In Her Guest Blog and Writing Prompt for Women’s Memoirs, “Bending Toward the Sun” Memoirist Leslie Gilbert-Lurie Writes About Staying True to Her Vision

by Kendra Bonnett on September 29, 2009

writing-promptsPost #14 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Each time I post a guest blog and writing prompt from a memoirist I feel as though I’m sharing a special gift with our readers. When the blog first appears in my email inbox, I hold my breath and pray it will be good enough to post, and every time I’m blown away. I suspect part of the pleasure I derive from these guest posts is in having the opportunity to get inside the head (and often the heart) of another memoir writer.

A bond across three generations.

A bond across three generations.

As memoir writers and readers, there’s a lot for us to gain both from Leslie Gilbert-Lurie’s new memoir Bending Toward the Sun and today’s blog post. She reminds us to remain devoted to our passion and never give up…no matter what others say. I suspect that’s some of what Leslie’s mother and Holocaust survivor, Rita Lurie, passed along to her daughter and granddaughter.

Once you read Leslie’s guest blog below, please take some time to write a Comment. Better still, take advantage of your opportunity to question a published author and ask Leslie a question…or two. Matilda and I will pose the question in your behalf when we interview Leslie on Saturday, October 3rd (details below).

At our request, Leslie has included a writing prompt. This one is designed to get you writing, even when you don’t know what to write. We recommend you try her method, and leave a Comment telling us how it worked for you. Finally, please join us for the interview with Leslie on October 3rd. You can read more about Leslie’s new memoir, Bending Toward the Sun, here.

Date/Time: Saturday, October 3, 2009/2 p.m. EDT (11 a.m. Pacific)

Phone Number: 712-432-0600 (access code: 998458#)

The Counsel of Others

By Leslie Gilbert-Lurie
What do writers, teachers, and new parents all have in common? Nearly everyone else tries to give them advice. What ability do strong writers, successful teachers, and effective new parents all share? They all can listen to other’s comments with equanimity, utilizing those that are helpful, and discarding the remainder. I learned first hand from writing my just published memoir, Bending Toward the Sun, not to be daunted by the doubters, the setbacks, and the critical comments.

A decade or so ago, when I decided to write this memoir about my mother’s Holocaust experience, and how it impacted me and my daughter, the skeptics showed themselves in full force. “Does the world really need another Holocaust story?” I was asked. “Maybe you should focus on the Polish farmers who took in your mother’s family. Now that would be interesting.” Some suggested that since my career had been in television, I would be better suited to writing a screenplay. I was not sure how the comedy scripts I had co-written while I was an executive at NBC translated to my writing the next Schindler’s List, but I listened. Actually, I did more than listen. I took the doubters to heart. Each time I heard a negative opinion, I felt discouraged, I slowed down my writing. But then I reminded myself that I had a strong, unique story that I was passionate about telling. With this in mind, I would coax myself back to the computer.

I was busy, during these years, so distractions were easy to find. I was the President of the Los Angeles County Board of Education and a member of several other boards. I was also raising a son and daughter, and a stepson as well. So I tended to write in fits and starts. And I continued to ask a lot of people their opinions. I began to find that in addition to the discouraging ones, a lot of great suggestions also came my way. I sought the advice of many friends, avid readers, and mentors.

After eight years or so, I willed my manuscript to a point where I felt it was ready to show to literary agents. I quickly found that many did not want to represent an unknown writer with a Holocaust memoir. They all turned me down, most without having read the book. I decided I needed to head to New York, where hundreds of book agents reside. Through a friend, I actually met the perfect agent. He took a chance on me because he loved our story. Suddenly, none of the other rejections mattered.

I spent the next six months incorporating my new agent’s suggestions. Then my manuscript was ready for a publisher. It took months longer to find a publisher who not only liked our manuscript but wanted to take a risk on a book that was likely to build slowly rather than be an immediate hit. After ten years of hard work and determination, my book was sold to HarperCollins. Once again, none of the other rejections mattered.

I began with a story that I was passionate about. I worked hard and took advantage of the help and ideas of many friends, some of whom loved the draft that I showed them and some who didn’t. At the end of it all, there was an agent, a publisher, a book, and a slew of good reviews. We are off and running!

Leslie’s Writing Prompt

I firmly believe that at least with respect to memoirs, the best angles to explore are ones about which the writer is passionate. Sometime the way to figure out what one is passionate about is to simply begin putting words on paper. This prompt is simple. It comes from my son’s high school English instructor. It begins with the first few lines of a Langston Hughes poem, “Theme for English B”:

“The instructor said,

Go home and write

a page tonight.

And let that page come out of you–

Then, it will be true.”

