Writing Memoir, and “Sixtyfive Roses”

by Kendra Bonnett on May 19, 2009

Post #3 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

In preparation for this month’s Author Conversation, an interview with a memoirist, Matilda Butler and I are pleased to post this guest blog by Heather Summerhayes Cariou, author of Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir. And we believe you’re in for a treat. Heather’s memoir is a powerful story of love, heartache, perseverance as a family (and a sister) struggled with the all-too-harsh realities of Cystic Fibrosis.

What Heather has chosen to write here is as powerful and inspiring as her memoir. Personally, we find this one of the more comprehensive and heartfelt definitions of memoir we’ve read.

We hope that Heather’s comments here will stimulate lots of questions, which we invite you to pose in the form of Comments for this post, because on Friday, May 22, 2009 at 10 am Pacific time (1 pm Eastern) we’ll be interviewing Heather. This is a live call, and you’re invited to listen in. But you’ll need to ask your questions in advance as we mute out the audience. Post your question as a Comment below and we’ll read your question during the call, and Heather will respond.

Date/Time: Friday, May 22, 2009 at 10 am Pacific (1 pm Eastern)

To listen, call: 712-432-0600 access code 998458#

Questions for Heather? Put your question in the comment field below. (To have a quality recording, we do not take question during the call. But please do listen in while Heather is on the line with us.)

We asked Heather to comment on her personal experience with the memoir-writing process, here’s her explanation. And don’t miss her special writing prompt at the end:


Heather Summerhayes Cariou

I had to write my way out. I wrote on big yellow pads, the backs of old envelopes, and cocktail napkins. I wrote around the edges of magazine pages as I waited in line for the bus. I wrote in small notebooks that I carried with me everywhere, buying and beginning new ones when I’d forgotten to bring the old. I wrote in my head at the supermarket and scribbled sentences on the backs of register slips. I left a pad and a pen by my bed because I wrote in my sleep. I piled the bits and pieces on my desk, typed them into the computer, printed out a day’s work. Next morning I’d sit with the hard copy, read it out loud, and listen for the speed bumps and the phrases that rang false. I edited the pages with a pen, crossed out and rewrote, typed them back into the computer, and went on.

It took me twenty years. I wrote like crazy for periods of time, then would stop for several months because I had to leave the past and come back to live fully in the present. I had to digest my own experience. Sometimes I went to therapy to discuss what I had discovered through my writing. I exploded my own myths.

I attended as many writing workshops as I could. I made it a project to read every National Book Award-nominated memoir each year that I was writing, so I could be assured I was reading—and learning—at a high level. I read every book on the craft of writing that was on the shelf. I researched the history of my hometown, books on siblings, and university studies on siblings of disabled children. Then I wrote again.

Through the years, I went through several drafts: the pity-party draft, the agenda draft (where I vented my anger on everyone), the faux-literary draft, etc., etc. With each draft, I changed as a woman and developed as a writer, so that I found I needed another draft, convinced I could write the next one at a higher level. I drove my friends and supporters mad.

There were days when I would write a few sentences, lay down on the floor and cry for an hour, then get back up and continue to write. At first I was concerned about what my family would think, how they would feel, but as I went on I wrote more and more for me and for the story…because it was necessary. I did not write for publication until the very last draft. If you are worried about what others are going to think, you can’t write the story the way it needs to be written, and there’s no point in doing it. I wrote to find out what the story was, and to serve it. I wrote to heal myself, to make sense of the chaos I felt, to excavate the truth, not just as I remembered it but also as I discovered it to be in the process.

To write an effective memoir, you have to be willing to go to the well and damn the torpedoes (if you’ll excuse the clichés). I had a quote by Virginia Woolf above my desk the whole time: “If you don’t tell the truth about yourself, you can’t tell it about anyone else.” My goal was to reach as much truth as I could within myself, peeling through the layers of what I had previously thought was truth, finding deeper truths I didn’t know existed. This effort alone is tremendously worthwhile for you as a woman and a writer, even if in the end you have a work that you feel you can’t publish while others are still living. You will have given yourself a Masters course on your life, and your writing.

Perhaps if you need to, you can then take the bones of the story and create fiction out of it that will have a shape and a depth it would not have had if you hadn’t done this work. This is exactly what I’m doing with my next book, a work of fiction that will be autobiographically based.

For a long time, I tried to tell my sister’s story. This was impossible. I finally learned I had to tell my own story, and that my sister’s story would be revealed in the process. This taught me to value my own story, and therefore myself. I learned that in memoir one must master both a narrative voice and a reflective voice. Reflection is a huge part of memoir. I took my husband’s advice and wrote everything, because an important factor in writing memoir is what you choose to put in, and what you choose to leave out of the final, crafted draft, and you can’t know that until you’ve written it. These decisions cannot come ahead of time.

There is no need to rush a memoir—in the writing or towards publication. What you put out there will be out there forever, so you want to make very sure you’ve said what you wanted to say with the best craft and compassion possible. To write a successful memoir, you have to have found distance and perspective. Sometimes this comes through the writing itself. You must endeavour to write with love, forgiveness, and understanding, or at least write your way towards that.

