Two of my past students released new books this year. Katherine Dering, of New York, launched her second memoir, Aftermath, and Judith Mattison, of Minnesota, published her first, I Will Not Break. Both write about trauma, Katherine about grave mental illness and loss and Judie about abuse. Not easy subjects, so this week I interviewed each of them about their journey through writing these books, how they mined their difficult subjects, and how they took care of themselves during the process.
Katherine Dering has written two memoirs that deal with trauma: a prose book, Shot in the Head, a Sister's Memoir, a Brother's Struggle, and a poetry book, Aftermath.
She began her writing journey with a story about growing up in a traditional Catholic family, leaving her religion, and going into a business career. But she couldn't finish it. She kept adding chapters about caring for her mentally ill brother, Paul, until she finally decided to write about taking care of Paul as a book on its own.
"From the time I decided to write Shot in the Head," Katherine says, "until I sent it to a publisher covered about 18 months. It was published about five months later." Finding that focus of her brother's story was almost a high. "I wrote day and night. I cut, pasted, borrowed, cried, and it all came together, as if someone else was writing it and I was just the transcriber. I asked my siblings to review sections they appeared in and we had friendly, supportive conversations that I used to eventually produce a book they all loved. And since I am one of ten children, that is saying a lot."
The hardest part about writing this trauma story was revisiting the difficult moments, and acknowledging to herself that she could have done more to help him. "I cried. I felt guilty," she says. "He was so ill, so scary." Her brother had acute, treatment-resistant schizophrenia. "I never really thought through how dire a position he was in - suffering from acute, treatment resistant schizophrenia, unable to distinguish between reality and his delusions. As I cared for him he became more of a person, and I was at least glad that I finally got to know him before the end."
Shot in the Head was published in 2014 by the small press, Bridgeross.
But that wasn't Katherine's only trauma memoir. After her teenaged nephew died of a heroin overdose, through the death of her daughter-in-law's mother from incurable, progressive lung disorder, and the passing, a few months later, of a good friend from pancreatic cancer, Katherine wrote poetry. "It seemed like the losses were piling up, and all I could do, writing wise, was write a poem now and then. Only after another year had passed did I perceive that a compilation of my poems told a story." Aftermath, her poetry memoir, was the result. It was published by Finishing Line Press in 2018.
After each book was published, Katherine did readings and author signings. "Every time I read a few chapters or spoke about my family's encounter with schizophrenia, with my poor brother's mental prison, with his poor health care and death, or with all the losses from the three deaths, I cried again. It was like picking at a scab that kept bleeding and wouldn't heal."
Only in the last year or so, as she's moved on to other stories, has she felt the story of her brother really begun to heal.
If someone is swept up in a difficult situation, she says, it is hard to see the forest for the trees. Writing about it may help it come into focus. But jump in, she encourages writers. "See what you can do. If it is too difficult, set it to one side and do something else for a while, then go back to it. Sometimes, as happened to me, an avenue for approaching the story will come to you and because of all the donkey work you did to gather facts and setting, you will be able to put together a finished whole that feels authentic.
Katherine's memoir in prose, Shot in the Head, is available on amazon and her memoir in poetry, Aftermath, are available from Finishing Line Press and will be on amazon in January.
Judie Mattison, who recently published her memoir, I Will Not Break, says that she took eight years to write her story. She wrote in stages. "At first," she told me, "I thought I wanted to create a novel around my basic story. I was afraid of reactions to the truth, and it was interesting to create possible fictional scenes that fit the situations. But as an experiment, I took one scene and put it into first person. When I decided to write first person, everything went more smoothly. It was real and the memories were accessible. It was me - my story."
Judie also says her own self-doubt about being a writer slowed her down. She studied different writing-craft skills and "gradually things fell into place," she says. Her best help was a small writers' group of four who encouraged Judie and over time she began to reveal the true story to them. There was a point, Judie says, when the group decided on less critique and more affirmation, just to be able to continue writing their stories.
Throughout the process she read memoirs of all kinds. That helped too.
"But I did find times," she says, "when I felt simultaneously driven to tell the story and reluctant to continue. I went to a counselor for a few months and that support kept me on target with writing this memoir." She feels it's important that people understand and believe the writer when he or she begins to risk telling the true story. "The telling is essential," Judie says. "It frees the storyteller whether or not it ever becomes public."
But that telling can be exhausting too. "There were times when, after relating an experience, I was worn out," Judie says. She had to rest before she tackled another part of the book. It also helped her to write about her internal quest, using these questions: "What am I afraid to write about and why?" "Am I being too hard on myself?" To remind herself that it was alright to rest and take care of herself.
