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This month I had the opportunity to interview someone I've long admired. Tristine Rainer is a trailblazer and well-known expert in the field of memoir, having written two classic books on the subject: The New Diary and Your Life as Story —both of which have provided enormous inspiration to me as well as a wealth of practical tools on the craft of writing memoir. I am forever grateful to Tristine for pouring all of her heart and knowledge into these master works. For anyone serious about the art of journaling and memoir, put them on your reading list!

Tristine and I enjoyed an extensive conversation on everything from the ethics of being a memoir coach and her approach to working with writers, to the unique structure and process behind writing her novoir Apprenticed to Venus, which is about her relationship with mentor Anaïs Nin and is being released in paperback this summer!

Tristine Rainer is a recognized expert on diary and memoir writing and the author of two renowned classics on autobiographic writing continuously in print.

Her mentor Anaïs Nin wrote the preface to Tristine’s first book The New Diary, calling it revolutionary. Published the year of Nin’s death, 1977, The New Diary popularized contemporary journal writing and created its lexicon. According to Amazon, after hundreds of offshoot books on journaling, thirty-eight years later it is still the bestselling book on journal writing.

In the 1970’s Rainer taught literature and writing in the English departments at UCLA and Indiana University, co-founded the Women’s Studies Program at UCLA, and created that university’s first Women’s Lit courses.

   

In 1997 she published Your Life as Story: Discovering the New Autobiography and Writing Memoir as Literature (Tarcher/Penguin-Random.) The book anticipated the rise of contemporary memoir writing, and Tristine returned to lecturing and university teaching, at University of Hawaii and for eleven years as a faculty member in the Masters of Professional Writing Program at USC. Privately, Tristine has coached many authors to publication.

As founder and Director of the Center for Autobiographic Studies, a nonprofit since 1997, Rainer promotes the creation and preservation of autobiographic works, teaches, lectures and consults.

Karin Gutman: How did you become a memoir coach?

Tristine Rainer: I think I invented the job. The first time I used the term "memoir coach," was in Your Life as Story and I added, "Say what?" because it was such a novel idea then. Certainly, there were editors who had worked with, usually, well-known people in publishing memoirs. But the whole field was being increasingly democratized. And we began to see the beginning of people who simply had a good story, or something important to say, who didn't have any name, begin to get published and to write literary memoirs.

The first time I worked as a memoir coach, I had been teaching autobiographic writing—memoir writing—at UCLA Extension. I think it was the first time they ever had a class on it.

Karin: What year was that?

Tristine: Probably 1988. There was a woman who was a well-known Brentwood psychic in the class, and she was writing about her life and how she became a psychic. She came up to me, and said, “Would you work with me individually on this?” And I said, “Well, I don't know. I've never done that. And I wouldn't know what to charge you.” So she said, “Well, how about $100 an hour?” I said, “Okay, let's try it.” That was the first time I did it, and she had sensitive material.

Karin: We’ve talked about the importance of ethics in being a memoir coach. How did that evolve for you?

Tristine: I don't think I was aware then. I think at that time, it was instinctual for me that if people were confiding in me, and they were within the protection of just writing, at that point, for themselves, that I would have to create some standards for myself. But I don't think they were conscious at the time. I think that I am a person who keeps confidences. It's just my nature.

Karin: We know that from your memoir, Apprenticed to Venus. 

Tristine: Yeah, I kept Anaïs Nin's confidences for more than 30 years before writing about that material. It has always been true that people feel comfortable confiding in me. And I've always taken it as, you know, somebody says, “This is between us,” and I say, “Yes,” I consider that a contract.

But I actually made a mistake once. And that's when I became conscious that I needed, at least for me, to formalize my ideas about what the ethics and procedures of being a memoir coach should be. I had a newsletter for the Center for Autobiographic Studies. This was way back; I mean, we didn't have the internet for sending out newsletters. We actually folded and sent them out with stamps. 

Karin: That's awesome. 

Tristine: People loved getting them that way. It was somehow very intimate. So each time, I would write on a theme related to autobiographic writing, and for one, the theme was about ethnic identity. I used an example of a woman who had consulted with me. I didn't think that I'd revealed anything intimate, but I had revealed that this was a theme of her work. And she came back to me, and she said, “I trusted you. You've now given away my theme.” And I said, “Oh gosh.” I immediately realized, oh, I really had done something wrong. And I refunded her money. And I then, at that point said, “Okay, I speak about autobiographic writing, and I like to include examples, but I'm going to have to have permission anytime I do that.”

So in terms of confidentiality, I thought that the best thing to adopt is the same standards and ethics that psychotherapists adopt. Because the work is so very similar, though, I think, for me, far easier. I would not want the responsibility for somebody's mental health without having the tools of writing to direct them to. That's just me. Because I think that it is a, you know, “Don't give me a fish. Teach me how to fish.” Somebody then can use those tools and take them forward with their own writing.

For each of us our story is precious to them, and there's an energy in keeping it within the creative cauldron when you're working on it. I'm of the belief that neither they nor I should talk about it much. But they're free to talk about it as much as they want, and some of them do.  

I think the best example was Elyn Saks, who wrote The Center Cannot Hold. I was teaching memoir writing at USC then and she was on the faculty. She came to me and said, “Would you work with me privately? I have a memoir. But I don't know whether I want to write it.”

So she told me her secret, which I now can tell because she's published it herself, and also gave me permission to talk about having been her coach, which not everybody does. Not everybody wants anybody to know that they even were coached. In her case, she was a highly functioning law professor, psychoanalyst herself, and has schizophrenia. And she felt the need to write the book because it really was not known that somebody who has schizophrenia could be very high functioning. She, even though she had tenure, was terribly afraid of how the knowledge that she had schizophrenia would affect her colleagues, her job, and her life, and she wasn't ready to come out with it.

So we worked provisionally, that she might never publish it, share it at all. She was going to see what it would look like if she wrote it. We went through a draft and she decided at the end of that draft that she didn't want to do anything with it. So she went her way, and years went by. Eventually she got to a point that she had an agent, and she decided it was time. And really, I was so delighted. The book that we did is pretty different; it's gone through evolutions since that first draft we did together. I, all that time, felt this was such an important book, but that it wasn't for me to make that decision to publish or not.

When she did, it was so liberating for her. She ended up getting the MacArthur Genius Award as a result of publishing the book. It was on The New York Times Bestseller List and turned out to be a wonderful thing for her life. She's helping so many people now, people who have schizophrenic children will write to her, and she always writes back. It fulfilled herself and her purpose in life.

Karin: Do you think it’s more helpful to write for yourself or with an audience in mind?

Tristine: I feel that anticipating audience in a first draft can create blocks, writing blocks. And so I suggest, even if somebody has to write on every page, “This is for my eyes only.” They don’t have to show me everything they write. This goes back to the question of privacy, which has been flipped around on the internet, where people write the most intimate things, share the most intimate things online, and they don't care about it. But I feel that for reaching the myth, which is what I'm going for, the healing myth inside each story, that there has to be a safe place for that. 

Karin: What do you mean by myth? 

