Frequently expressed fears about publishing a memoir

by Jerry Waxler

After writing their memoir, many people stop at the threshold, worried what they might encounter in the world of public storytelling. In this section, I answer Frequently Asked Questions about the fears that block memoir writers before their work reaches the world.

What if I’m too shy to sell my book?

If you feel shy about revealing your life, try to break the task down into small, achievable steps. In my experience, the safest first audience are your fellow aspiring writers who may share some of your anxieties and hopes. By joining a critique group, you can audition your material and get feedback. Try a few more critique groups and after a while you’ll feel more confident. A good next step is a blog. This free self-publishing tool allows you to share your life with one tiny corner of the vast universe of the public. As your blog grows, hopefully your confidence will too. Eventually sharing your story will feel more natural.

Will going public place me in danger?

No one can guarantee safety, and so, all of us must steer between the extremes of paralyzing fear and bold action. To keep fear in its rightful place, think of it as an advisor, and not a master.

Will I be sued or hated?

It’s relatively easy for someone to sue you, and even if their legal grounds are frivolous, you must defend yourself. As a result, you may imagine potential law suits lurking on every page. How do memoir writers make peace with this possibility? The first line of defense is to realize that someone will need to go to a lot of trouble and expense to sue you, so probably mere annoyance will not be enough to provoke this sort of response.

Some writers say that the very people who they thought would hate the book were flattered to see themselves in print. Some, like Linda Wisniewski say it’s her story and other people are entitled to their reaction. Others, like Sue William Silverman, wait until their abuser has passed. She was afraid her relatives would hate her for outing her father’s abuse, but instead they reached out to her and empathized, wishing they could somehow turn the clock back to those years and protect her. In, “Crazy Love,” Leslie Morgan Steiner’s first husband was one of the most abusive men I have seen in nonfiction. She apparently came to some sort of agreement with him before the book went to press. Here are a few other ways writers minimize the risk of incurring wrath:

  • By including more than one point of view you can imply that your own observations are your subjective reality, and others may differ.
  • Skip or only hint at the most incriminating observations.
  • Alter facts to obscure the person’s identity.
  • Write fiction.

Must I reveal every aspect of my life?

Writing a memoir initially seems like it may expose you to ridicule. Once you actually reveal secrets, you may be surprised to discover that your confessions make you appear to be a deeper, more authentic character. No longer under pressure to keep secrets, you trade in privacy for self-confidence. “I am who I am, and did what I did.” By telling your secrets, you become a more open and energetic contributor to your culture.

Of course, there may be parts of your life you still prefer to keep to yourself. You may want to protect your family and friends, or you may still be processing part of yourself that is not yet ready for public scrutiny. As you experiment in your drafts and critique groups, you gain discernment about which parts of yourself to reveal and which to keep private.

What if my sister or brother disagrees?

Even in casual situations, people have different recollections of the same event. Sometimes you can agree to disagree. Other times, the disagreement escalates, loaded with surprising tension, and a struggle for ownership of the past.

Some memoir writers weave disagreements right into their story. For example, “The Kids are all right,” by Diana Welch, “Night of the Gun,” by David Carr, “Mistress’s Daughter,” by A.M. Homes, and “My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour.

If appropriate, discuss your memories with those who were involved, seeking to understand their point of view. Foster Winans, in an early draft of his memoir “Trading Secrets” painted a dark, damaging portrait of his mother. She read the draft, and they talked for hours, turning the pain into an opportunity for understanding. The published version took this new, deeper appreciation into account.

In the end, this is your story and you have the right to tell it. In fact, gaining confidence and ‘ownership” of your own life story is one of the greatest benefits of writing it.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

Who protects the children? Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

by Jerry Waxler

When parents and extended family are unable to take care of a child, “society” is supposed to pick up the burden. I hope that happens, but I didn’t know the details until I read Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s beautifully written memoir, “Three Little Words.” Ashley is qualified to speak authoritatively about the fate of kids without caregivers because she was in the system from the time she was 2-years-old until she was 12. Shuffled from home to home, she was subjected to a variety of parenting skills, some compassionate, others incompetent, while some were outright mean.

Click here for Ashley’s Home Page
Click here for the Amazon page for her book Three Little Words

After running out of in-home placements, she reached the end of the road, an orphanage, where families came by to shop for an adopted child. She found herself literally auditioning for prospective parents. When she was finally adopted at the age of 12, it was such a relief, my eyes leaked for a whole chapter. But the journey was not over yet.

Opposite of tough-love
When Gay and Phil Courter adopted Ashley, they didn’t see her as a reject. They saw her as their daughter. However, to become part of their family, she had to make significant inner changes, and it wasn’t easy. After years of being arbitrarily moved, punished, and robbed by adults, it seems healthy that she would turn defiant, relying on her own willfulness rather than trusting their love.

