by Jerry Waxler
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.
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 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.