by Jerry Waxler
In previous posts, I reviewed the memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” In this second part of a three part interview, I ask author Lisa Fineberg Cook to share observations about writing the memoir. Her answers included several surprises that proved how each of us has our own system, and even as we try to learn from each other, we also need to do what works best for us.
(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)
Audience and Voice
Jerry Waxler: I’m guessing from your writing voice that you are accustomed to writing for a hip, young pop-culture magazine reading audience. That’s my assumption. What’s your reality?
Lisa Fineberg Cook: LOL! Oh, no. I don’t consider myself young or hip. I think once you’re over forty it can be dangerous to call yourself young and hip – you’re more inclined to wear thong underwear and four inch platform heels – either of which would cause me great discomfort. No, seriously, as I stated in an earlier answer, I wrote this particular book for an audience of ‘girlfriends.’ I think life can be so challenging, as well as mundane – laundry – though I do like doing it now – is one of the most redundant, mundane activities we perform in our lives – most days I’m thinking ‘I just washed this!’ or ‘wait a minute, the laundry basket was empty two seconds ago!’
My female friendships are such an integral part of my life and my sanity. They are my ‘other husbands’ and they are the ones I call when the laundry basket gets too full and the fridge is empty and my hair is a mess and my kids are driving me crazy. I can literally call them and just give a good primal scream and they say ‘I get it. Say no more.’ So I wrote this book for them – the ones I know personally and the ones who I imagine would be my friends if I knew them. They would get the humor, the ridiculousness, the self-effacing attitude. Some of those girlfriends might be in their twenties, others in their forties and some might even be in their fifties or sixties and I think if they don’t flinch at the ‘f’ words and they laugh out loud a few times then that’s as young and hip as I need to be.
Jerry Waxler: Considering my age and gender, I’m a bit bewildered at how much I enjoyed reading the memoir. The language was simple and engaging, and yet there was a lot of emotional depth. So were you on some level writing to me too? In other words, do you have a conscious creative goal to present deep emotional realism in a straightforward, breezy package? (The way Shakespeare could aim his jokes at different members of his audience.)
Lisa Fineberg Cook: One thing that did surprise me was the amount of seniors and men who enjoyed the book. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that reached across gender lines or age gaps and I cringe a little when I think of some of the sweet women who live in my building and are in their eighties who said they loved the book; because there’s a fair amount of expletives and some racy scenes, but my guess is, anyone who does like it, must be responding to the humor and the honesty and has found something relatable in it. I can’t think too much about the ‘why’ though or it will get in the way of the writing. You never want to catch yourself thinking ‘how can I please everyone with this book?’
Jerry Waxler: Did you keep a journal or writer’s notebook during your trip to Japan? If so, what was your process?
Lisa Fineberg Cook: I never wrote a single word in Japan. It never even occurred to me while I was there that this could be a book. I actually didn’t start writing the book until four years later. I am blessed (or cursed depending on how you look at it) with a memory that won’t let me forget anything. I can remember passages in books that I read when I was ten, I can remember the most random information like a street that I was on once twenty years ago. I came up with the title for JAP while I was living in rural Maine (from 2001-2004) and I wrote entire passages in my head without ever putting it down on paper. I started writing the book in 2005.
Jerry Waxler: Can you offer any writing tips that can help me and my readers understand and possibly emulate your good-natured, breezy style? Do you have some sort of image, or sentence structure technique or some other advice to offer an author in search of a stronger or signature voice?
Lisa Fineberg Cook: I am a very visceral writer. I write quickly and instinctively and I do very little editing when I write something that I think is good. If I like it, I leave it alone, if I’m trying too hard to fix it then I take it out completely. One thing my mother had always said to me was to write the truth and I try to stick to that, even if I’m working on fiction. I write from a place of truth and if I’m trying too hard to make something work and if it’s not working, chances are it’s because it’s not an authentic idea and that I’m ‘borrowing’ from others. The other thing that seems to help me in writing is based around my life and my work schedule – I commit to fifteen minutes a day. Sometimes all I do is reread what I wrote the day before, but usually I can get something done in fifteen minutes. Obviously the goal is to write for longer but if I try to schedule a two-hour writing block I tend to get anxious and stressed about finding the two hours, so the fifteen minute rule allows me to relax and usually I do end up writing for much longer. The other fact is that I own and operate a seasonal business and I do very little writing during the summer months so when I come back to my work after a three month hiatus, I am able to be even more objective about my own material and I can ruthlessly eliminate anything that isn’t working.
Jerry Waxler: Good writing is usually a result of impeccable, high energy editing. Considering how much I enjoyed reading your memoir, I imagine there was considerable attention paid to that aspect of the final product. Tell me about how you edited your book.
Lisa Fineberg Cook: My personal editing would take place after the summer hiatus. It took three years to write the book because I only wrote from September to February or March. Towards the end of the summer I would begin to think about the book and then I would sit down and simply reread all that I had written – sometimes I did this for days before I even wrote another word. I can’t stress enough what a great tool this turned out to be as it gave me just enough time off to approach the text from a fresh perspective and allowed me to be even more objective about my work. Frankly, I think it’s a potential death knell to good writing to be too protective of your own work. I was able to be quite ruthless about my own material, thinking ‘that stinks and it’s gone!’
Jerry Waxler: Alright, then. (Laughing). Instead of editing, you throw away and rewrite. I have to think about that. I sometimes suspect that this continuous flow method of rewriting makes a book easier to read. It certainly seems to have had that effect in your case. What sort of help did you have from critique groups, writing buddies, or paid coaches and classes?
Lisa Fineberg Cook: I only allowed two people to read my book as I was writing it – my girlfriend (the one who is the Stacey character in the book) and my husband who writes as well and has an excellent editing eye. I would give ‘Stacey’ large sections of the book to read and then listen to how many times she laughed out loud. If too many page turns went by without at least a chuckle I would make a mental note to look that section over again. My husband was helpful if I was stuck on how to make a transition or bogged down in too many details. In that he lived the story with me, he would often throw out ideas about other anecdotes that worked better.
Jerry Waxler: Fascinating. In fact, “common wisdom” suggests not even letting family members read the memoir while its being written. Another demonstration that there is no such thing as a rule, and that each memoir author is as unique in their writing style as they are in their life experience. I can only recall one other interview in which an author’s husband was her main editor, Doreen Orion, author of “Queen of the Road” and by coincidence, her book was about a one year voyage.
Click here to read part one of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook.
Click here to read my interview with author Doreen Orion about writing her travel memoir, Queen of the Road.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.