"Trauma is often misunderstood," Judie says, "and far more powerful than we realize. It is common to "forget" details of what happened. Often it involves feelings of shame and low self-esteem or recurrent fear. From time to time I would want to give up so that I didn't have to face misunderstandings or possible embarrassment for other people in the book. I was afraid of the reactions of outsiders."
However, she adds, if we have a trauma to write about, just putting it into words on paper is a way of feeling in control of the event(s).
Judie's book was published in 2018 by New Sun Press and is available on amazon.
Some writers don't believe in writer's block--that stall out, mind- and spirit-numbing experience that occasionally visits us when we're plowing ahead on a book deadline or trying to bring a new character to life. But I do. I've had it, I've coached dozens of writers through it, and it's a real phenomenon.
Recently, I read a wonderful interview in Lit Hub on the writer George Saunders. You might be a great fan of Saunders, as I am (his collection of stories, Tenth of December, is some of the quirkiest, most amazing writing I've ever read), or his fiction might be new to you. His opinion about writer's block is equally inspiring. It's a bar set too high, he says. It's about the writer, not the writing. Always.
Ira Glass, the well-known host and producer of "This American Life," speaks of it as the distance between our taste and our abilities:
Ira Glass on the Creative Process (www.getoutthebox.org)
We know what we love, we want to create something close to that, and when we can't quite--from lack of experience, skill, or perspective--we get stuck. The only difference between the writer's block experienced by someone new to writing and someone who's published is perhaps the gap is less. Or the bar is higher.
I often experience writer's block when I take risks in my writing. When it opens up something vulnerable and my inner critic, that beautiful and irritating gatekeeper that all of us live with, gets anxious. I can see this process in my clients and students more quickly than in myself. A good teacher once told me to switch things out whenever that happens.
This week, I was drafting a new scene from my current novel-in-progress and I ran out of ideas. I kept pushing. That's my nature. The door refused to open. I had a choice: abandon the writing or switch to a different scene. I switched. It worked. An hour went by, I got my momentum back, and ideas started coming for that first scene. When I switched back, it was there.
If you're experiencing that sluggish, weighty, distracted feeling; if the holiday food hangover has taken you far from your writing, check out the Lit Hubinterview with George Saunders (if the link doesn't work, go to lithub.org and search for Saunders), view the encouraging Ira Glass comments, above. Or watch the Saunders video below.
A reader sent me this link, a brief article by award-winning writer Annie Proulx on her five rules for good writing. Even if you don't agree, the website (Writer's Write) is worth a visit. But I like Proulx's work and I read her counsel, hoping for some inspiration for my current project. It's always helpful to look into a respected writer's progress.
Of her five rules, two were about writing by hand.
That surprised me--yet it didn't. There's a slow movement in writing, as in art and the food world and elsewhere, our attempt to counteract the panicked pace we live right now. A search for sanity and balance.
Notebook and pen foster a different kind of writing, for me at least. Since I "grew up" as a writer on Natalie Goldberg's freewrites (Writing Down the Bones) and Pam Painter's exercises (What If?), I'm not a stranger to slow writing. There's a logic to it. The movement of the hand calms the vagus nerve, according to certain brain research I've read. Our fright/flight/fight response settles down which maybe allows freer access to the more random part of our creativity. Although slow writing might not foster linear activities, such as plotting and outlining, it works quite well with storyboarding, my favorite non-linear organization technique.
I teach a whole retreat on storyboarding, but a few years ago I also offered an evening freewriting session after our storyboarding afternoon. At my annual week-long writing retreats (January 14-18 in Tucson, March 24-29 in Santa Fe, July 22-26 on Madeline Island), we gather on Tuesday evening and let creativity surge up. I present six prompts; we write for 10 minutes on each. It's slow but it fosters amazing ideas. Some prompts lead to another: "Imagine one of your characters. Write about this character's hands" merging into "Now see something in those hands. Describe it."
One year I added a third step: "Imagine the character trying to hide the object." That generated very interesting scenes!
On my laptop, I freewrite quickly, but I also notice more attention to the way the words look, sound, fall on the page. My editing brain engages, maybe just from the neurology of typing versus handwriting. Writing by hand disengages that editor inside, to some extent. It feels frustrating, like watching a movie from the eighties (have you rented or downloaded one lately? know what I mean?), but slowness has its benefits. After my fast-moving linear self finally relaxes, I go in unexpected directions.
For your weekly writing exercise, set a timer and try the freewrite above for 10-20 minutes. Do it first by hand, then on your computer. I'm guessing the freewrites will emerge differently. Which do you like better? And once you're done, check out Annie Proulx's article to read more of why a pro recommends going slow.