Tristine: I guess I mean the story, and the story in its simplest terms, that leads to a realization. That realization is either for oneself, to change oneself, or to expand oneself to grow in new ways, and to be a different person, or it's to be shared and given to the community. So in Elyn Saks's case, it was to share and be given to the community, and I do think that that's very appropriate at the level of a second or third draft.

Karin: How do you coach people about writing sensitive, often deeply painful, material?

Tristine: Emotional flooding?

Karin: Yes, when you’re concerned someone may head down a rabbit hole. I believe you use a tool called ‘containment’. Can you talk about that?

Tristine: It's related to what Kathleen Adams has done with journal writing, with working with people who may have psychological problems, where the idea of just free and unlimited journal writing is not a good idea for them. She has them set a timer and only write for 10 minutes. So I suggest they deal with it in the same way. Time it. Maybe do it in the morning, write for 25 minutes. And then it's important to stop writing.

My daughter and I are working on a memoir now that's going to have a lot of dark and difficult material in it …

Karin: That’s so exciting.

It really is exciting. I mean, she is just such a wonderful writer. It's such a gift to me. We haven't gotten to the really tough stuff yet, but we've already talked about containment. And the very way we're doing it has containment built into it because it's just one scene at a time. We also talked about looking for the light, the moments of beauty, of love, even in the darkest times.

I watched the film Beautiful Boy. I had read the memoir and I think that the memoir worked for me because the author's intelligence as a journalist, and his personality, kept me safe. But the movie really did not. It was so hard to watch. It's an important movie about an important subject, and brave, but just not enough light in it to allow the audience to stay. And that's hard when you're dealing with a subject like addiction, which doesn't have a lot of light in it. 

So my daughter has a good way of writing that may help her. And by the way, in terms of confidentiality, she's given me permission to say anything. She is so brave. She really wants her life to have purpose, and she is doing so well. But she does not stay in the present moment. She writes very free association style and she will move through time so she can bring in almost anything she wants. I mean, you can move through time very easily in memoir writing if you have the right voice. And therefore, even if it was an extremely dark time, you can bring some light to the reader while they're going through it.

Do you mean by invoking other moments from her life in the darkness?

Well, it can be from another time, but it can also be from that time itself. I mean, even in the darkest times of her addiction and her homelessness, there were moments when she and I got together, and our love was still there. The desire to connect with love was still there, and it's a thread. In my case, we are writing a spiritual memoir, so we're looking… You know, God isn't absent even in those times.

The way I see it… if someone is writing about a difficult time or memory, they are writing about it from the perspective of having arrived here. So there must be a light force in them, even in darkest hour, that got them through.

Yes, completely. If there isn't that, then people are dehumanized. But nevertheless, they need the right circumstances to heal and finally be able to get that.

What is your approach when working with people, particularly someone who knows she has a story to tell, but is unclear how to tell it?

I work differently with everybody. But I do like to use Your Life as Story. I like them to have the book and be able to direct them to certain exercises to do, or chapters to read, so that I don't have to repeat all that material, and say, “Okay, this would be a good time for you to read the chapter on writing dialogue because you need some dialogue in here.” I like them to do the story structure exercises and refer back to it.

Frequently, it seems that they'll have already written several chapters but they got stuck because they don't know where they're going. So I like to read what they have before we start working together. And maybe correct in those chapters, where they haven't found the voice yet, to lead them to find the voice. I find that once they have a structure and the voice, and they can identify it, they then can run through a whole first draft and I don't need to look again until the first draft is finished. 

I kind of tell them when they've gotten enough from me. Once their momentum is going, I like to let them loose and say, “Don't contact me until you have a problem.” Because, boy, once that motor gets going, I am amazed how quickly they can write.

Somehow structure is the thing that eludes people the most. Do you find that?

Oh, yeah. And for some reason, my gift is to tell them their story. I will tell it back to them. “Here's what I hear, I think your story is…” I think that comes from all the years that I worked in television movies, and pitching stories. I mean, I was dealing with five stories a week that I would go and pitch. I was constantly taking material, true material, and trying to figure out how to shape it into an entertaining story, and looking, “Is there a genre that this fits?” In working with clients I get excited about the story, then they pick up my excitement and then they take it and run in ways that I never could have imagined. 

Do you talk in structural terms, using the three-act structure?

Yes, and most of all, it seems to be giving them an ending; for them to understand what a crisis, a climax, and the realization is. Understanding that they think they know what it is, but they don't. Really understanding what the climax of their story is, which doesn't always happen exactly the way it needs to be expressed in a story. So I think I add my imagination as a storyteller for them and then we find a way to make it real.

I carry their story with me once I get their material. I carry it with me when I'm taking a shower, when I'm going for a walk. It's working its way through my imagination. And so by the time I talk to them and tell it to them, I've got an excitement about the story that they pick up. That seems to be what works. People get themselves so tangled up in their story, because they don’t realize what they can leave out. We figure out, "This is the story. All this other stuff doesn't need to be in it. That character doesn't need to be in there, who's still alive, who's going to give you trouble."

The structure of your memoir, Apprenticed to Venus, is so unique and eye-opening—the two voices, weaving your story with Anaïs Nin’s.

Oh, it was so hard. For me, emotion comes last. It’s like an Asperger's thing almost. I see structure and I wanted to do something very difficult in the structure of my book. I had to play more fast and loose with memoir, in terms of chronology and freedom to imagine where something could be placed, more than really anything I've ever worked on with somebody else.

But I had said for myself, “I want to see how the myth, the story inside one person's life, can change the trajectory of another person's life,” and that’s what Anaïs and I did for each other. I wanted to tell her story not as biography, but as it influenced my story. And so, to interweave them, boy, I just had to leave so much out, and jump through time, and pick out those moments where one of her turning points would influence me, even if it influenced me in a way where it was a misinformation that influenced me, or carefully revealed information that would make me go in the wrong direction.

Your memoir really pushes the genre forward. Do you feel like that’s happening elsewhere, in terms of the evolution of memoir?

Well, it's happening in France. It's happening as autofiction. That's their term for it. It's the most popular genre in France. They're frequently ahead of us, in terms of experimentation, and having a readership for experimentation.

Do you think this new territory makes memoir more interesting? Or do you think traditional memoir, being as true as you can be to your story, is just as valuable?

Well, with Anaïs, people have written straight stories about knowing her. People have written biographies about her that were carefully researched. So if I was going to write about Anaïs, everything has been kind of used up. So I wrote the book for myself, to see what I could do with this genre, which was taking it as far as possible, and to have fun with it for myself, and for the reader. And now I'm working on a book that's going to be strictly non-fiction. I'm not going to make up anything. I don't need to.

Sometimes what is a great idea, or inspired by a true story, doesn't fulfill what you need, in terms of story structure. But if you go deep enough, I often find that it does. Certainly, I'm not encouraging my writers to fictionalize. I'm encouraging them to look within the emotional story, what could be brought out in terms of making a true story more powerful. Sometimes those may be things in one's imagination. One's imagination is true too. “I dreamt that this would happen.” “I wanted this to happen.” Those are real. And they allow you a great freedom without lying to the reader.