I urge you to read the rest of the poem, which you can find here, but did not want to violate any copyright law by reprinting more here. After following this prompt and writing your page, use the “you” that comes out of it to begin structuring an essay or manuscript.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Karoline September 29, 2009 at

I have to admit, I was a bit hesitant in reading a memoir. It wasn’t my genre to begin with. However, because I like anything to do with WWII history I did read Bending Toward the Sun. It was excellent and I’m glad I broadened my horizons and gave the memoir genre a chance. What I’m trying to say is, even if the odds are piling up, everything should be given a chance because you’ll never know, you may just enjoy it. I’m glad I gave the chance to read this memoir, and I found I don’t regret my decision. It was indeed, a great read.

Virginia September 29, 2009 at

Leslie: Thanks for your blog and your writing prompt. I am particularly interested in the decade that it took you to write and publish your memoir. I have been working on my memoir for six years. I keep changing as a woman and when I look back at what I’ve written, I find I have a new perspective simply because life has changed me in the intervening years.

Can you say something about your experience of working on a memoir over so many years. Then perhaps you might also be willing to give some advice to others like me who keep gaining more understanding of our pasts. I don’t really want to have to keep going back and rewriting. I’ll never get this finished.

Thanks.
Virginia

Allison Applebaum September 29, 2009 at

Leslie:

Your blog has made me eager to read your memoir. I can hardly wait until my order arrives.

I’m writing my memoir, but am doing so in secret. I don’t want family and friends to know because they won’t approve. I know that I’m only continuing a legacy of secrets, but I’m afraid that their opinions will discourage me so much that I’ll discontinue my writing.

According to your blog, you managed to balance the positive comments with the negative comments. I would really appreciate if you could say more about under what circumstances one can begin to talk more openly about what one is writing. I’m sure there are others who worry about this problem.

I can’t be on your call on Saturday, but I look forward to listening to the audio when it is posted.

Thanking you in advance,
Allison

Suzie H. October 1, 2009 at

Hello Leslie, Your guest blog here prompted me to go to your website and read what you had to say about your book. I also watched the little video. It was very well done. I’m working on a memoir and am wondering whether I should plan on doing a similar video to promote my book. I know that now more than ever marketing is the responsibility of the author. I’ve also noticed several of book videos on YouTube. I would appreciate it if you could talk about the rationale, benefits and process behind book videos. Thank you. I’ll be sure to listen.

J.P. October 1, 2009 at

While I’m a writer (and aspiring to be a published author), I’m also an avid reader. I’m looking forward to receiving my copy of your book–I ordered it yesterday. I’m very interested in your story and particularly listening to you discuss your premise of how both the fear and strength of your mother has passed from her to you and your daughter.

And one other question. Memoirs typically impart wisdom, life lessons, inspiration or insight. What do you envision readers gaining from your book. Thank you and good luck with your book. JP

Jamie R. October 1, 2009 at

You and your mother worked on this story together. Could you tell about that process? My brother would like to write a family memoir, but I am hesitant to undertake this with him. Are there any factors I should consider in order to make a decision?

I appreciate you sharing the story of your writing this memoir with us.

Ruth October 1, 2009 at

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome during the writing of your memoir. You mention the opinions of others. But I wonder if anything else created a problem for you.

Alex Tuttle October 2, 2009 at

Your mother’s story is so entwined in the history of WWII and the holocaust that I’m curious about how you handled the research. How much outside research did you do. I know from your website that you made at least one trip to Poland when you were 28 (An aside: is this when you decided to start working on a memoir?). Did you make other trips, read lots of history and research other members of your family? Your mother, obviously, could be a good resource, even though she was young during the attic years. How hard was it for her to recall enough detail to enable you to write?

I have a different story but it involves getting another family member to open up to me so that I can get the full story. I don’t know quite how to approach him. I’ll appreciate any ideas you can provide. Thank you.

Marlene Samuels October 16, 2009 at

Leslie: I whole heartedly agree with your comment about persistance.! I rewrote and published my mother’s Holocaust memoir THE SEAMSTRESS: A MEMOIR OF SURVIVAL, that deals with internment and survival in 2 concentration camps. Her transcribed notes, in rough draft from audio recordings, sat on my office shelf for 18 years before I was encouraged to research historical events and rewrite the piece.

When the manuscript was first submitted in 1983, and initially accepted, the “would-be” publishers changed their minds claiming no one would believe such a memoir. Their advice: rewrite it as a fictional drama.

It was published by Putnams in hardback and later by Penguin Berkely in paperback. Unfortunately, my mother did not live to see it in print. I developed and financed my own marketing program, arranged my own book signings, speaking engagements, and lecture series. Initially, THE SEAMSTRESS was slotted to have 2000 copies printed, but my efforts resulted in 12,000 books being order even before the book was actually available. It’s very very difficult to prevail in the face of discouraging comments so being passionate about the topic is essential.

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