(If you have trouble with the link above, go to writerswrite.co.za and search for Annie Proulx.)
A reader from Connecticut is finishing up her new novel this month, getting ready to send it out to agents. She sent me a good question that often plagues writers right before their work goes out into the world.
"I believe it was Barbara Kingsolver who said she sends her finished manuscripts to family for final approval," this writer wrote. "If there's anything there that offends them she takes it out. Since there are a few true intimate details in my novel that helped develop my fictionalized characters who were originally based on real people, I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on that."
Any writer who bases fictional characters on real people (as most of us do, to some extent) or writes about real places and eras runs the risk of offending readers by inaccuracy or similarity. A common joke among novelists is friends and family scouring their books to see where they appear.
But this reader's question addresses more than just offending those you know and love (or not). There's also a legal ramification, and although I'm far from versed in this, legal counsel at my publishers have always suggested a disclaimer added to the copyright page: "Any resemblance to real locations or real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." That's pretty standard.
When my novel, Qualities of Light, was published, and because it did refer to real locations, I added this line: "Although some of the Adirondack towns and communities in this story are loosely based on real places I have lived in and loved, I changed significant details to make them fictional." That covered it, as far as I was concerned. I did worry, slightly, about one character and very small-town location that closely resembled a real person and a real bar, but I changed as much as I could, just keeping the flavor of the place and making the real person, not well liked, someone sympathetic. I figured that would erase any resemblance.
One of my nonfiction books, How to Master Change in Your Life, is a hybrid self-help/memoir. I included a handful of stories from friends and colleagues about ways to handle different kinds of change. Although my story predominated, I made sure to get written permission from each example I used that wasn't mine. Again, the publisher helped; we drafted a simple release form that included the edited story and had each person sign it. Only one came back later to complain, and I thought seriously about removing her story from the next edition. Legally, I was covered, but personally, I wanted to honor her concern. We talked it out and the story remained in the book. But I was glad I had done my homework ahead of time.
Fiction writers feel they are immune, but what if their readers do recognize themselves and the relationship is harmed? Here's a group of great resources for you to browse this week, if this is one of your concerns. If the links don't work, just go to the publication's home page and search for the article title.
Theme answers the question: So what? That's pretty harsh, but it's what readers need to know soon after they pick up your book. Theme is the meaning and the message, the purpose of your story. Not just entertainment, although that is usually part of good writing. But we look for meaning now, in our literature and in our lives, more than ever. Publishers know this, agents know this, readers crave this.
Nonfiction writers can tell us the theme, or meaning, of their books. They can stand on a platform and present the message quite frankly. If you do that in fiction or most memoir, you alienate readers. Characters and narrator can rarely be on platform and still keep readers involved in the story. So theme is trickier for those genres.
First, you have to figure out what the story is about. What are you trying to say? Is it as simple as "love hurts, but you survive?" A friend told me she wants her novel to be about powerful women changing a place. As I work on my new novel, I'm discovering its meaning goes beyond what I expected when I first wrote up my synopsis. It evolves as I get to know the characters. Particularly, their wounding events and the false beliefs that stem from those.
More and more, as I research these two aspects of story-telling, I'm convinced that theme emerges most organically from them. Once you discover what grows organically, you can shape it and enhance it.
I'm researching new material for my upcoming online class on theme and voice, which begins next week, and playing with exercises to explore these two aspects of theme. For instance, how might a trauma or loss or big change in a character or narrator's childhood create a certain belief about life? It's not a true belief, because it comes from the effect of something that happened to them before they could clearly understand the meaning. Say the character's father left when he was young. A certain belief about families, about fathers, about himself, might emerge from that. It's the perspective of a child, not the more holistic view he might gain as an adult, looking back. Say the nugget of that perspective manifests in his life as certain attitudes, avoidances, decisions. Those bring more events, more effects from their causation, and you have a cycle that creates story.
So we have a good story driver in these two elements of wounding event and false belief. But how does that lead to meaning, or theme?
It's pretty simple, as I've been discovering. In most well-structured stories, there will be chances for the character to face his false beliefs and rework them. Maybe he starts to understand why his dad left, and that it had nothing to do with him. Perhaps this changes, ever so slightly, his own tendency to jump ship. I'm being very basic here, psychology 101, but you get the idea. The theme or meaning comes when we look at the character's trajectory and ask: What did he learn? How has he changed? Maybe the theme of this imaginary book might be how compassion develops. I'm just guessing here, but that's the process I've been working with, for my own writing, and the ideas I'm setting in place for my upcoming class.
