I wrote about earning a living in Belize without any input from anyone else but myself. We were struggling to settle in Belize and make a new life. I did not want to be seen as a “failure,” as another statistic, or be taken for “one of those American couples who fell for the dream of paradise and couldn’t cope.” I didn’t realize how important it was for me to succeed and make a living in my “paradise.” As you know, I was mad at my husband for “relaxing” a little too much for my liking, and then I realized that I was the one who had made the mistake of pushing him into starting a business. Now I realize that I should have listened to the American expats who said, “Chill. Slow down Sonia. You’re no longer in the U.S. Things aren’t done the same way over here. You need to take your time. It takes a couple of years to find out whom you can trust.

Jerry Waxler: You did not always say flattering things about your husband or your son or your neighbors. These types of edgy revelations often cause aspiring memoir writers to shrink away from their memoirs. How were you able to be so frank about your family and neighbors? Weren’t you afraid of hurting your husband’s or son’s feelings?

Sonia Marsh: I’m glad you didn’t read my journal. As I mentioned earlier, I can only be honest with my feelings. When I get mad, I get mad, when I’m upset about something, I’m really upset. When someone turns against me and/or my family, I’m not going to pretend it didn’t happen. My husband knows me, and we’re still married. I also showed his good qualities, and why we married. There is no story if there’s no conflict or drama. I had to share what I was going through or my story would be flat and lifeless.

Jerry Waxler: How about your Belize neighbors and the suspicion you had about an area business man? How did you decide to do that? Did you lawyer up?

Sonia Marsh: I changed the names of everyone, and I realize I took a risk, but I did say, we had no proof about “sabotage” but it seemed quite suspicious that our boat was sinking with us inside on the same day as our son’s sailboat had both anchors cut off.

Jerry Waxler: As a blogger and host of the Gutsy Stories site, you have thrown yourself into the memoir world. What has your venture into the memoir blogging community taught you?

Sonia Marsh: I’ve learned so much from other memoir writers. I feel like most learn the craft and stick to the rules far more than I have.

1). I find many of them write memoirs in order to heal, and hopefully help others who might suffer from the same problems.

2). I would like to see more contemporary memoirs, about struggles today, adventures, taking risks to live an exciting life. But that’s because I love to travel and learn about different cultures and how a person adapts or doesn’t adapt to new situations.

3). I am surprised by how many memoirs I read about abuse, alcoholism, suicide, adoption, cancer, and holocaust survivors. Due to the nature of the topic, they are often depressing to read, but I know how helpful they are to those who have gone through something similar. I wish there were more uplifting memoirs.

4). I like humor in memoirs, and so far, I haven’t read that many. One I love is, Fat, Forty and Fired, by Nigel Marsh. Another I just read is by Jon Breakfield, called, Key West. These are both written by men. Strangely both are British, so perhaps I still have that British sense of humor from my childhood and college days in England.

Jerry Waxler: Typically at the end of an interview, I ask an author what they are working on next, figuring that most authors tend to have another book in the pipeline. However, when I asked what she was working on, she offered a delightfully diverse, ambitious list of goals. Her list reminded me that in addition to being an author, Sonia is a “memoir activist” who both shares her own story and encourages others to do the same.

In one of my essays, I compared her willingness to move her family to Belize as an example of the proverbial mother who lifts a car off a child in order to save it. Now, reading her to-do list for 2014, I feel the same about the way she is applying herself to memoirs. She appears determined to lift the whole world into the freedom of telling and sharing their stories.

Here is her answer to “what are you working on next?”
• Coaching authors on: How to publish and sell your books.
• Contact movie producers to turn my memoir into a movie.
• Inspiring audiences to live their “Gutsy” dreams.
• Create Workshops and Webinars: How to Publish and Sell your books.
• Continue to grow and help indie authors and publishers on Gutsy Indie Publishers on FaceBook.
• Ask writers to submit their “My Gutsy Story®” and promoting them on my site.
• Publish the 2nd “My Gutsy Story®” Anthology, and organize an event with a keynote speaker.
• Volunteer in Spain in May 2014. I shall be speaking English to Spanish business people for one week.
• Take the TEFL exam and teach English abroad for 6 months.
• Write a 2nd memoir about the experience of following your “gutsy” dream.