The perfect example is Mary Karr's Liar's Club. She's in the car with her mother and she writes “I didn’t think this particularly beautiful or noteworthy at the time, but only so so now. The sunset we drove into that day was luminous, glowing; we weren’t.

“Though we should have glowed, for what Mother told absolved us both…” You forget that she's saying it should have happened that way because you get the emotional relief of it happening that way. What's important is the emotional release for the writer and the reader. But that is the power of fiction. The power of fiction is, “What if?” And I don't see any reason why a memoir writer can't use, “What if?” as long as the reader knows that's what they're doing.

Speaking of Mary Karr… In her book The Art of Memoir, she shares a quote by Philip Gourevitch who says that his works of memoir are just as great as his works of fiction. Still, the publishing world seems to hold fiction in higher regard. Do you think memoir has gained more respect in recent years?

I think that's it gotten better in quality because it has incorporated the techniques of fiction—scenes, dialogue, story structure, thematic unity, character development, character arc. That's what the new autobiography is, and that's what interests me.

One of..

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I had the great pleasure of speaking with Tembi Locke this month, whose debut memoir From Scratch hit the shelves just over a week ago, and it has already landed on the New York Times best-seller list. It is also Reese Witherspoon's pick for her Hello Sunshine book club!

Tembi Locke is an accomplished actor who has appeared in over forty television shows and films, including The Magicians, NCIS: LA, Animal Kingdom and Dumb and Dumber To. She is also a TEDx speaker, and her talk, “What Forty Steps Taught Me About Love and Grief,” traces her journey as a cancer caregiver. She is the creative voice behind The Kitchen Widow, a web series and grief support community that has received mentions in The New York Times and The Guardian.

Tembi's debut memoir From Scratch chronicles three summers she spends in Sicily with her daughter, Zoela, as she begins to piece together a life without her husband in his tiny hometown hamlet of farmers. Where once Tembi was estranged from Saro’s family, now she finds solace and nourishment—literally and spiritually—at her mother in law’s table. In the Sicilian countryside, she discovers the healing gifts of simple fresh food, the embrace of a close knit community, and timeless traditions and wisdom that light a path forward. All along the way she reflects on her and Saro’s incredible romance—an indelible love story that leaps off the pages.

Photo: Jenny Walters

   

Karin Gutman: When I first met you, you referred to yourself as a Grief Advocate. Can you describe what that is? 
        
Tembi Locke: It’s a term to explain the work I do as a public figure advocating for greater care and connection for family caregivers and grieving families, especially at end-of-life care. The work is born of my direct experience as a long-term caregiver, mother and now widow. I use my personal story to inspire people, communities and health care professionals to call on the art of comfort when it matters most.
 
Karin: What do you mean by ‘the art of comfort’?
 
Tembi: “The art of comfort” is a term that refers to the lost art of knowing how to comfort and care for another human being through grief and illness. I borrow it from Val Walker's wonderful book, The Art of Comforting.
 
Karin: You are an actor by profession, so I’m wondering if moving into the world of writing was a big leap for you?
 
Tembi: Writing was not a big leap because both acting and writing are, at their core, storytelling. As an actor, I tell a story through behavior using given circumstances. In my work as a writer, I do the same only the characters are on the page.

About three years into my husband’s diagnosis, I started writing to make sense of my lived experience as a young mother and primary caregiver. I thought that I would perhaps write a book on caregiving. That book never got written. However, FROM SCRATCH, as a fully formed book idea, began to come into my imagination years after his death, longer still before I gave myself permission to write it.
 
Karin: What is the underlying theme of the book? What is it really about?
 
The book is a cross-cultural love story set largely in Sicily. It has interlacing themes of family, loss, motherhood, identity, forgiveness and the search for home. And it is also a love letter to the natural world and the food I shared at the side of a chef. It has been called Eat Pray Love meets The Year of Magical Thinking and Under the Tuscan Sun. So there’s the sense of embarking on a journey of self-discovery. However, this is one that is prompted by deep grief and plays out through the lens of motherhood.
 
There is no way to prepare yourself for the internal landscape for life after death. Life is fundamentally different. The book is my attempt to make sense and meaning of such a deep and life altering love and then loss.

The title, FROM SCRATCH, also has multiple meanings. On the one hand, it is directly connected to the theme of food in the book. But it is also about building an improbable love and life from scratch and then having to start over from scratch.
 
Karin: Can you describe your process of writing the book?
 
Tembi: Blessedly, I work well with deadlines. Once I sold the book, I created a page count schedule and mini-deadlines in order to deliver the manuscript on time—literally pages per week/month. I dreaded the idea of falling behind or feeling any additional overwhelm than I already felt. So I held myself accountable by working with Shawna Kenney as my weekly coach. She kept me accountable to the schedule. Then I met my “pages per month” goal any way I could. Lots of espresso. Lots of time thinking about the book away from the page. It was challenging, I won’t lie. I often felt the pressure to get more writing in. I had panics in the middle of the night, but learned to use short chunks of time and submitted to the creative fits and starts of it all. And because parts of the story are emotionally wrenching, I also allowed for the light writing days or no writing at all. For me, excavating memory has to be a gentle process.
 
Karin: Did you document your journey as it was happening? Through your husband’s illness and after his death?
        
Tembi: I have journaled off and on my entire adult life. Those journals were instrumental in my being able to access memories, as were letters, texts, photographs and emails. I also had over five years of writings and essays from workshops and classes at UCLA.
 
Karin: What was the most challenging part of the process? The most rewarding?
        
Tembi: The most challenging part was psychologically convincing myself I could do this—so hard. And it was making peace with the very haphazard writing practice I had while also auditioning, working on set and being a mother. The most rewarding part was when I held a galley of the book in my hand for the first time. There is no feeling like it. I danced and drank champagne.
 
Karin: Since you’re writing about family, did you need to get permission from family members to put this story out in the world?
 
Tembi: I chose transparency. My book is set in two countries with three languages. I knew every family member would not be able to read the book. So I felt I had to tell them I was writing the book, share its intent, and be specific about the parts of their story that touched on my story. And, in certain cases, I asked some people if it was okay to include a specific detail.

Karin: Were you ever concerned about writing about your daughter?

Tembi: The book is a love letter to my daughter. I was always aware of her, as both a part of the story and as a future reader.
 
Karin: What did you discover about your story and yourself through writing the book? 
        
Tembi: I discovered a bravery I didn’t know I had. And honestly, that I am an awful mess during copy edits.

Meet Tembi!

Upcoming Book Events


May 17th / Los Angeles: Diesel Books Luncheon in Los Angeles, 12pm

May 18th / Pasadena: Pasadena LitFest, 3-4pm

June 14th / Houston: Brazos Bookstore, 7-8pm

August 7th / New York City: Bryant Park Reading Series, 12 pm

October 26-27 / Austin: Texas Book Festival

To learn more about Tembi and upcoming events, visit her website.

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I have been invited to participate in an online global community project entitled May Magick. Now in its third year, this month-long event encourages us to pause, reflect, and embrace the *magic* around us.