For example, Ashley was raised on cheap foods like macaroni and cheese so her new family’s sushi and sprouts seemed too weird. She refused to eat what they served. What started as a food preference escalated to a battle of wills, and Ashley assumed the Courters were going to “send her back.” Instead, Gay Courter found a loving way to steer through it, bending her own will to accommodate Ashley.

Gay and Phil told her, over and over, “We love you no matter what.” The unconditional love these two people showered on their daughter, despite her rebellion take parental forgiveness to new levels, enough to drive a tough-love advocate to the nearest therapist. Apparently forgiving worked. Ashley vowed to do better next time, and lo and behold, she did.

The transition from rebellious kid to loving daughter makes the memoir “Three Little Words” not just about the foster system. By revealing her own thoughts and emotions, Ashley has created one of the most psychologically insightful, frank, and revealing Coming of Age stories I have read.

Insight into a child’s mind
Memoirs take the reader deep into the mystery of another person’s mind. For example, Temple Grandin’s breakthrough book, “Thinking in Pictures” provided an inside view of growing up with autism and John Robison’s memoir “Look me in the eye” shows what it was like to have Asperger’s. Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s book provides a similar service, taking us not just into her circumstances but into her mind, where she reveals rebellion and fear, outrage and hope.

Ashley isn’t just any foster kid. She is a unique person with an interesting twist. Despite her frequent changes in schools, and inconsistent parental guidance, she is placed in classrooms for gifted students, writes prize-winning essays, and performs in school plays. Now she is an author and public speaker with a remarkable list of credits, including keynote speeches at large conferences.

How can a child be surrounded by poverty and rise to remarkable success? It’s a puzzle that I find delicious, with every example leading to a counterexample, always implying some underlying truth without ever promising a satisfying answer. Consider Oprah Winfrey’s journey from a dirt poor background, or the four boys who grew up in the gang-infested streets of New Jersey, became doctors and wrote a memoir called “The Pact.” Ashley’s chaotic childhood in the foster care system adds another example of this mysterious transformation.

Secrets – what happens behind these walls
We all grow up with an insider’s view of our particular household, and whether we are conscious of it or not, our own house is unique. We generally don’t appreciate that uniqueness though because we are so immersed in it. The very things we don’t like to talk about as children, later turn out  to add an enormous amount of interesting color.

I’ve rarely described the Jewish traditions we followed in my home. Because bread products were not allowed during Passover, we performed a prayer ritual to cleanse the bread crumbs from the house and switch to a special set of dishes. During Yom Kippur each year, there was always the nervous energy of feeling hungry during the 24 hour fast. Cheating created a weird mix of bodily relief and ethical guilt.

As long as they remain hidden, such details make us feel slightly separate from other people. Once we share them, they become an opportunity for others to get to know us. Popular storytellers have created entire careers out of turning ordinary childhood into compelling tales. When I was a child, trying to fall asleep, my brother who was seven years older came into our bedroom and tuned the radio in to a talk show on WOR. I lay in bed laughing, as radio personality Jean Shepherd made life seem so interesting by simply sharing the experiences of childhood.

Other secrets are dark and sinister. Take Ashley’s experiences in one particularly harsh foster home. As punishment she was starved, forced to stoop in an awkward position, and her brother was forced to eat Tabasco sauce. When she tried to tell adults about her treatment, they accused her of lying, and she got into even worse trouble. She learned the hard way to stay silent about what happens inside her home. Later, by writing about it in her memoir, she finally relieves the pressure of isolation.

Writing Prompt
What sort of family behaviors did you naturally hide from your friends?  As you organize thoughts about your own life, what special insights into religion, family relationships, mental conditions, parts of the world, types of families, can you bring into the open by writing about them?

Writing Prompt
Sometimes the private, unique parts of your life aren’t secret events but characters at home are different than the ones you expect to see or talk about out in the world. A cousin had a psychotic break, for example, or disfiguring acne, or grandmom lived at home and never got out of bed. If you can describe the people you grew up around, you will bridge the gap between your private memories and your public memoir. List a few quirky characteristics about the people in your family that might add vivid detail to your childhood or the period you want to write about.

Memoir is a calling card for advocacy
“Three Little Words” has become Ashley’s calling card, supporting her authority as a nationally recognized speaker about the foster care system. She even provides a valuable resource to legislators and other public policy makers, who look to her for information about the theory of foster care as well as the actual practice.

By publishing her memoir, Ashley brought her audience another turn around the cultural spiral, offering them the opportunity to learn from her experience. When writing your own memoir, see what you can learn from Ashley. What sort of message could you share that would provide greater connection with your audience, offering them your hard earned wisdom in return for their empathy. What can your readers learn by walking arm in arm with you through the pages of your life?