What are your gutsy ambitions? Feel free to leave them here.

NOTES
Click here to see my essay on her contest site, My Gutsy Stories.
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Interview with Memoir Author Sonia Marsh, Pt1

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

After reading Sonia Marsh’s Freeways to Flipflops, I sat back and thought about all she had taught me about my favorite subject: How to turn experience into a readable story. I shared my findings in a series of blog posts starting here. (You can see more by clicking the link for related posts in the right-hand column on each one.)

In addition to writing the memoir, Sonia is the mastermind behind the Gutsy Living contest which provides a platform for sharing the courageous, often outrageous acts of human experience. In this two-part interview, Sonia answers a few questions about writing her memoir and sharing her life experience with the world.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first conceive of turning your trip to Belize into a memoir?

Sonia Marsh: When a close friend said, “Sonia, uprooting your family to Belize would make a great story. Have you thought of writing a book?” That was the nudge I needed to start writing.

The first step was to keep a journal. As a novice, I had no clue it would take seven years to turn my journal into a commercial memoir.

Fortunately, I started writing one year before our move. Life at home was quite emotional, with our oldest son causing havoc in our daily life, and I knew if I could capture everything while it was still “raw,” this would make my story more authentic.

After keeping a journal for a couple of years, I had 660 pages on my computer. I would send excerpts via e-mail, to friends back home, and they would comment, “Wow, Sonia, your life in Belize is so exciting compared to mine back here, please continue sending me your stories.”  This was all I needed to keep writing.

Jerry Waxler: I understand that you kept contemporaneous notes during your time in Belize. Help me picture how you fit the writing into your days on Belize. Did you keep a daily diary? Were you actually crafting a book while you were going through the experience?

Sonia Marsh: I kept a daily journal in Belize, however, I did not write at a set time each day. Instead, I would run to my computer whenever something interesting happened. By that I mean, a specific conversation, argument, emotional moment with my family, or something significant that happened, and I wanted to keep the dialogue “real” and the emotions raw and clear in my mind.

Our life in Belize was simple, without television, shopping malls, bookstores, coffee shops, or movie theaters. We lived in a third world culture where life was slow paced and things did not get done when you expected them to get done. In a way, this was the perfect environment for writing. My only distraction was nature—so beautiful—and I spent hours studying my surroundings, and taking care of daily chores. Everything takes longer to do in Belize. Life was so different from life in Orange County, California. One day, an old “pirate” sailboat sailed in front of my house. It looked like one built to shoot a Hollywood movie, only this was the real deal. The next day a capsized “drug” trafficking boat was found close to the Island Ferry tourist boat. How often do you experience this in suburbia?

Jerry Waxler: When you started writing, explain anything you can to help us understand how you translated your notes and memories into scenes.

Sonia Marsh: Writing scenes did not happen until several years of being told that I was “telling not showing.” We all hear this when we start writing, and I remember copying sentences from Augusten Burroughs and Nicholas Sparks, feeling guilty at the time for copying some of their words and phrases, but those authors opened my eyes to reading scenes that felt like movie scenes. I knew this was something crucial I had to learn if I wanted my memoir to become visual. I would close my eyes and try to “see” my surroundings in detail, and “feel” the emotions. My first editor complained that I had too much dialogue that wasn’t moving the story along, and that instead of “the transcription of conversations,” she wanted “the context in which they occurred or your thoughts and feelings at the time.”

Jerry Waxler: How long did it take to write the first draft?

Sonia Marsh: I never really had a first draft, unless I call the 660 pages I printed from my computer, a first draft. My problem was reworking and polishing the first 1/3 of the manuscript over and over, and not spending enough time polishing the rest of my manuscript. I approached my first editor in March 2008, two years after I thought my manuscript was ready. She wrote a 12-page report which helped me realize how naïve I had been to assume it was ready for publication.

