“Following the Whispers” Memoirist Karen Walker Guest Blogs on Women’s Memoirs

by Kendra Bonnett on July 14, 2009

Post #7 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

I find it very interesting that the more authors Matilda and I talk with and the more guest blogs we post here, the more variety of experience we discover. As this week’s guest, Karen Walker, writes, “There is no right or wrong way to write a memoir.” I think you’ll find Karen’s 10-year effort to learn her craft and publish her story is interesting. I hope you’ll also be inspired by her perseverance and commitment. And I have a question for you: What’s your golden thread? You’ll have to read Karen’s blog to understand.

As many of you know by now, this guest blog is our way of introducing you to a memoirist and her work. It’s also the first phase of a four-part process that will include an interview with the author, which you’re invited to listen to live, a posting of that interview and, finally, a review of the book.

Read her guest blog below. Then take some time to write a Comment. Actually, write a question for Karen because this is your opportunity to interview her. Matilda and I will ask the question in your behalf when we interview Karen on July 22nd (details below).

At our request, Karen has included a writing prompt. Hey, this is not a site where you’re allowed to just hang out and read. We want our writers writing. So take a crack at the writing prompt then leave a question in the form of a Comment. And finally, please join us for the interview on July 22nd. You can follow Karen’s regular postings on her own blog here.

Date/Time: July 22, 2009/5 p.m. EDT (2 p.m. Pacific)
Phone Number: 712-432-0600 (access code: 998458#)


Follow Your Path
Guest Blog, Karen Walker

There is no right or wrong way to write a memoir. Although we all have our own stories to tell, how we choose to tell them, why we choose to tell them, and the process we take to get them down on paper and/or published differs considerably.

My journey began in 1978 when I suddenly and unexpectedly lost custody of my only son. I was 28 years old; he was 3½. Catapulted into a spiral of depression and despair, I began keeping a journal to help me sort through my feelings, vent my frustration, and maintain some semblance of sanity. Journaling became a therapeutic tool for healing, in addition to a number of other activities like participation in self-help groups, private therapy, women’s consciousness raising groups, and pursuing an ongoing search for spirituality. I guess I could truthfully say that writing saved my life.

Fast-forward to 1999, when my current husband gave me a great gift—the opportunity to leave my 30-plus-year career in marketing and public relations to write full time. The desire to share the story of custody loss had burned in my soul for years, but low self-esteem, lack of financial security, fear, and self-doubt kept me from even dreaming the dream. This was my chance to let go of all that. Sorting through the thousands of pages of journal entries was the first step. As I read through a journal, I highlighted parts I might want to include. I did that for each of the hundreds of journals. Once that was completed, the slow process of typing the highlighted entries into my computer began, hampered by the frequent episodes of sobbing in a heap on the couch next to my desk.

Two and a half years later, the grueling, painful, daunting, and in the end, cathartic experience was over—I had a completed manuscript. Or so I thought. What I really had was a first draft. I had taken journal entries and included them verbatim in the manuscript. In my writing process, this is the draft where anger, resentment, blame and judgment splattered the pages, all of which needed to be edited out at a later date.

I ended up with a 700-page self-help tome having no resemblance to a memoir whatsoever. It was straight narrative, no scenes, no dialogue, very little reflection. Naively, I thought if I simply told what happened and the lessons I had learned, it would be enough. But when I hired an editor, she said, “Karen, you have a book in you, but it’s not on these pages. You have an incredible story. You need to just tell it.”

I didn’t know how to do that. My background was public relations, and so my writing was journalistic—just the facts, no personal opinion, no descriptions, and no scenes. I’d always harbored a dream to go back to school and complete my education, since I only had a two-year associate degree. Once again, my fabulous hubby said, “If that’s what you want, then go for it.” If you’re interested in that part of my story, you can find all he details on my Website. It’s called “Unfinished Business” and in the section called Essays and Articles.

I took every creative writing course, both fiction and non-fiction, that the University of New Mexico had to offer. At 53, I was the oldest student in most classes. Many pieces of my memoir, Following the Whispers, were first crafted in those writing classes. There I learned to: show, not tell; incorporate reflection into the narrative; understand the difference between metaphors and similes and how to use them appropriately; write descriptive scenes with dialogue; understand what a narrative arc is; and much, much more.

Four years and one hard-earned degree later, I was ready to write my memoir. It took two more years, at the end of which I hired another editor, one I’d heard speak at a Southwest Writers meeting. Dina spoke about helping writers find what she called “the golden thread” of the story—a theme or idea that runs through the manuscript, tying it together. At our working sessions, we created a story board, identifying chapter titles and which pieces of my story would fit into each one. My golden thread emerged as the whispers of wisdom I’d learned not to hear and the devastating consequences that resulted from being that shut down—and how I learned to tune in to and listen to those voices of wisdom as I healed. Anything that didn’t meet the “golden thread” criteria was eliminated. I then had a framework within which to write.

The next year and a half was spent crafting and re-crafting those chapters, with Dina’s expert editing to help me. The manuscript was ready to send out. For one and a half years, I sent queries to literary agents, seeking representation. Only one out of the hundreds of requests, agreed to read the manuscript. It was rejected. I’d spent 10 years on the memoir. I had to ask myself if I was ready to let it just languish in a drawer or was I willing to do whatever it took to get it published. After some deep soul-searching, my answer was to self-publish. I truly felt my story might help others dealing with similar issues and if that’s what I had to do to get it into their hands, then so be it.

How I found the company I used to self-publish is a whole other story. But suffice it to say, you must research carefully. Making money cannot be one of your criteria for self-publishing. Even if one is traditionally published, making money is not common for most writers. Instead, we take solace in seeing our stories in print. And if we’re really lucky, we are blessed to have others read our stories and connect in some way to what we’ve communicated. I have been blessed in that way a few times and words cannot describe how it feels.

So write your stories. Write them for yourself. Write them for your family. Write them for whatever reasons your heart whispers to you. My memoir is called Following the Whispers because for so many years I didn’t listen to the whispers of my heart and soul. So if you’re hearing messages to write, just listen. Don’t worry about publishing while you’re writing. Just write.

Writing Prompt

I’ve been asked to provide a writing prompt. One of my favorite writing books is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. She teaches what she calls “writing practice.” It is a timed exercise – ten minutes, twenty minutes, or an hour. The amount of time doesn’t matter. What matters is that you follow these rules:

  1. Keep your hand moving.
  2. Don’t cross out.
  3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar
  4. Lose control
  5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical
  6. Go for the jugular (even if it’s scary, dive right into it).

The purpose of this exercise, according to Goldberg, “is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see and feel.” So pick a topic such as: Being a mom, daughters, bike-riding, singing (choose topics from your lifestyle), set those timers and just go!

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