Canadian artist and entrepreneur Alauna Whelan, creator of May Magick, has gathered 30 women from around the world to contribute daily offerings on single word prompts (see the list below). For those who subscribe—it's free!—you'll receive an email each day for the month of May composed of these unique, heart-centered reflections.

We were asked: 

What's at the heart of what you do?
What lights you up?
How did you get here?
What brings you joy?
How do you embrace what you do?

These are big questions, but fortunately my word prompt captured the very essence of why I do what I do.

Sign up for May Magick HERE.

In the meantime, you can read more about what inspired Alauna to found this gathering space in her message below. She has also created a private Facebook group for us to share the experience and invites you to interpret the prompts yourself by posting on Instagram using the hashtag #maymagick2019.

I hope you'll join me, I suspect it will light up your May!

May Magick

A month of sharing from the heart
   

Message from Alauna:

“May is a transitional time for many of us. Here in the northern hemisphere Spring is in full swing and we find ourselves counting down the days to summer. This often translates to feeling more social and getting out into the fresh air. For those in the southern hemisphere, you are preparing to go within and cocoon, greeting the shorter days as a means to ground, reflect, and release.

My intention for this community project is to create space to gather, take pause, connect with our inner voice, and bravely share our passions. My hope is that by collectively standing together and sharing our hearts, we can gain traction and give ourselves permission to take up space in this world.

This project acts as a permission slip, allowing us to exhale and appreciate all the magick both within us and all around us each day.

Magick is our willingness to have courage, to maintain hope, and to go after what we want. It is found and cultivated in the liminal spaces. It’s the air in our lungs, the fire in our hearts, the blood in our veins, and the earth beneath our feet. It’s our truth woven into the stories and passions we share with others.

I hope this month will spark something for each of us. I hope it will assist us to unearth where our desires and passions lie, that it might act as a catalyst to claim what is ours. And finally, I hope it will weave intricate webs of admiration, connection, and inspiration.

If you are longing to rekindle your inner fire, to connect with your story, and to share from the heart, I invite you to join us on this month long journey.”

  Join May Magick    

Alauna Whelan is an artist and creative entrepreneur living on the Canadian Prairies. She makes handcrafted goods for women to support, empower and transform.

“My intention is that each time you receive a package from me you feel seen, understood, and beautiful; allowing you to more fully embrace your divine femininity.”

To learn more about Alauna, visit her website.

 
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I'm thrilled to share that Wendy Adamson, a former member of the Unlocking Your Story workshop, is coming out with her debut memoir MOTHER LOAD on May 12th from Rothco Press. It is truly soul satisfying to witness a story grow from its tiny seeds into a full-blown narrative that can now be shared with the world. Hers is an affecting story of recovery and triumph from the dark depths of addiction. In our interview she shares how it feels to expose her truth to the world and how having a sacred space early on in the creative process was vital.

With over twenty years of experience, Wendy Adamson is a seasoned professional in the field of mental health and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. She not only has a vast knowledge of addiction, but as a sober woman, she has a deep understanding of the recovery process as well. With her Certification in Alcohol-Drug abuse from UCLA Wendy has been able to help hundreds of suffering individuals get the help they need.

Wendy is also a dedicated activist who has been instrumental in directing the vision of Hav A Sole, a nonprofit whose mission it is to deliver high-quality tennis shoes to homeless and at-risk youth. Using her writing, marketing and outreach strategies, Wendy has helped turn Hav A Sole into a thriving organization that celebrates Los Angeles as a caring and connected metropolis by building community through volunteerism.

As an inspiring speaker, Wendy shares a heartfelt message of hope as she candidly talks about her own addiction, before launching into how she turned her life around. With long-term sobriety, Wendy believes that only by telling our personal stories of recovery can we heal the shame associated with mental illness and addiction. Wendy is a passionate communicator whose goal is to invoke social change by de-stigmatizing the disease.  

In her new memoir, Mother Load, Wendy shows us how a little league, PTA mom can get dragged down the rabbit hole of methamphetamine when she has a psychotic break, shoots her husband’s mistress and ends up in county jail. 

That was over twenty-five years ago and thankfully, Wendy is still sober. For someone who seemed destined to end up a sad statistic of drug addiction, the fact that Wendy not only survived, but is a thriving, productive individual is a testament that transformation is possible.

Karin Gutman: Oh my, congratulations. I am beyond thrilled for you! Tell me, how long have you been working on your memoir — MOTHER LOAD — that will soon be released?
 
Wendy Adamson: Thank you so much, Karin. Honestly, I first knew I was supposed to write Mother Load 20 years ago. But it took 10 years to actually start working on it and another 10 years to finish it.
 
Karin: Can you share what it’s about?  
 
Wendy: In Mother Load, I show how as a little league mom I got dragged down the rabbit hole when in a drug-induced psychotic break, I shot my husband’s mistress in the arm which landed me in the county jail, when I was 38 years old, the same age as my mother was when she had her psychotic break and drowned herself in a bathtub. I was 7 at the time. While I was determined never to be like my crazy mother, it seemed as if I was following in her footsteps. 
 
Mother Load is a story about my undoing, and what it took to put my life back together again, so I could go on to become the mother I never had when I was a kid.

Karin: You were in the Unlocking Your Story workshop early on in the process. In what way did that writing space support you?
 

Wendy: Having a safe writing space was critical in my development as a writer. I had so much shame about shooting my husband’s mistress and the mistakes I had made as a mother, that it took me attending several workshops before I started to reveal some parts of my story in the class. Meanwhile, the structure, prompts and valuable guidance, made me feel more at ease as I developed some writing skills.

I remember the first time I shared my pages about the night I went to jail. I was so scared of being judged that my heart was pounding inside my chest. When I was finished reading I could barely look at anyone. But as we went around the room, all the women were so incredibly supportive with their feedback that it ultimately allowed me to become even more vulnerable in the class.
 
Karin: What were the most challenging aspects of writing your story?
 
Wendy: I grew up in a household where we were told never to talk about my mother’s mental illness. So, keeping secrets was a behavior I learned from early on. Even though my mother and father were long gone, to break the silence was a constant internal battle for me. There were times I felt like I was undoing the pathways that had been hard-wired inside my brain. I had to commit to sitting down every morning before work and write my truth no matter what.
 
What helped keep me focused was a deep desire to help others who were struggling with addiction or mental illness. I have read plenty of books about horrible parents written by the children, but I had never read a story of a mother who becomes determined to heal the family’s wounds. Since I work in an adolescent mental health treatment center, I knew it was a story that parents needed to hear.  
 
Karin: What have you discovered about your story through the writing process, something that you might not have been conscious of at the beginning?
 
Wendy: When I got sober I was extremely fluent in Victim-ese, blaming everybody else for what was wrong with my life. Through my speaking in juvenile halls or prisons and through my writing, I have been able to assign a new narrative to all the adversity I have been through. Nothing is wasted if I’m willing to use it as a tool to help someone else.
 
Karin: I believe that writing our stories is transformative. Is that your experience, too? If so, in what way have you been transformed?
 