Jerry Waxler: To polish your writing or develop your writing voice, did you participate in critique groups? If so, where and how? Can you share any lessons about the story or about your style that you learned from their feedback?

Sonia Marsh: My first experience with a critique group was in 2008, at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference. I read some chapters during the workshops, and received such helpful feedback from the workshop leaders. I did join a critique group for 6 months, and we met once a week. In my case, I found it more beneficial getting critiqued by an editor, or a teacher, than by a group of writers like myself. Quite honestly, I wasted several months of being thrown off course by other writers who didn’t know my entire story, and who would make suggestions based on what they had heard me read. Also some writers in the group were from other genres, and couldn’t relate, so I did not find critique groups helpful.

Jerry Waxler: In the memoir, you provide such detailed insights into your thought process. Like when you went to the party at your neighbor’s house and they had brought so much wealth and the trappings of the first world to their home in Belize. You describe all that you thought about going and what you thought about what you saw. Did your journals help you get to this level of detailed internal dialog? How else did you achieve this level of detail about your inner process?

Sonia Marsh: My journals helped as I wrote the details, but I am very passionate about certain topics, and also stubborn and opinionated, so don’t get me started on materialism, and accumulating “stuff.” I guess having experienced life in various countries, I feel like I see things differently than someone who may not have had the same experience as me. So in a way, it’s my “duty” to share my thoughts and make people aware of things they may not realize. So perhaps “anger” and “frustration” as to why people need so much stuff, and why people need to flaunt it, made my internal dialog come naturally.

Jerry Waxler: I appreciate the way your narrative shows you worrying and second-guessing yourself. Your fretting adds an inner dimension that makes your scenes richer. When I started, and I’ve seen this since in other beginning writers, I was reluctant to report thoughts that raced through my mind. It took me quite a while to realize that sharing my thoughts added a rich dimension to the scene. When you were developing this style for your book, how conscious were you about inserting this inner discussion? Did it seem natural and normal to you as a writer?

Sonia Marsh: I know this may sound a little strange, but I was born in Denmark, to a Danish mother. I think Scandinavians have the reputation of being “open” and “honest” and don’t try to cover up their true feelings, as do some of my friends in the U.S.

I’ve always been that way, and sharing my thoughts is part of who I am. I value true friendships and while writing, I honestly felt like I was writing to my friends. I guess I’m naïve in that I hope my readers will also become my friends, and not remain total strangers.

In life, I try to connect with people on a “meaningful” level. I ask questions because I’m interested in what people think about their own life and their interests, and I also believe that writing a memoir should be “meaningful” to the reader. Why would anyone want to read about “you” and “your story” if you are not going to be open with them, and share part of yourself with them? We are all nosy, even those of us who don’t admit it. Why do so many of us like to read the tabloids? We want to ready the “juicy” stuff. No one would read the tabloids if they stated boring details like “Angelina Jolie had a manicure in 1997.”

Jerry Waxler: Were you ever criticized for sharing your thoughts, or on the other hand praised for it?

Sonia Marsh: So far, I have received positive reviews about being so honest. I’ve read reviews where readers have thanked me for sharing what I felt as a wife and a mother, and they said that they could relate. One of the key issues my first editor (when my memoir was still in half-journal format, and I thought it was ready) stated was, “In order to get your readers to come along on your journey with you, they have to be able to relate to you. And in order for them to be able to relate to you, they have to understand your inner thoughts and feelings.”  I didn’t understand this until later on in the writing process.

NOTES
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Interview with Editors of 60s Memoir Anthology

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

In my previous post, I wrote about an anthology, The Times They Were a Changing, in which the stories and poems of 48 women spotlight a segment of the 60s experience. Collectively their words helped me understand an important segment of cultural history, and also extended my appreciation for the role of short-stories in the Memoir Revolution. In today’s post, I ask the editors of the anthology to help me understand how they put it together and why. Linda Joy Myers acts as their spokesperson.

Jerry Waxler: Is it called an anthology or a collection?