Consider that your memoir will have a gift in it for your readers, so that they can leave your story changed in some positive way. Although my life experience was painful, I wanted to make it a light for others, not just a dark confessional. Remember also that memoir is not autobiography. It is not the facts of an entire life, only a window into a life—it focuses on a specific place, time, or relationship, and as I said before, it requires reflection. It uses the elements of imagery and metaphor. It is a life not merely reported on, but distilled, like a good poem.

Writing a memoir takes guts, patience, emotion and craft. It takes discipline and resilience. Sometimes you will sit at your desk despairing, asking the empty room, “Why would anyone else care about this?” The question, however, is why do YOU care? Have passionate thoughts about the consequences of your own life. Take responsibility for your own experience. Make peace with the facts; tell the story for the story’s sake, without a hidden plea for help or sympathy. Decide where the integrity—the honest heart of the story—rests, while at the same time giving respect to events as you remember them.

Then write your ass off.

Heather’s (and Dr. June Gould’s) Writing Prompt
I best learned the craft of writing (especially memoir) over the past 25 years from the women of the International Women’s Writing Guild at the amazing “Remember the Magic” summer conferences and workshops at Skidmore College. One of my mentors there is Dr. June Gould, and what follows here is what I call “The Gould Method.”

One: Go online (or to a library or bookstore) and research two or three poems from the following list, and print them out. These poems have been chosen especially for their specificity of imagery and emotion. You may have other favorites on your own shelf that you could use:

  • XI What We Lost by Eavan Boland
  • X We Are Always Too Late by Eavan Boland
  • My Father by Yehudi Amichai
  • What the Living Do by Marie Howe
  • What I Learned from My Mother by Julia Kasdorf
  • My Mother’s Kitchen by Choman Hardi
  • Starlight by Philip Levine
  • Poem to my Grandmother in Her Death by Michele Murray
  • Five Poems for Grandmothers by Margaret Atwood
  • Grandmother by Valzhyna Mort
  • A Portrait of a Mother in Fall by Valzyna Mort

Two: Make a list of up to 5 people who are lost to you, or potent for you emotionally. Pick one.
Make several lists of 5 things that person wore, 5 things she/he said, 5 objects you associate with her or him, 5 foods you ate with her/him, 5 activities or events you participated in together. Circle one item on each list that is most potent.

Three: Think of a place that is lost to you and that you associate with that person.

Four: Now, read the two or three poems you have selected. Choose a line or image from one of the poems, something that resonates for you, or choose one of the lines below:

  • This is the last time I will tell you…
  • I am the woman who…
  • This is everything I know/remember about…
  • Give me back my…
  • I write for my _________ because…

The line you choose will be your opening line. It might be your closing line as well. Set a timer for 20 minutes and write very quickly, without your pen leaving the page, and without stopping to cross out or edit. Make sure your writing includes the person and place you have chosen, and the 5 items you have circled from your lists. I think you’ll be surprised and delighted by the results. Many of the passages in Sixtyfive Roses were started with this exercise. And if you wish, send me what you wrote!

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Leiah Bowden May 19, 2009 at

Oh, Heather, this is powerful, clear, inspiring, illuminating, courage-bringing, and just what I need to see and hear! I want to print it out — the whole thing – and put it on the wall where I sit every night, surprised that pulling together this little book I have been working on forever is so hard. In fact I just mentioned this on my Facebook page today!

I didn’t realize that the thoughts I want to publish are imbued with hidden feelings, gates, and challenges. Aaargh …. so much more work to do, garments and masks to find and remove, gates to open, blessings to allow!

Thank you, sister.

Karen Walker May 19, 2009 at

What a phenomenal piece of writing and such a gift to aspiring memoir writers. I wish I’d known Heather and seen this while I was working on my memoir. It would have been such a help. Thank you, Kendra and Matilda, for publishing this and for the upcoming interview. And thank you, Heather, for being you and for your willingness to share so intimately who you are and how you came to write “Sixty-five Roses.”
I’m reading it and absolutely blown away by the story and the writing.

Karen Walker

Marilyn Zembo Day May 20, 2009 at

I loved your book, and your comments about your writing process say so much about memoir writing… and about writing in general. Love the prompt (I will try it). My question is this: You spent years getting this memoir written; do you see yourself writing another non-fiction book about some other aspect of your life? In other words, what’s next? Are working on another book or are you too busy trying to promote this one?

Mary M. May 20, 2009 at

Hi Heather:
Thanks for such an inspiring description of your writing process. I am early in writing my memoir and can already identify with many of your comments. However, I don’t want to spend 20 years writing this. Do you have any ideas to help me so that it doesn’t take that long? I’ll be listening in on the call to hear your answer.
–Mary

Elaine Young May 20, 2009 at

Heather:
Your writing prompt is just what I need. Thanks so much.

My question to you focuses on story structure. I wonder if you could talk about how you organized your memoir.

Thanks. I’m eager to listen to your interview.
–Elaine

Gillian Culff May 20, 2009 at

Heather,
I love what you’ve written here; it is tremendously helpful to me, not only in thinking about a project about my father that’s been on the back burner for six years, but also with regards to the novel I’m working on. I also want to save these words to help me through the process of writing a longer work, which I find utterly terrifying and intimidating.

