Post #104 – Memoir Writing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Women’s Memoirs: Question 1. Congratulations Grace on the publication of your memoir and welcome to Women’s Memoirs. Kendra and I are delighted to talk with you today. Can you begin by telling us a little about your book, Reaching: A Memoir?
GRACE PETERSON: Thank you Matilda and Kendra. In short, Reaching is an insider’s look at anxiety and the mind games of cult dependence.
Like all children, I learned early on to adapt to my environment. However, whether it was nature, nurture or a combination of the two, I developed an anxiety disorder around eight years of age. As a young adult, my anxiety morphed into postpartum psychosis and OCD. My husband and I were attending a fundamentalist church that influenced my belief that my mental health issues were demonic. As readers of my memoir will find, seeking help from a modern-day exorcist caused more problems than it solved.
Women’s Memoirs: Question 2. Grace, I can see that your story addresses a universal for many people–people who start on what seems to be the right path and then get tangled up in the implications of these actions. How to get through, how to survive and eventually thrive is important to all of us.
So many memoir writers work on their book for years and years. I wonder what made you decide to write your story and how long it took you to finish it?
GRACE PETERSON: There was a very distinct moment when I knew it was time to write my story. It was early 2006. I had been distanced from “Brock” (I felt it important to not use his real name) and his cult setting for five years. My husband announced that Brock was planning a reunion and asked me if I wanted to go. Instantly conflicted, it felt as if my five years of diligent effort had just evaporated. I was tormented with the desire to see this person I had been so devoted to, yet terrified of reigniting that hold he’d once had over me. I knew I had to get things settled in my mind, that time alone wasn’t going to be enough. Initially I wrote for myself. Then I wrote for my kids. Then after a bazillion revisions, I wrote a memoir for a more general audience. The process took four years.
Women’s Memoirs: Question 3. I love the description at the top of your website: gracepete.com. It says:
“Each of us journeys through life as protagonist of our own destiny. On the way, there are myriad subplots at various stages of completion.”
Did this concept of subplots drive the way you told your story in Reaching?
GRACE PETERSON: I think so. As you know, good memoir writing consists of balancing truth-telling with literary artistry, weaving the various threads together to create an appealing fabric. Writing about my childhood wasn’t too difficult factually. There were very definitive subplots that came with each place I lived. Each location seemed to define my world and its challenges. For example, my four and a half years in Hawaii were fraught with the challenges of racial violence. My early adulthood was much the same way, defined by where I was in my life. I think segmenting our years into manageable subplots makes writing about them less overwhelming. Eventually discovering and honing the message I wanted to convey became a natural part of the process and allowed me to weave the subplots together into a cohesive story.
Women’s Memoirs: Question 4. Writing seems to be the all-consumng part of creating a memoir. As you mentioned, you spent four years working on your memoir. Yet, getting a book published is its own journey. What can you share with our readers about finding a publisher for your memoir?
GRACE PETERSON: Although I’m not opposed to self-publishing, I sought a traditional publisher for several reasons. First, when I began shopping my manuscript, I wasn’t nearly as socially adept as I am now. I didn’t belong to a writing group, either online or in person. Because I spent my writing years in isolation, I felt it was very important to enlist an entourage of literary professionals to guide me into the throes of society. Second, I didn’t really trust my judgment. I needed to know that my work was worthy of public consumption. Signing with a publisher who was willing to invest their time and money into my project was the confirmation I needed.
But it took several painful years for this part of my journey. Initially, I wrote my catchy query letter to prospective literary agents and accumulated a massive haul of rejections. The subjectivity of the process made me really mad. After cooling off, I researched independent publishers, wrote a full book proposal and began sending it out. Eventually there were three interested publishers. I went with All Things That Matter Press. It has been a good decision for me.
Women’s Memoirs: Question 5-A. Grace, I have one final question for you but I’d like to separate it into two parts. Looking back on the process of writing and publishing your memoir, what advice would you give to other women who are just now starting to write their memoir?
GRACE PETERSON: This is a good question and I’m glad you put this into two parts. I’d urge women just starting their memoir to read as many memoirs as you can. This is the best way to get a feel for how it’s done. I learned so much from reading authors such as Frank McCourt, Jennifer Lauck, Mary Karr and Russell Baker. There are so many excellent memoirists out there. Then, serendipity led me to Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story, an excellent memoir writing how-to book. At that time, I didn’t know such books existed.
Women’s Memoirs: Question 5-B. And what about to women who have been working on their memoir for several years?
GRACE PETERSON: I would tell them not to worry about the time. Memoir writing, especially when dealing with painful subjects, is a lengthy process, demanding a lot of introspection. I was in therapy during most of the years I was writing. There is no hurry. Take your time and take care of yourself because it’s to your advantage to be in a good place emotionally when your book is published. Also, remember that doubts are normal. Acknowledge them and then put them aside and write.
Women’s Memoirs: Thank you Grace for sharing your experiences with our readers. We wish you much success with your memoir. We especially hope you enjoy the next part of this journey–the marketing of your book.
GRACE PETERSON: Thank you Matilda and Kendra for hosting this interview today and for the tremendous encouragement and support you offer memoirists. Memoir is a very important genre.
Grace Peterson’s memoir is available both as a Kindle book and as a print paperback.