Wendy: Sometimes when I was writing I would feel a conviction of being aligned with something greater than myself. It filled me with confidence instead of my usual self-doubt. I think the transformation occurred as I began to discover a deeply committed and focused woman inside me, who would go to any lengths to get the book done.
 
Karin: They say that writing is rewriting. How did you approach the editing process and getting the manuscript to a place where you were ready to share with an agent?
 
Wendy: I made so many mistakes along the way and did everything completely backwards. At first, I got an agent with a book proposal before Mother Load was even completed. While some of the publishers said they liked the story, they also said I didn’t have a strong enough platform to sell it. After a year of rejections, I let go of the agent and got busy finishing the book. As I lasered in on the emotional thread, a cleaner, more developed version of the story began to reveal itself to me. When I had a strong enough first draft I hired an editor to help me go through everything and sent pages to her every week. During that process there were entire chapters I had to eliminate because they didn’t move the story forward or it didn’t reveal anything new about the character. After I was done I tried submitting the completed book this time.
 
Karin: How did you land a publishing deal?
 
Wendy: After nearly 100 rejections from literary agents from New York to L.A, I was a little discouraged. Finally, I decided to submit my memoir to a small independent publisher by the name of Rothco Press. I was ecstatic when they told me they loved Mother Load and wanted to publish it.
 
Karin: How does it feel to share your life with the world? How did you get beyond any feelings of fear you might have had in exposing yourself?
 
Wendy: I still find myself vacillating between excitement, terror and fear. On the one hand, I am thrilled to have completed something that I can share with the world, but on the other hand, I still have some residual fear of being exposed. All I can say is the one thing that trumps any fear, doubt or worry is the deep desire I have to help others. There are so many individuals suffering out there like I did who need to know despite anything you’ve been through, it’s possible to heal your life.
 
Karin: Did you have to address any liability issues with people in the story who are still alive?
 
Funny you should ask. It was just last Thanksgiving that I saw my ex-husband and told him he was in my book, but that I had changed his name. He chuckled a bit at the notion that he would be in my memoir, but I’m not sure his new wife (not the one I shot) was quite that amused.  
 
I changed most of the names to avoid repercussions, but thankfully my two boys have turned into my biggest fans so I left their names the same.
 
Karin: Imagine yourself way back at the beginning of the process. What advice would you give her?
 

Wendy: Trust in the process. Find your voice and you’ll find your power.

 

Hear Wendy read an excerpt from her book at KPCC's Unheard LA.

To learn more about Wendy, visit her website and buy the book!

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I'm taking a slight detour from memoir, to learn about writing historical fiction!

My dear friend, mentor and colleague, Jule Selbo, recently released her book about the legendary explorer John Cabot. Jule has been instrumental in my path as a educator. As the former Chair of the MFA screenwriting program at Cal State University, Jule invited me to teach Story Structure to undergrads after completing my degree. It's no surprise that she says 'structure' is the thing she comes back to time and again, no matter what she is writing - a play, screenplay or novel. I wholeheartedly agree and highly recommend her book Screenplay: Building Story Through Character if you want to learn more about her approach. It can be applied to any story you're writing, not just a screenplay!

Jule Selbo is a tour de force! She has written feature films and television series for major studios and networks, and plays that have been produced in New York City and Los Angeles. In addition, she has written books on screenwriting and created the Masters of Fine Arts in Screenwriting program at California State University, Fullerton, where she is a professor.

Jule's debut historical fiction novel, John Cabot: Dreams of Discovery, captures the life of the great explorer. As a child, Cabot dreamed of captaining a ship across a mysterious, uncharted Ocean -  from Europe to the riches of China. In the 15th century, the Turks had a stranglehold on the Silk Road, the only viable trading route from Europe to the Far East. There were promised riches and glory to the one who could find an alternate route to Asia. This is a story of a determined man who risked everything.

Karin Gutman: What drew you to write a book about John Cabot? 

Jule Selbo: A wonderful Italian-American man named Robert Barbera became determined that one of his legacies would be commissioning books on the Italians or Italian-Americans who contributed to America. His publishing arm is Barbera/Mentoris; he believes that books on actual people who overcame great odds to achieve goals can inspire. I was lucky to be hired to write two of these books—the first one is the story of Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) and the other is about Laura Bassi, a scientist in the 1700s in Bologna, Italy who, taking her cues from the newly coined era called the Enlightenment, became the first woman to gain her doctorate at the prestigious University of Bologna. And after many obstacles, she became the head of the physics department, paving the way for many women to receive higher education in Europe.

The story of Giovanni Caboto (he took the name John Cabot when he moved to England to get King Henry VII’s patronage) was a great challenge and that is partly why it appealed to me. Whereas Columbus was a bit of a braggart and attention seeker, Caboto kept his focus on two things: his dream of exploration and his family. Digging into his story, bringing the scenes and characters to life, researching the paths of other explorers and coming to an understanding of navigation and politics of the era—all of it was fascinating to me.
 
Karin: Had you ever written historical fiction? How did you approach the process?

Jule: I have been a history buff my whole life. When I wrote for George Lucas on Young Indiana Jones Chronicles we were asked to be as historically correct as we could be (that’s where the fiction comes in) as we brought young Indiana Jones to life. In one of my episodes, young Indiana hangs with Puccini during the first production of Madame Butterfly, in another he is with Bronislaw Malinowski in New Guinea (one of the first anthropologists), in another he learns to play tenor saxophone with Sidney Bichet. Of course, sometimes “adventure” was added and sometimes the adventure of the story was inherent—but the historical parts of the characters and era were true to the time.

As far as HISTORICAL NOVEL, yes, this is my first one.

How did I approach it? I spent many many weeks in research.  Then I would start to structure how I might tell the story.  My “boss,” Mr. Barbera, wanted a life to death story, so I knew I had a lot to cover. I needed to find, for me, what make this character “tick” and have the gumption to fight for his huge goal. Then I would go back to research. And write again. The Caboto book took about 9 months to write. I am a stickler for keeping it as “true” as possible. 

Karin: You call this a NOVEL versus an autobiography. How do you strike the balance between writing about someone’s life and taking liberties of fictionalizing it?

Jule: The most interesting challenge is making the characters “talk” and creating the scenes and pushing the story forward. The goal was not to go over 70,000 words. That’s about 230 pages or so. That’s not a lot of pages to tell a complete life story. But because my background is screenwriting, the word “cut to” kept coming to mind. The questions, “what are the most important scenes that will get him from desire to actualization? What characters do I need to add just to make the story work and give Caboto someone to talk to? What characters would illuminate his desire? I knew Caboto had a brother, and they stayed close all his life, but Piero never was a sailor. That gave me a clue as to who Piero (brother) was. I knew Caboto married Mattea and that she moved with him to England. It made me wonder, because this was unusual for a wife to move herself and family away from familial home. It made me think she might have been adventurous too and, unlike many women of the time, acted on her desires. And what did it say about their relationship and love for each other? So I don’t think of it as taking liberties as much as putting the clues together and fashioning a full persona.