Linda Joy: We always called the Times They Were A-Changing “collection” an anthology because the range of themes and topics were consistent—the ’60s and ’70s—and because we included poetry, too. Early on all three editors discussed the various themes that were part of the era that we wanted to make sure were included, so the whole book is an arc of the era. As we researched the era through documentaries, films, music, and biographies, we were reminded of the many social, cultural, and political movements occurring simultaneously over a short time. To capture as much variety as possible in our stories and poems we developed subthemes, naming them by lyrics or slogans of the times.

Notes from the Underground: Early 60s
Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out: Hippie Counterculture
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Feminism and Women’s Rights
Social Unrest: Political Movements
Age of Aquarius: Spiritual and Human Potential Movements

Jerry:  It seems like creating an anthology requires specialized skills. How did you learn to do such a great job. Were there any models or prior attempts to inform you?

Linda Joy: We are all avid readers, and bring our reading and writing skills into this. It seemed intuitive, and we each contributed our vision to the project. We knew what the era meant to us, and we all remembered the feeling of those times and what they’d given us in the realm of creativity, inspiration to find our own voice, the ability to think out of the box, and the willingness to take risks.

Kate had edited and published a themed anthology that focused on the mother-daughter relationship and had edited several anthologies for the California Writers Club. The writers club developed a model of three editors—a small enough number to provide consistency in editorial direction, but had the advantage of a tiebreaker. Amber, who had also edited two anthologies for the Story Circle Network, is a wonderful manager and set up clear benchmarks, a doable timeline for selection, editing, manuscript formatting, proofing, and submission based on her own publishing experience.

An online company called Submittable, that helps editors create a system for receiving and reviewing work, is a great service. We sorted by themes and subthemes, set up keywords, scores, and made editorial comments viewable by all the editors. The professional tools that Submittable offered were essential to the success of our work.

Our publisher, She Writes Press, was supportive of a themed anthology, particularly one that showcased women’s experiences during a breakthrough era for women. Brooke Warner, co-founder of SWP, was willing to take the risk with us and trust our editorial abilities.

Jerry: How did you get so many great stories?

Linda Joy: We placed our ads in Poets and Writers, WOW! Women on Writing, Story Circle Network, where we knew there would be a lot of interested writers. The Story Circle Network conference is where our idea was born into the world, at a dinner under a 700-year-old oak tree on a windy evening. We placed our Call for Submissions with various writing groups we belonged to, and shared our project with writer organizations in newsletters, listservs, and blogs.

We decided to combine a contest with an opportunity for publication. The contest allowed us to advertise in publications that featured contests, while the opportunity to be published appealed to a wider reach. Our target groups were women writers, not celebrities or well-known feminine activists. We wanted women who could write, who were our peers, and who would create a grassroots publication.

We received about 270 submissions—it was a challenge to choose the best. We all read every story and loved our job.

Visit our website to meet our prizewinners and contributing authors whose works cover a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Many of our authors have written blog posts about their writing process which appear on our website.

Jerry: How did you tune and refine the stories so expertly (such consistent style!)

Linda Joy: Each of us had a set to edit, but we all read and re-edited each other’s group, partly because we were hungry to read ALL the stories and see them evolve, and partly because we wanted to make sure there was consistency. We created a rubric of what we wanted to see in each story and poem and “scored” the stories accordingly. Of course, we had to leave room for that je ne sais quoi, that mystery of why a story works too.

It was important to us that each story had a narrative arc of development, and brought home an insight that our readers could relate to. Each story needed to be a slice of life at the time and also reflect on the meaning of those times, either then or now. We wanted the stories to be pithy yet entertaining. Some of them are about painful experiences from that time that the writers had never before put into words and others are written from experiences on high—however you choose to interpret that word. This is the power of writing stories—shaping our experiences into a meaningful narrative that transcends the literal experience.

In developing the subthemes and keywords on our website and within the Submittable database, we grouped stories and poems by category and rank. We wanted to include a range of experiences as well as geography in our final selection.

Jerry: Why did you decide to include poetry in a book of stories? How do you see them fitting together?

