Today I want to share a few more words about writing the hard stories, on this, the official pub day of my memoir This Life Is in Your Hands
. These words are from a recent talk on a memoir panel at the Maine Festival of the Book
, with fellow authors Caitlin Shetterly
, whose memoir Made for You and Me
came out in March, and Susan Conley
, whose The Foremost Good Fortune
debuted in February. All three of us had to write hard stories, Caitlin about losing everything during the recession and Susan about moving to a new country and finding out she had breast cancer.
The hard stories are usually the ones you know you need to write, whether for publication or not, but you're often coming up with excuses not to write them. As mentioned in my last post, I'd always thought I wanted to write about growing up during the back-to-the-land movement, but I kept getting out of it, even after the revelatory Dangerous Writers workshop experience. I thought I didn't have enough memories because I was so young. And that the things that happened, like the death of my sister and break up of my family, were too difficult, and I didn't want to write hard things about my family and myself.
Then my husband Eric and I had baby twin girls, and I found that having children of my own made me even more afraid of the events of my childhood. I thought everything that happened then was my fault. My girls would soon be three, the age my little sister was when she drowned, and I worried that if I couldn't save my sister from untimely death, how could I save my own children? That's when my husband sat me down and said my excuses were all the reasons why I needed to write about what happened, and now.
So with one-year-old twins to tend, I started to write in the early mornings, with the goal of finishing before the girls turned three. I'd sneak out to the café at the L. L. Bean flagship store near where we live in Freeport, because it's open 24 hours, and write with a ball cap on so people couldn't see me crying. It was hard going, and I had no idea what I was doing, but slowly, as stories do, it started to find its rhythm, and then the memories began to come full force. People like to give memoirists a hard time, but it's amazing the things we can remember if we really focus on it. I filled notebooks upon notebooks with little snippets of memory, then I'd do research by talking to my parents and others who were there to fill out the details.
After a year and a half, I had a rough draft of the book, though I hadn't met my goal of finishing by the girls' third birthday. But by then it didn't matter anymore. Somewhere in the writing I'd made peace with the past. Set it free. Even if this book never saw the light of publication, that would have been reward enough.
I was lucky to sell the book just after the girls turned four, and now they are wonderful and wise six-year-olds. And the result of writing this book is no longer sadness over the loss of my sister but joy that my sister has come back to life on its pages and is part of my world again.
If I have any advice about writing personal stories, it's to learn how to write well and then write the scariest thing in your life, and don't stop writing until it's not scary anymore. Then not only will you feel better, but you might have a story that will make others feel less alone, as well.