I stuck to the trajectory of his life—his move from Genoa to Venice (getting in trouble there) to Catalonia and finally to England. I feel a duty to give the reader actual life facts wrapped in an “informative, exciting” read.
 
Karin: You have such a widespread background as a writer - plays, screenplays, textbooks, etc. What new things did you learn, or that surprised you, with this new genre?

Jule: How much I loved it. I always point to working with Lucas on Young Indy as one of the most fun and challenging jobs I had as a TV writer. The research, the facts, the history—bringing it all together in an entertaining way—it’s fun for me.

I learned a lot more about how to research and where to find credible facts and information. Surface google searches are not the best places to rely on. And academic resources will, sometimes, disagree with one another. Only in digging, digging, and digging can one come to a moment piece and decide how to put all the clues together.
 
Karin: What are some fundamentals of craft, the things that you return to time and again, no matter what you’re writing?
 
Structure. I believe in telling a good story and I do believe a good story has strong structure—to pull the reading audience along.
 
Karin: What do you hope that readers take away from this book?

Jule: That there were incredible explorers in this era. They were led by what they imagined could be. That navigation was in its raw form, but a desire to know how the world was shaped propelled dangerous exploration. That having big dreams is exciting and that even though they may take time to come to fruition, they can be reached. That a person’s worth has little to do with others’ perceptions, but with self-satisfaction.
 
Karin: What creative projects do you have cooking now? I know you’re always working on many things. Tell us something that you are EXCITED about!
 
Jule: My historical fiction novel on Laura Bassi—I think it will be entitled Unstoppable: Based on the Life of Laura Bassi—comes out in October. She was a scientist who broke through many barriers set to keep women out of higher education and science in the 1700s.

I am working hard to finish my first private investigator book based in Portland, Maine. My main character is a female ex-cop who had to leave the force for medical reasons and I love the character.

My women’s fiction/romance book Piazza Carousel, that I published independently a year ago, has been picked up by a publisher and will be re-issued this Fall and the publisher has me signed to do a sequel.

So my plate is full, but I am loving it!  

To learn more about Jule Selbo, visit her website.

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This month I am excited to share with you a very special person in my life, my longtime yin yoga teacher Denise Kaufman. Also a musician, Denise was part of the first all-female rock band—the Ace of Cups—who opened for the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in the 1960s. The band never landed a record deal - until now! 50 years later they have released a double album with 21 tracks and contributions from some old friends like Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead. A perfect gift for the holidays, I might add! It is an incredible story, truly thrilling. You can hear more from Denise about what it's like to have a dream realized after all these years and why, she says, the timing is perfect.

Growing up in San Francisco during the 1960s placed Denise Kaufman right in the center of the cultural revolution. Her commitment to social justice and exploratory approach to life led her to adventures in counterculture: from being arrested at UC Berkeley's Sproul Hall protests during the Free Speech Movement, to "getting on the bus” (as "Mary Microgram") with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead and forming the legendary Ace of Cups—an all-girl band that opened for Jimi Hendrix, The Band, and Janis Joplin.

Denise is an esteemed yoga teacher who has studied with Robert Nadeau Shihan, Yogi Bhajan, Bikram Choudhury, Pattabhi Jois, and Paul Grilley. Her clients have included Madonna, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Quincy Jones, and Jane Fonda. 

Denise lives between Venice Beach and Kauai - playing music, teaching yoga, surfing and continuing to learn, channel inspiration and connect all those around her.

 
“I heard some groovy sounds last time in the States, like this girl group, Ace Of Cups, who write their own songs and the lead guitarist is hell, really great.”
— Jimi Hendrix, Melody Maker Magazine, 1967  

Karin Gutman:  Who were you in 1967 and what was your dream?
 

Denise Kaufman: I had spent part of 1966 on the bus as Mary Microgram with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and then played in a band with the guys who later became “Moby Grape.” My dream was to be playing in a band, writing songs that were real and juicy to me and sharing them with the world. I met Mary Ellen Simpson at a party on New Years Eve, December 31, 1966. She was playing some blues guitar and I pulled out a harmonica - it was so much fun to play with her. She invited me to come jam with some other women she’d been playing with and within a week we were starting “an all-girl band.” I knew I wanted to be playing but I never dreamed of an all-female band. I’d never seen or heard of one and now I was in one. As our music evolved, we dreamed of getting a chance to record the music we’d be writing. 
 
How would your younger self have reacted if you had told her it would take 50 years to realize this dream?
 
She never would have believed it. I wouldn’t even have believed it myself ten years ago. It was totally impossible to imagine that we’d release our first studio album when we were all in our 70’s. I had played music and written songs all through the years but never thought that they’d be out in the world. I always wrote, sang and played because that nourishes me. 
 
You mentioned that the timing of this studio album release, now in 2018, is perfect. Why is that?
 
It’s perfect because women are claiming their power and agency now. #MeToo and other movements and events help us to connect and to see each other’s work.
 
What would you say to those who have yet to fulfill their creative dreams?
 
Don’t give up!!! Keep doing those things that rock your boat. I moved to LA from Kauai in 1983 to go to music school. I was in a class with a few hundred guys who were in their late teens or 20’s. I was 34 and one of the only women. It was fine that I was at least ten years older than my classmates. I just wanted to learn. SO - Don’t let anything stop you from staying connected to your creative dreams. You may need to do other things as well - the arts may not pay your rent - but keep nourishing that aspect of your being as well. It’s never too late!

 

Ace of Cups Debut Studio Album 

The first official release by the only all-female rock band of late ‘60s San Francisco features contributions from Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen & Jack Casady, Taj Mahal, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and many more.

  Buy the Album  

Ace of Cups in the news

CBS This Morning (video)

A dream deferred: Pioneering all-female rock band Ace of Cups is finally having its moment (LA Times)

Interview: Denise Kaufman from the Ace of Cups (KZSC)

Waller Street Blues: An interview with Denise Kaufman of the Ace of Cups (Hoodline)

  

To learn more about Denise Kaufman, visit her website

Learn more about the Ace of Cups

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Paying tribute to Louise DeSalvo, who recently passed away and whose work I have been following for years. Her books Writing as a Way of Healing and The Art of Slow Writing have taught me so much about the therapeutic benefits of a writing practice and the importance of valuing the creative process.

Photo: Deborah DeSalvo

Louise DeSalvo 
(September 27, 1942 - October 31, 2018)
was an American writer, professor and Virginia Woolf scholar.


Read full obituary

“I’ve been studying the creative process for years; have been talking about the writing process with students and writers for decades. I believe it’s important to learn how “real” writers write when they work. And to model their methods as we’re learning to work. I believe that it’s essential for us to understand the creative process and the stages of the process so that we can work with it, rather than against it. I also believe it’s important for us, not only to write, but to write about our writing in a process journal.”
— Louise DeSalvo, from her blog “Writing a Life”  
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Paying tribute to Louise DeSalvo, who recently passed away and whose work I have been following for years. Her books Writing as a Way of Healing and The Art of Slow Writing have taught me so much about the therapeutic benefits of a writing practice and the importance of valuing the creative process.