Linda Joy: All of us who lived through this era know that poetry, song, and spontaneous eruptions of creative expression were part of it. Not all experiences can be properly shared in narrative form. It only seemed right to include poetry and invite another way to share the impressions, the moments of the era with impressionistic snapshots that brought us back to a feeling, a moment in time. We loved being able to include poetry.

Through the process of sharing our book we’re discovering how many women want to know, discuss, and share these changing times. We hope it may be the beginning of an important dialogue.

Jerry: I love your work with memoir writers and am a fan of your own memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother. So I was especially intrigued by the story you wrote in the Times They Were a Changing as a young woman trying to find herself in the sixties. How did your own personal experiences of the era come into play as you created this book?

Linda Joy: I had always wanted to write about the ‘60s and ‘70s, but hadn’t done it yet. It was such a confusing and exhilarating era, a time of my young adulthood, a time of confusion yet opportunity. Everything I’d known and believed before was fractured and out of the those pieces, along with my generation, I learned to find myself through art, through the new psychologies that were evolving at the time, through journaling, poetry, and books that invited self-expression and authenticity. So I was thrilled when Amber and Kate agreed to join me for this project. I can say now that it kickstarted my way into writing a new memoir about—yes, the ’60s and 70’s, and I can thank the courage of all the writers I was reading to help me find my own.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Read more about the authors by clicking here.

Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Interview with a Memoir Writer – Childhood with Traumatized Parents

by Jerry Waxler

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

In my previous blog post, I wrote about a memoir by a woman who grew up under the terrible shadow of a tragedy. Judy Mandel wrote Replacement Child to share a childhood that had been distorted by a few horrifying hours in her parents’ lives that took place before she was born. Through the extraordinary medium of memoir, she was able to translate that trauma and the subsequent journey into a fascinating story. In this blog post, I interview Judy to ask her more about her experience writing and publishing the book.

This blog is part of a blog tour for Judy Mandel’s Replacement Child. For more information from the author, see her website.

Jerry Waxler: You had to face a lot of painful memories to write this memoir, and yet you did it anyway. Were you ever tempted to try to forget, and make it go away? How did you move beyond that impulse and face it and write about it?

Judy Mandel: In fact, I had been very successful in pushing all the memories down so far that it was like an excavation to unearth them. I can’t explain why I felt compelled to keep doing that, like picking a scab. You know there will be blood, but somehow you feel it will heal faster that way.

Jerry Waxler: Anyone who met you couldn’t possibly even imagine this tragic background and complex family life in the midst of a suburban community. Your sister Linda of course bore the signs of the tragedy on her skin for all to see, but you only had them inside. So growing up, how did that feel, having this vast amount of secret life contained within an ordinary one?

Judy Mandel: An interesting thing I discovered after I wrote the book, and many of my childhood friends read it. They knew about the accident, or some version of it, but never ever mentioned it to me in all the years we grew up together. Even my closest friends had never said anything. They were counseled not to by well-meaning parents. But I think if the discussion had been out in the open, both within my family and outside my family, it would have been a healthier way to deal with it and would have eliminated the feeling of secrecy. As a kid, I felt mostly a subterfuge that I couldn’t identify.

Jerry Waxler: Now that you have written a book about those experiences, you have transferred the scars from inside to outside. Describe how that has changed the way you see yourself in relationship to strangers. When you meet a stranger, do you feel more understood? Does the expression “more comfortable in your own skin” apply? How would you describe it?

Judy Mandel: What an insightful question! Sometimes when people ask me about myself, in the way people do when you meet, I am tempted to just give them a copy of Replacement Child–or tell them to read it if they haven’t. Other times, I almost feel like I have nothing left I can tell them about myself if they’ve read it.

Jerry Waxler: You have obviously worked hard on this memoir to create a story from all these memories and your research. From a mess of memories, you have created a coherent narrative. If possible, please compare how that feels to go from before writing it to having it on paper. Was it satisfying, fulfilling? Would you do it again?