Here are some of the memoirs that contribute to advocacy or deliver a message:

Jim McGarrah “A Temporary Sort of Peace” — Combat vets and PTSD
Doreen Orion, “I know you really love me” — Stalking
Brooke Shields, “Down came the rain” — Postpartum Depression
A.M. Homes, “Mistress’s Daughter” — Genealogy, adoption, family roots
Greg Mortenson, “Three Cups of Tea” — international understanding, world peace
Carol O’Dell, “Mothering Mother” — Caregiving, Alzheimer’s
Dee Dee Phelps, “Vinyl Highway” — 60’s nostalgia
David Sheff, “Beautiful Boy” — Addiction
Jon Robison, Look me in the eye — Asperger’s
Jamie Blyth and Jenna Glatzer, “Fear is no longer my enemy” — social anxiety

Writing Prompt
If you have a topic or area that you want to publicize, whether abuse, or special insider information of any kind, writing a book about your experience is an excellent way to build a connection to your audience. What group might be interested in your story?

Note: Excerpt from an interview with Ashley

I spent 10 years in the foster care system. I had 14 different placements before being adopted at the age of 12. Many of them were very abusive, and later we found out that 25 percent of my foster parents became convicted felons.

The National CASA, which are court appointed special advocates, or guardian ad litems in some states, asked me to speak at their national conference when I was 14. So that was my first big kind of motivational speech. Since then I’ve spoken personally to over 15,000 people and shared my story with them.

Note: Tough versus Unconditional Love
There are many conflicting notions of how and when to discipline kids. For example, once drugs and alcohol enter the picture, most experts agree that hard consequences seem to be the only valid course. However, even in that extreme case, tough love doesn’t provide perfect answers. Ashley’s experience with her adopted family might not apply to everyone, but it offers one experience worth considering in the mix of this complex debate.

For another, more complex example of this painful dilemma between tough and unconditional love, see David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy, about a father’s journey through his son’s addiction.

Listen to the podcast version. Click below or download from iTunes: [display_podcast]

Memoir of Redemption: Author Shares His Writing Experience

By Jerry Waxler

I recently reviewed Bill Strickland’s memoir Ten Points. It strikes me as being a “perfect memoir” – it’s a great read, it has a powerful sense of love and redemption, and the author opens up generously into his inner process. In order to delve even deeper, I asked him answer a few questions. Just as he was generous in his memoir, he was also generous in sharing his insights about writing it. This is the first of a two part interview.

(To read my review of the memoir, click here.)

Jerry: When did you realize you were going to write your life experience in a memoir?

Bill: As I started training for that season, I was taking notes and writing about the races, because that’s generally what I do ? try to make sense of my life by writing about it. But at that time, the writing was strictly for me. One of my training friends, Jeremy, who makes a few appearances in the book, rode many early 5 a.m. morning rides with me, during which we talked and talked, as cyclists do to fill the miles. He was a book editor (now an agent) and he kept telling me, “You have a book. This is a book. Write this book.” But I kept hesitating, because Jeremy, along with everyone else, didn’t know the full story. He only knew what I’d told everyone: That I was trying to score ten points to show my five-year-old daughter, Natalie, that any of could achieve something impossible, and to show her that we should ask much, and expect much, of those we love. Jeremy, like other people, that I’d had a tough life; I’d never been shy about spinning yarns about my white-trash family, turning us into comic-heroic misfits.

I didn’t tell anyone though, in detail, about the horrors of my life and what I really hoped to accomplish by scoring ten points ? destroying the monster I believed lived in me. I knew if I wrote a book, it would only be if I told the full, true story.

As the season wore on, and I wrote more, some of the stories of my past began to lay over the stories of the bike races in ways that seemed natural. And the act of racing itself, the suffering and the survival and the triumph and tragedies, was like opening a pipeline to my childhood. After the racing season was over and I’d had that final epiphany about shame, telling the story was not only okay to me, but almost mandatory.

Jerry: How long did it take you from the time you started to the time you finished writing?

Bill: From the end of the racing season through the rest of 2004, from October to Dececember, I kept writing scenes and what felt like chapters. At my agent’s urging, in 2005 I began working on a proposal, and we submitted a 50-page proposal that spring. It had a long chapter that also worked as a kind of introduction; a summary; and a summary of every chapter I’d planned.

Hyperion bought the book in the spring 2005 and I began writing for a May 2006 deadline. I mostly hit that deadline, with an 80,000-word manuscrpt. My editor, Leslie Wells, asked me what the book might look like with less cycling, more present day family stories, and a little tighter. She made some suggestions about which parts worked and where her interest flagged, and I ended up liking her ideas so much that I cut about 12,000 words and tried to focus on the most compelling race action rather than document each race. That, in turn, made the connections to my past even sharper. I turned in a final draft in August of 2006, and it was published July of 2007.