Photo: Deborah DeSalvo

Louise DeSalvo 
(September 27, 1942 - October 31, 2018)
was an American writer, professor and Virginia Woolf scholar.


Read full obituary

“I’ve been studying the creative process for years; have been talking about the writing process with students and writers for decades. I believe it’s important to learn how “real” writers write when they work. And to model their methods as we’re learning to work. I believe that it’s essential for us to understand the creative process and the stages of the process so that we can work with it, rather than against it. I also believe it’s important for us, not only to write, but to write about our writing in a process journal.”
— Louise DeSalvo, from her blog “Writing a Life”  
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It has been a terrifying few weeks here in California with the devastating wildfires. My heart goes out to the many friends who were evacuated from their homes, some still yet to return.

Below is a message of hope from Hollye Dexter who lost her home to a fire in1994—she and her family barely making it out alive. Fifteen years later she published the memoir, Fire Season, about her experience and process of rebuilding their lives. Scroll down to read her message and offer to those who have been impacted.

“It's hard to believe that 24 years ago today, we survived being trapped in a house fire and got a second chance at life. It took 15 minutes for our house to burn down, 15 years for me to find the courage to write about it, 5 years to write, and another year to get FIRE SEASON published and out into the world. I wrote it because, after our fire, I wished there was a book written by someone who had been through fire loss and who understood what we were going through. I just wanted to hear someone say, 'We got through it, and you will, too.'

If you know someone who has been affected by the recent fires who would like a free copy of my book, plus an encouraging note, please let me know…” ~ Hollye Dexter

Contact Hollye  
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My dear friend and colleague, Amy Friedman, is largely the reason that I found my way to becoming a teacher of writing. Years ago Amy encouraged me to send her an idea for a course, which I did, and before I knew it I was on the slate to teach at UCLA Extension Writers' Program. This opportunity changed my life.

Amy continues to change lives, now as Executive Director of a non-profit organization she founded called POPS, which stands for Pain of the Prison System. POPS supports teenagers who have been impacted as a result of having a loved one in prison. A shocking 1 in 15 children in the United States has a parent who is or has been incarcerated! The first POPS club was launched at Venice High School and they have since expanded to 8 clubs in Los Angeles and reached 5 states. These high-school clubs meet weekly and foster healing and connection through creative expression and emotional support.

One of the things I love most about POPS is that they encourage the students to break their silence and share their stories, moving through and hopefully beyond the shame, stigma and sorrow. Each year the organization publishes the students' work in an anthology -- see 2016's Before There Were Bars and 2017's Cracked Masks.

The vision for POPS is to have a club in every high school in the nation. In order to get there, they need our support! And so I am extending an invitation for all of you to join me on Friday, November 2nd in attending the POPS gala, a Casino Masquerade at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The evening features honoree, Christina McDowell, who authored the memoir After Perfect, about the impact of her father's incarceration, and is the co-producer of the 2018 documentary "Survivor's Guide to Prison."

Scroll down to read more about the POPS gala as well as my conversation with Christina McDowell about her memoir and connection to this incredible organization.

I hope to see you there!

Christina McDowell is the author of the critically acclaimed book, After Perfect: A Daughter's Memoir. She has written for LA Weekly, Marie Claire, Porter Magazine, The Daily Banter, USA Today, The Detroit Free Press and more. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, O (Oprah) Magazine, People Magazine, The Village Voice, among others.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Christina is an advocate for restorative justice and criminal justice reform. She has traveled to state prisons to speak on behalf of families of the incarcerated and victims of crime. She is currently a student at Georgetown University and writing her second book.

Growing up in an affluent Washington, DC, suburb, Christina and her sisters were surrounded by the elite until their life of luxury was brutally stripped away after the FBI arrested her father on fraud charges. When he took a plea deal as he faced the notorious Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort’s testifying against him, the cars, homes, jewelry, clothes, and friends that defined the family disappeared before their eyes, including the one thing they could never get back: each other.

Christina writes with candid clarity about the dark years that followed and the devastation her father’s crimes wrought upon her family. A rare, insider’s perspective on the collateral damage of a fall from grace, After Perfect is a poignant reflection on the astounding pace at which a life can change and how blind we can be to the ugly truth.

Karin Gutman: How did you first get connected with POPS? 
 
Christina McDowell: Through a friend I met in a twelve-step program. I have been sober and in recovery for 6 years. She introduced me to author, Amy Friedman, the club’s founder. When I met with Amy I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of POPS, that she understood firsthand what so many children with incarcerated parents feel.
 
KG: How would you describe POPS to someone who is just learning about it for the first time?
 
CM: POPS stands for pain of the prison system. It is the first high school club in America that addresses the pain and isolation this population of students so often feels. Once a week, POPS students meet, write, talk, draw, and express themselves through the arts, healing from the pain of the prison system. It is a reminder that no one has to walk through this experience alone.
 
KG: How is your story the same or different from the kids who participate in POPS clubs around the country, especially given that so many of them come from less privileged backgrounds?
 

CM: When I was eighteen years old the FBI arrested my father on fraud charges then later I discovered he had taken my social security number, laundered money in my name and left me with 100k of credit card debt. I grew up in an extraordinarily white and privileged community in Washington, D.C. I never knew anyone in prison except for the characters I saw on television or in movies. Going to prison for the first time profoundly changed my perception of the world we live in, the way our media and Hollywood portrays prison and those inside prison. It opened my eyes at a young age to the injustices and systemic racism so many in our country are still facing. For example, African Americans are incarcerated at a rate 5 times higher than whites. 

Given my background, the access I had to resources during my father’s incarceration was far greater than many of the children who are suffering today, and it is always important to me that I acknowledge that difference in the context of speaking about this issue. But there are also many ways in which I am exactly the same as a POPS kid. My father was sentenced to 57 months in prison. He missed birthdays, graduations, Christmases, father's days, all of the anniversaries and holidays that make losing a parent to the system so incredibly painful. That feeling of not knowing when I would ever see him again, or when he would come home. Children of the incarcerated have no rights so the government doesn't owe them an explanation of where their parent is being held or taken to. Children just wait for a hand-written letter to come in the mail if they're lucky.  My father was gone for about 4 years. And many people assume that he was in some kind of fancy white collar prison. Most "camps" no longer exist. My father was in a federal minimum security prison for the majority of his time in El Paso, Texas, right on the border of Juarez, Mexico.

When my father came home I really wished that things in my family could have gone back to the way they were, but sadly, his imprisonment ripped our family apart. My parents divorced and my sisters and I each dealt with our feelings and what we were going through very differently. He came home around my 24th birthday. And then he was re-arrested and incarcerated a few years later, and spent another 9 months behind bars for breaking probation. Prison did not rehabilitate him. In my opinion, it just exacerbated problems that were already there. His second arrest was what solidified my need to separate myself from him, which I go into great length about why I made that decision in my memoir. 
 
KG: What kind of support did YOU have when your life turned upside down?
 