Judy Mandel: The interesting thing is that once you give your inner story a narrative, it has a shape that it didn’t have before. And it is unchangeable. Before writing my story, my personal narrative morphed frequently, as I suspect it does for everyone. To your other questions, I would say I had no choice but to write this story and I can’t imagine doing anything like this again.

Jerry Waxler: Before 9/11, I spent zero time thinking about being struck by an airplane. After 9/11, this completely changed. The similarity of the experience to your childhood tragedy seems so strange and otherworldly. As a reader, it feels like a mini-9/11. Of course the cause and scope were different but in your individual life, the disruption had struck you in a similar way. That’s my reaction to reading the book. How did you react to that juxtaposition? When you realized that getting struck by a crashing airplane had become part of our collective traumatic experience, how did that influence your relationship to your memories? How did that affect your willingness to write about it?

Judy Mandel: I believe that victims of a tragic event, no matter the scope, are part of a club that none of us wanted to join. Realizing the very long tentacles of a tragedy, through a family, and even through generations, changes your view of the world. When I watched planes crashing into the towers on 9/11, I felt like it was my worst nightmare. I think, because of my family history, I have always believed that anything can happen–and 9/11 brought that home to me in a powerful way. When the Boston Marathon bombings happened, I felt the same way, and deeply sad for the families effected. I also connect very strongly to survivors of the Holocaust and their children–replacement children in some sense. Some say that an entire generation of Jews are replacements for those lost. That’s a subject I’m delving into for possibly an upcoming project. As I wrote in a recent blog post of mine, ultimately, we have to grapple with random acts of evil, accident or nature. All we can do is realize that each day is a gift, and any day that we find peace, and our loved ones are safe and well, is a good day.

Jerry Waxler: I completely sympathize with the thousands of hours your family obsessed about your sister’s final moments. The horror played through the family psyche like a nightmare or a PTSD flashback. Through your creative passion and hard work you captured those moments in words. Shaping these scenes into a story must have been such a profound labor of love and passion. You finally contained within story the culminating focusing moment that controlled your and your family’s history. That seems so profound to me. Now through the hard work and creativity of your writing and the magic of empathetic reading, strangers like me have shared some of that pain. How do you feel about making the private hell accessible  to empathy from strangers? Does it feel like we are sharing your burden in some way? Has it relieved you from a life sentence of facing this pain alone?

Judy Mandel: Thank you for seeing the work in that way. You come close to asking why we write. It makes me think of the quote from Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” That is true for me as well. Writing those scenes, especially the more graphic ones, helped me figure out how I felt and what I thought. It was the only way I could make sense of it. Which brings me to the other reason for writing and reading, to try to make some sense of the world and the human condition.

Jerry Waxler: I have recently written an essay about the structural techniques of writing memoirs. In one essay, I show how some authors have alternated back and forth between the two time frames, telling the earlier story of their childhoods in alternating chapters with their adult timeframe.  In example of this method, I show how each of the two time frames sticks with chronological order. Your memoir uses the interwoven time frames, with more than two separate threads. I counted at least three (your story of growing up, the day of the crash, and looking back from the present while you were constructing the memoir). Could you help me and your readers understand your thought process deciding how to weave time among chapters? How did you arrive at this system as the best way to tell your story?

Judy Mandel: I started with the trajectory of the crash itself, since it fascinated me and I delved into every detail I could find. The first chapter I wrote was the actual scene in my mother’s kitchen when she heard the blast and flash of fire, and the ensuing melée. I knew I needed my childhood scenes to illustrate the different aspects of my relationships with members of my family, and to underscore my isolation and finally the characteristics of a classic replacement child. My present day chapters came last, to give perspective to the book. Coming up with the structure was a slow process. I experimented with different ways to tell the story. I did this visually, using index cards with a brief description of each chapter and posting them on bulletin boards. The boards lined a hallway in my house for months. I would re-arrange them every few days and see how the order worked. When that didn’t seem like enough information, I used the actual chapters, spread out in an entire room in my house. So, it wasn’t an easy or entirely scientific method!

Notes

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.