Jerry: What can you share about persisting, overcoming slumps, and making it to the end?

Bill: There was never a slump for me. Rather, in the spring of 2006, in the middle chapters, I could sometimes forget I was writing a book and that there was an end. The process seemed to exist only for itself, which I found sort of satisfying but also mystifying; I could get lost in the writing for days. Each week I tried to look at the book as a whole and see where I was, in a way kind of reminding myself that I was trying to complete this big, long thing.

I never had periods where I felt blocked or stumped. There were definitely times when I went off-track, or when I felt drained. I simply took a few days off, tried not to think about the book, then came back to it. I get great joy from the act of writing, even when it’s hard, maybe especially when it’s hard. To me it’s less about persistence than the incredible good luck that I am able to do this. When I get a chance to write, it’s a gift.

Jerry: What were your writing habits?

Bill: I don’t keep track of words or hours or consecutive days. I would guess that I write something, whether it’s fresh copy or playing with something already written down, just about every day. But I don’t know for sure. I write until I know I should stop for any of three reasons – I am exhausted or I can sense the next sentence and know I’ll be able to pick up the flow, or I have reached what I think of as a “turn,” in the story, which I define to myself as the end of a section that moves in a certain direction or with a certain rhythm. Or, sometimes, I need to take out the garbage or let the cat in or something, too – life’s mundanities rule us as much as our passions.

I’m also a fan of revision, so I like to just get something on paper and then tune it.

I write on computer, edit on paper, and like to move about the house with my laptop. I also wrote a fair bit of the book in our local bike shop, South Mountain Cycles.

Jerry: I am stunned by the brilliance of the story telling and phrasing. How much of this skill was learned before you decided to write a memoir, and how much after?

Bill: I have to say that I was surprised to hear myself called a good storyteller (by my agent, readers and editors). It’s not that I thought of myself as a bad storyteller but I’d never tried to tell a long story and didn’t know if I could, whereas I’ve always more or less known I can write some striking sentences.

In a strange way that is almost embarrassing to discuss, I think that deciding to be honest about who I am, for the first time in my life, opened up my writing in a way that changed it. I realize this sounds precious or maybe makes me sound like a sophomore in a creative writing class, but I now believe that I was always holding something back in my writing, what I gave to my writing, or the chances I was willing to take with language and sound and rhythm and image.

Jerry: What memoirs did you read to learn the art of memoir writing?

Bill: I didn’t want to read other memoirs as I wrote mine, especially those that dealt with abuse. I wanted to prevent anything from the abuse canon from slipping into my story; I wanted the details and whatever patterns or connections there might be in that area to come to the story strictly from my experience, even if they are part of a common experience . . . if that makes any sense. I guess you could say I don’t mind being derivative as long as I’m original.

I did have some reference points. I’d read Bill McKibben’s book, Long Distance, which is about a year he spent trying to become a world-class cross-country skiier. I still think Tim Krabbe’s book, The Rider, captures the entire feeling of a bike race better than any other book (or movie). A book about swimming, of all things, Water Dancer, by Jenifer Levin, showed me something important about language in its cadences; I realized that I wanted the writing about the racing to be extremely physical – to feel harsh or hard or as if it were slipping away from the reader, or hitting them in the face, and I worked hard to try to accomplish that through word choice and rhythm. I kept reading Worstword Ho, by Samuel Beckett, because I thought the pacing was a good model, and because some phrasing in it became important to me: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In fact, as I raced I used to repeat, like a mantra, “fail better,” and I had that in the book for a bit but the idea of a racer quoting Beckett seemed too outlandish to be accepted as real. I used it as the epigram, at least.

Jerry: Tell me more about your approach to finding the story amidst your memories.

Bill: I found that, to be effective as a storyteller, I had to quickly get to a point where I was able to view the story as a story rather than as therapy. I don’t think I could create tension, character, setting within the confines of a therapeutic recounting. A story, even the ones that feel loose, are structured. I was writing certain ways, introducing certain things at certain points, ending things at certain times, revisiting at certain times, for storytelling effect. I talk about the people in the book as characters, which I think can be disorienting for people who want to talk about me, or Natalie as people. We’re both, but those people inside that book are more characters to me. I mean, I counted up once and Natalie has less than 300 lines of dialog in the book — a fraction of a fraction of everything she said to me over the course of that year. Her dialog in that book is the dialog of that particular character, whereas Nat and I have this whole, nearly boundless yearlong mess of our life together.


This is Part 1 of a Two Part Interview. To read part 2, click here.

To see the Amazon page for this book, click here.

To read more about Bill Strickland and Ten Points, click here