I've worked on this concept of false beliefs for several years with writers at my weeklong writing retreats and watched them be able to organize and make sense of their book structure for the first time. Add in the concept of wounding events, which birth these false beliefs, and you have seriously important backstory to weave in, that makes sense of the false beliefs as they affect the story in present time. Combine them all together, and you begin to see the purpose of the book. The answer to So what?
Join me, if this intrigues you, for my newly remodeled online class that starts next Wednesday. Here's the link for more details. It's a great place to show up with your book-in-progress and ask these kinds of deep questions. And answer the So what? question for yourself, before your reader/agent/publisher has to.
As summer winds down, at least in this part of the U.S., I'm starting a new book. Although I’m sad to say goodbye to the warm weather, our annual hibernation here in New England always brings me more time for writing and a chance to retreat.
I love to retreat, either at home or for a planned get-away. It's hard to imagine such dedicated time, but retreats can happen in small increments, and with planning, you can gift yourself with one during the next months.
I book retreats with my laptop each week. I have a certain coffee shop where I go for three or four hours after work. It's all arranged with my family, and I make sure to bring along earbuds, charger, my book notes, and computer, as well as a plan for what I want to work with. In fall, when the garden isn't eating up so much of my attention, the coffee shop gig becomes a regular part of my week. Sometimes, these planned retreats are the only way I fit my writing in!
I also enjoy longer retreats. After the new year, I'll be teaching week-long writing retreats in Tucson (January) and Santa Fe (March). Writers in need of a break from the cold and snow can "hibernate" in the sunshine and warmth of the beautiful southwest and get a pile of writing done, plus feedback from me. At the end of each retreat, I schedule time for myself to write, and it's utter bliss--and often hard to return home afterwards.
Residencies are another kind of retreat available to writers who mostly need time, space, and quiet to get pages generated or revisions done. Cheryl Suchors is releasing her new memoir, 48 Peaks, this month, and she credits a lot of her writing momentum to a writing residency that came her way via a grant from the Vermont Studio Center in 2011. She says it changed her writing life.
“At VSC I was able to focus on my book every day, pretty much all day,” Cheryl told me. “I’d been starting and stopping, writing a few days a week if I was lucky, taking all school holidays when my daughter was home, including summers, off and often winding up writing steadily only a few weeks in a whole year.” Cheryl took thirteen years to write her memoir, which BookBub called one of the “10 Life-Changing Memoirs To pick Up This Fall,” comparing it to Wild. The memoir is about Cheryl’s goal of hiking all 48 peaks of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, while enduring the death of a close friend and her own cancer diagnosis. She details how hiking became a form of therapy, through her decade-long adventure.
Because of the gift of the residency, Cheryl says, “The final several years of my book project were totally different: during most of that time, I was working diligently on the book and waking up in the morning with ideas and a sense of flow. I highly recommend getting away, if you can, to writers who struggle, as I did, to have a consistent writing practice.”
Many changes happened to 48 Peaks during the residency. “When I arrived, my manuscript was 1100 double-spaced pages long! I viewed my time at VSC as taking that huge block of writing marble and carving from it a book, one book from the various directions the manuscript contained. I didn’t finish my book sculpture, of course, but I found the one figure within all that marble.”
Cheryl shares a good tip about residencies: go in the off-season when it’s less competitive to get in. She went to the Northern Kingdom of Vermont in February, a wonderful time to hunker down and focus on her book. (Though she did go cross country skiing for breaks.)
"Another great thing about VSC is that it’s available not only to writers," Cheryl says, "but to visual artists. We got to tour their studios! They typically create much faster than writers, which was inspiring. And seeing their work filled up the creative well for me.”
Not only the carving process but the actual focus and genre of her book changed dramatically before and after the immersion of her residency time. Cheryl started out to write a “how-to” book for beginning hikers. But her writers’ group kept saying they were interested in things like why her mother’s death led to her pursuing the dream of becoming a writer. “I never expected to write a memoir,” Cheryl told me. “I started and quit three different takes on the book before I finally acknowledged that what I needed to write was a memoir.” After working with her writers group and taking classes, she finally knew the book was finished because “1) I couldn’t stand reading it again, and 2) reading it made me feel proud.”
As her book releases this month to eager readers, she credits her residency time as a pivotal decision in the journey. This week, let the dream of actual time away, just to write, be a possibility for you over the next six months. Do a little research online at this link from The Write Life blog. You can do it!
And be sure to read more about Cheryl’s adventure writing her memoir, 48 PEAKS, Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains, in this article she recently published in Writer's Digest magazine. Her memoir is available on Amazon as well as Indiebound.