by Jerry Waxler
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.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.