CM: This is a tricky question. So many of us that have experienced this kind of pain of the prison system want to keep this pain a secret. So for a long time, I did, and I never sought help. Of course, I had my few friends at the time who knew what was going on and I would share certain things, but I never shared the extent to which I was suffering inside. It was very hard to process as I was experiencing it. The trauma of a parent’s arrest, trial, imprisonment—abandonment, is very layered and complicated. Studies are finally being done at the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University, to explain this kind of complex trauma— the kinds of resources this population needs in order to heal, and is why POPS the Club is so important.
 
KG: How did you know you needed to share this story in a public way? And that you were ready to take that on?
 
CM: It happened unexpectedly. When Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese’s film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” was released, it enraged me that they would glorify this kind of behavior and life-style while not acknowledging the victims (including the silent victims, which are the children of those committing the crimes). My father was an associate of Jordan Belfort’s (the self-described “Wolf of Wall Street”) and I had an opportunity to stand up for those who were not only affected by greed in this country, but also the hurt of the families of those who committed the crime. I had an opportunity in the moment to go public with the story and I took it. I was just so done with Hollywood’s false narratives in these kinds of films. Thousands of people reached out to me after the article went viral, who share my story or a similar one. It was an incredible gift of connection, and not feeling alone.

KG: How did you navigate writing about and exposing your family? Did your relationship with them, namely your father, change as a result of sharing your story?
 
CM: My mother and two sisters have been incredibly supportive, and I don’t take that for granted. Unfortunately I do not have a relationship with my father today. It’s a question I am asked a lot. It’s possible to forgive someone without being in contact with them; but if that person who hurt you is unwilling to be accountable for their actions, as is the case with my father, then you will continue to re-victimize yourself if you remain in contact with them. This was a hard lesson I had to learn, but an important one. I allowed myself, with the support of a therapist and twelve-step group, to move through that pain and grief.
 
KG: Did you find the writing process empowering and transformative?
 
CM: Absolutely. Writing for me has always been like magic. Sometimes you can’t see the message until it is all out of you, our subconscious is always at work. Writing truly saved my life. Without a pen and my journals, I wouldn’t have gotten through some of my toughest, darkest days. The page always listens. And there is something to be said about our health when we release the thoughts, fears, resentments onto the page. I believe studies have been done to show that writing improves mental and physical health; it certainly does for me.
 
KG: What was your writing process like? Was it easy to find the structure? What was the most challenging part for you? Did you (do you) have a writing ritual? 
 
CM: The back and forth structure of present to past came naturally to me. I write usually how I see and/or experience things since I’m visual. The most challenging aspect was re-living the past and having to remember that it wasn’t my present reality. I remember showing up at a friend’s house in tears because of a scene I had just written and I felt trapped inside of it. It was a very emotional process but I had no choice but to move through it in order to get to the other side. As far as rituals, I think it’s just about letting go of my perfectionism on a daily basis so I can begin writing. Getting seated and going has always been the hardest part because of fear, which, I once heard stands for “false evidence appearing real.”
 
KG: How did you land a publishing deal?
 
CM: I was very lucky in that a few publishers read the article I wrote for the LA Weekly criticizing the “The Wolf of Wall Street,” so I had the opportunity to meet with them and send them my proposal. That said, I was prepared because I had spent years quietly writing and re-writing, so I’m a big believer in that saying, luck is when preparation meets opportunity.
 
KG: I have noticed in readers’ reviews that many relate to your character’s journey, that it’s not a “poor little rich girl” story. That is a remarkable achievement. Is this something you consciously worked at? How did you approach the writing process so that your journey would be relatable?
 
CM: Thank you. I definitely credit my editor, Allison Callahan, at Gallery Books for helping me dig deeper. She challenged me in places where I needed to be more accountable for the mistakes I made in my life. But I was also in a place where I was ready to hear it, to go from being a victim to being a survivor, and that meant owning up to my part in every relationship in my life and then translating that to the page. I think we can all relate as human beings to feeling like we have somehow failed in some way, or perhaps we struggle with identity, or reminding ourselves that our bank accounts aren’t a reflection of our self-worth, or coping with the loss of a parent to alcoholism, or to prison. I always knew this story was about so much more than the loss of money, but about the loss of family, American values, love and accountability. I always say that we are powerless over the cards we are dealt, but it’s up to us and only us what we do with them.
 
KG: Will you be attending the POPS gala on November 2nd? Can you tell us about it?
 
Yes! I am very humbled to be this year’s honoree along with the class of 2019. We are having a Casino Masquerade at the Los Angeles Athletic Club downtown to raise money for our ever-expanding programs. There will be games, jazz, dancing and cocktails. I am so excited to dance the night away celebrating such an important, and life-changing organization. I hope you will join us! All are welcome!
 
KG: Yes, I will be there!

Why should someone who has no connection to the prison system come out and support POPS?

 
Studies now show that nearly half of all U.S. children have been impacted by incarceration. That is an overwhelming number of youth in the wealthiest country in the world to be suffering—youth that are at high risk for homelessness, hunger, and complete isolation. Just think about the long-term ramifications of this. No child in this world should ever feel alone, or should ever be homeless on the street. We can always do more to fight to keep our communities together.
 
KG: From a creative and artistic standpoint, I am curious if you think that this story is the hardest one you’ll ever tell? Has your creativity opened up in the aftermath of getting this origin story out?
 
CM: Oh absolutely. I do think in many ways it was the hardest story I will ever tell. Initially, of course, because I had never written a book before and I was learning as I went. It took years to form the story, a lot of trial and error, failing and starting over. And also just because of how emotionally painful it was to re-live each experience on the page. I certainly wouldn’t be writing fiction today without having told this story first. I always used to tell my friends and family while I was writing it that I just have to get it out so that what’s left inside of me can find its place to live.

I'm currently writing my first novel, which has been an entirely different experience. Of course, it is heavily influenced by my childhood. It takes place in Washington, D.C. and is about the murder of a wealthy family.  It's an exploration of classism in America, old money versus new money, the disintegration of values—if they were ever really there to begin with—power and white fragility. Clearly I'm drawn to comedy! But in all seriousness, I am having way more fun writing this one than the last.

You are cordially invited to

POPS Casino Masquerade

Friday, November 2nd

8:00 pm - 1:00 am


Los Angeles Athletic Club
431 W. 7th Street

Your presence is requested for a night of cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, live music, and casino games benefitting POPS the Club.

Register

The 5th POPS annual gala promises to be a chic night out. Treat yourself to a night of old-fashioned Hollywood glamour and mingle with its brilliant honoree, Christina McDowell, author of the memoir After Perfect, and co-producer of the acclaimed documentary, "Survivors Guide to Prison.”

Glam it up, put on a mask, and party for a cause!

The gala benefits POPS, which stands for Pain of the Prison System. POPS supports the long-overlooked community of teenagers who have been impacted by our prison system as a result of having a loved one in prison. 

1 in 15 children in the United States has a parent who is are has been incarcerated. These young people have been traumatized by stigma and shame. Most people are unaware of this fact because these youth have long been silent.

POPS is working to amplify their voices, through weekly work in the high school clubs and through published book collections of their writings and artwork.



Learn more about POPS the Club

To learn more about Christina McDowell, visit her website

See all author interviews

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