My question is this: Many writers say they don’t talk about a work while it’s in progress, because to do so can diffuse their own energy. Did you talk about the book with people besides your husband while you were working on it?

Marilyn P. Waite May 20, 2009 at

Heather Thank you soo much for sharing your process with us. I haven’t read your book yet but wlll.ow could I not??!! I, too, have been writing for years on pieces of paper, journals upon journals, drafts upon drafts. Shared with my therapist, at workshops, and with my staunchest support system, my writing group. What has happened to me is that I have gotten bored with the story after rewriting it so much. Not all parts but some of them. I’d love to know if you experienced this, if so what revved you up again. I”ve used new exerciises, but they go only so far. Again, thanks so much for sharing your life and your experience of writing with us! Marilyn

Judy Watters May 20, 2009 at

Thank you for considering my question.

I have many vignettes written for a memoir, but how do I choose where in the timeline to start my book? Starting with my birth and telling my lifestory seems so mundane, and I am afraid it will come off sounding like a chronological report. In your experience, did you find the first chapter to be the most difficult?

Linda C. Wisniewski May 20, 2009 at

Heather, your passion for the subject comes through loud and clear in this blog, as it does in your lovely book. Thank you for encouraging women memoir writers to get it all out of our hearts and guts and onto the page, THEN work it into a publishable form. Brava to your fearlessness and persistence. Can’t wait to read the novel.

Marcia Breece May 20, 2009 at

Thanks for the encouragement! I feel like you’ve been a fly on my wall. My friends would agree – most likely they’re sick of “the book.” I’ve been up all night contemplating or sleeping for 12 hours straight. I’ve spent days crying – often on the riding lawn mower – because present-time tasks still needs to be done. Once a friend caught me crying on the little green tractor and rather than admit the truth, I told her a chicken had died. Every day I learn more about myself, my family and about showing my story. The next book is smoldering in my brain, but I can’t let go of this one.
QUESTION: How do you know when it’s finished — the best you can write? How do you know when you’ve reached publishable? I wish some divine goddess would smack me on the back of the head and say, “It’s done – get on with it!”

Linda Austin May 20, 2009 at

Wonderfully informative and inspirational post, Heather. Will link to it in my own blog about the importance of capturing memories. Please explain your journey of finding a publisher. All our memoirs are worth writing and sharing, but how can others know whether their own memoir is something that would be attractive to traditional publishers vs just family and friends.

Marsha Browne May 21, 2009 at

Heather, you know I love your book, and that I feel it’s the best memoir I’ve read, bar none, in the past 10 years. I’ve also recommended your book to everyone I know. It ought to be required reading for prospective memoirists.

You’ve done a masterful job of framing your story–your sister’s story, your family’s story, too, but mostly your story–and my question for you is this: as the story begins and ends in the same place, what helped you decide the structure you used to move the reader through the events? The beautiful symmetry of the embracing circle is just perfect. I’m sure others would like to know how you reached that decision, too.

Love you to bits (and see you soon),
Marsha

Katia May 21, 2009 at

Heather, I think what moves me most is that there is NO self pity in your story at all. Nor is there fury. All I see is the clarity of human travel over very rough territory, which is perhaps what makes this memoir so useful to me as I go over the same kind of road myself. No one travels the precise same road as another, but our paths are usually parallel for all the major events. I’m glad you wrote this memoir, it makes my own journey a lot less lonely.

Samantha C. May 21, 2009 at

Hi Heather–

I appreciate you writing this book and providing readers like me with such an intimate look at a family coping with illness and loss. I’ve bought the book and am reading a bit every night. It’s most insightful. Reading your blog leads me leads me to ask a question. First, you have laid out your memoir writing process quite graphically. I can really see what I’m in for as I begin the process myself. But here’s my question: You talk about all the drafts that you wrote–the pity party draft, the angry draft, etc. Some of these sound as though you just wrote on emotion. Did they come pouring out or did you face writer’s block from time to time? And as you refined the drafts and came closer to the final manuscript, was writer’s block ever also an issue?

Thank you, and I look forward to your next book, your novel. Sam

Halle S. May 21, 2009 at

I bought your book last week, Heather, and couldn’t put it down. I’m a huge fan of the memoir genre, but more a reader than writer although I’m starting to write more. While I don’t have a question for you, I will be listening to the interview. I think your insight into writing journey parallels our life journeys as we strive to understand ourselves, our families and how we fit in. I, too, will be looking for you novel. HS

Suzy Garrison May 21, 2009 at

Heather, you are so generous to share your thoughts and writing prompt with us.
Here’s my question: I’ve taken classes with Matilda and Kendra and they often talk about theme (which they define as what the book is about) and message (which they define as what we want the reader to get out of the book). I’ve been struggling to decide on my theme and message, knowing this will help me focus on what to put in and what to leave out. I wonder how you would discuss the theme and message of SixtyFive Roses. Any comments about this would be helpful to me.
I’ll be listening to your response on Friday.
Thank you, Suzy

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