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.